Friday, November 21, 2014

Thinking about my dad today

Good Morning!
  Thank you for your kind thoughts yesterday as I faced the death of my cat, Camper. As I expected, the vet determined that the best course of action would be to put her to rest because she had multiple issues going on. I never realized how she had sick she was because until a few days ago, she never made a sound, but she did sleep a lot in recent weeks. I have been asking myself since yesterday how she could become so sick and I never knew it, and dealing with a bit of guilt as I wondered if I could have done something different. Yesterday was certainly a tough day, but today is a new one and I will try to shift my thoughts and focus from sadness to gratitude.

Today, November 21st, is another day of remembrance from me, and for the past week or so I have been thinking about my biological dad, Phillip. He died on this day 43 years ago, and even though so many years have passed, I STILL find myself thinking about him every year when this day comes. Although I was just a little girl when he died and God later sent other wonderful men (my stepdad, Tony & priest, Fr. Sauter) to fill the void after his death, I have a deep love and gratitude to the man who gave me life.  He taught me many things in those short eight years and I can see how his love and presence in my life shaped me into the woman I am today.  Over the years, I have been able to replace the sadness and guilt I felt for many years about his death with the gratitude I feel today that God gave me a wonderful father for those short years, and that the life lessons and love I learned from him continue to influence me today.

While I recognize that I much of what I know about my dad was learned from other family members and the stories they told/continue to tell about him, I do have some very wonderful memories of my own. Those memories, along with the ones I’ve gathered from others over the years, give me joy and comfort, but also strength on my journey, as I remember how he handled his own journey of illness.  Today, I give thanks to God for the gift of my dad as I reflect on all those things he taught me in our short time together, namely an unshakeable faith IN SPITE of struggle; the hope that things would be different; a desire to celebrate the journey; and a love that death could not diminish.

My dad had rheumatic fever when he was a child and spent many weeks in the hospital, but recovered and eventually returned to school, got a job, and married my mother. No one knew, however, that his heart was damaged by that earlier illness, and he had his first heart attack when I was only one month old. He spent weeks at a time in the hospital, had open heart surgery, and several other issues in the next seven years before a stroke/heart attack took his life. In the midst of those struggles, however, he was able to return to work at Chrysler and my parents added two more children to our family. Things would be okay for a while; then another set-back and months in the hospital; and so forth. He had open heart surgery on my 4th birthday and he was hospitalized for several weeks at a time