Thursday, March 20, 2014

Rmembering my friend on the anniversary of his death

Happy Spring!  Not only is today the first day of spring, but it’s also a special day of remembrance in my life. My thoughts today are not necessarily connected in any way to weight loss, and yet, in a sense, they are. Mostly, I’m sharing some deep, personal reflections on the anniversary of the death of my very dear friend and pastor, Fr. Thomas Sauter.
Ten years ago, this morning, I had the tremendous privilege of holding Fr. Tom in my arms as he went home to be with God. Ten years have come and gone since that day, and yet, I have never forgotten the impact that his life – and death- had and continues to have on my own life. Some of you knew Fr. Tom; most of you do not. In fact, most of you didn’t even know me at that time in my life.
When I was just a little girl, about 5 years old, Father came to St. Mary’s, Rockwood as pastor. I was in kindergarten at the time. Shortly after his arrival, my little sister was born, and my father became seriously ill with a heart problem. Father came to our home often to bring my dad communion and he always made a point of talking to or teasing me when he visited. I enrolled in the Catholic grade school and attended mass regularly with my family and we all got to know this somewhat gruff, but very kind-hearted priest. When my dad died a couple of years later (I was 8 years old), Father decided that he “needed a secretary” and hired my mom. He had survived for three years without a secretary but since mom was now a young, single parent with three little kids to support, this was Father’s way of helping us out.  As a result, I got to spend a lot of time roaming around the rectory and getting to know Father Tom. He sort of became my “surrogate” father, a role he played for many years. 
I continued to attend the grade school and Father was there for those significant moments in childhood. He heard my first confession and gave me my First Holy Communion. He awarded me my 8th grade diploma and attended my high school graduation party. By the time I was in high-school, I was volunteering at the church and teaching religious education. Later, he hired me full-time as the Director of Religious Education and we worked side-by-side for 15 years. He truly was a great friend, mentor, and in many senses, a father-figure. He gave me advice on dating (tried as he may, I never took his advice to find a nice catholic boy to settle down with, although he often hand-picked prospective candidates…. J.) He paid my college tuition to the seminary out of his own pocket, but that meant he could read all my papers and see all my tests! He taught me so many life-lessons and really helped me become the person I am today. It’s no wonder that his death has been the most difficult loss for me to date. It’s been ten years, and his KC jacket still hangs in my closet; his Notre Dame hat and breviary (Prayer books for the Liturgy of the Hours) still sit on my dresser; and I still carry his rosary in my purse. I am the person I am today….a woman of faith; a woman with a servant’s heart; a woman who tries to be kind and compassionate…..because of his influence in my life. I will be ever grateful to God.
When I was just a kid, I made a promise to him that I would take care of him when “he was old.” Of course, it was just a promise made in a casual conversation in the backyard and one that I honestly never thought would come to fruition. But yet…it did…and I was given the tremendous privilege of helping him in his advancing age and declining health; much in the same way that he helped countless parishioners over the years.  Because we worked together for so many years, we came to know each other quite well. It was only natural for me to help him move from the rectory, find an apartment, pick up things from the grocery store, make sense of the stuff from the doctor, etc…those very things that daughters and sons do for their aging parents. When I lost my job in Rockwood and moved up north to take another, the hardest part of leaving was leaving him behind, even though I wasn’t that far away and came home on weekends quite often.  Still, I missed him dearly.
Less than six months after I moved north, Father became quite ill. Eventually he was unable to care for himself and I had no other option but to move him into a rehabilitation care facility (nursing home). This happened on December 23rd. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I remember the day I left him there. I walked from his room, past the Christmas tree in the lobby, and just sat in my car in the parking lot and wept like a baby. Many of you have had this experience and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Fortunately, I was able to “bust him out” on Christmas Day and he said mass for me and my family on Christmas Day in my Uncle Bob and Aunt Kathy’s living room. He sat in his wheelchair; we had a card table altar, and sang songs acapella, but to me, it was the most glorious Christmas Mass I have ever….and likely ever will….experience in my life.  An absolute wonderful memory.
In the following couple of weeks, he grew weaker and frailer. For about 3 months or more, I would work 10 hour days at work (up north) and then make the 200 mile drive south every Thursday night and would go directly to the nursing home. I spent almost the entire weekend with him, often staying right there with him, sleeping in the chair, watching the golf tournaments on TV, praying the words of the Office (daily prayer for priests) when he was too weak, celebrating mass with him, just the two of us using his food tray for an altar, mostly just being there for him. After he was ready to sleep on Sunday night, I would kiss him goodbye wondering if I’d see him again, then leave to drive back up north and then work four more days, and head back to his bedside. It was exhausting, and yet, the greatest privilege of my life. There is no greater blessing­­­­ in the world than to be able to care for someone in their final days…even though it’s difficult, tiring, frustrating and heartbreaking to see a loved one suffer. It was harder on him to realize and admit that he could no longer care for himself; that he needed me to shave him, feed him, help him dress. Learning to accept help and admit dependency is just one of those life-lessons he taught me. After all, he was as “independent” as I am, and I have as much difficulty admitting that I needed help as he did. ­­­This was one of the main reasons I ended up being 428 pounds….I thought I could handle EVERYTHING myself. Big mistake!
Father had a stroke on March 17th. I got the call, packed a bag, and headed to the hospital. He was alert when I got there; we talked a bit, and then he slipped into a coma, never to fully come out of it. I spent the next few days, until his death, at his bedside. I moved into the hospital room and was there with him for his final days. He passed peacefully in the early morning hours of March 20th, 2004. I doubt that I will ever forget those last days or the man that gave me the opportunity to care for him in life and death.
One of the reasons I am spending so much time reflecting on this situation is because this death was a tremendous loss to me and the way I processed it and grieved it (or didn’t, I guess, is more truthful) was a big factor in my weight gain. His death, along with a few other losses that happened in that same time-frame, were extremely difficult and left gaping holes in my heart. Instead of processing them in a healthy way, I chose instead to mask the pain with food and drink. I fed the pain with potato chips and M&M’s. I washed down the hurt with soda. I didn’t allow myself to grieve and process the pain, but rather, withdrew and wallowed in my sadness. Another big mistake! I should have sought counseling; I should have joined a grief support group; I should have……. ANYTHING….but what I did.
 I’m not unusual….many people do the same thing. Many people turn to drugs, alcohol, food, porn…whatever….to ­­­deal with pain, grief, despair. It’s likely the key to all addiction.  Until I began to understand what I was doing and WHY I was eating, I couldn’t do anything to correct the situation. BUT…fortunately, by the grace of GOD, I have been given a chance to remedy the situation. Is it easy? Nope! Do I have really bad days? Yep! It is the hardest thing ever….to allow myself to feel the sadness, to remember those difficult times, to recall the feelings, to deal with life today, my schedule, my fears, my life, etc…and yet, IT IS SO WORTH IT!
 Father used to tell me all the time, “No cross, no crown” meaning that Jesus had to suffer the betrayal, crucifixion, death, etc. first before the glorious resurrection. Sometimes we have to go through really hard times before we can experience true joy…sort of like childbirth I suppose. We have to spend time in the valley before we can appreciate the mountaintops. We have to experience loss before we can rejoice in victory.
For those of you that are in the role of caregiver….know that I know EXACTLY how exhausting and difficult it can be, but I also know that you will one day look back on these days and wonder how on earth you found the strength to go on day after day, but likely, you will realize one day that this is one of the greatest privileges of your life. For those of you that are grieving loss….doesn’t matter who it is you lost or how long ago you lost them, pain is pain, sadness is sadness, missing them doesn’t ever go away (even after 10 years), know that I know EXACTLLY how it feels, but one day, it will get easier and your heartache will be replaced with joy when you realize how blessed you were to be loved.  For those of you that are using food, drugs, work, alcohol….whatever…to fill a void, know that I know EXACTLY why you are doing so…but I hope you don’t continue to make the same mistakes as I did. There is a better way to deal with it.
Like I said, my words today were mostly just for me to process…..but if you are reading this now, it means you have reached the end….and I appreciate you allowing me to share my thoughts….my pain….my joy….and for being there for me. I hope that I can be there for you too! ­­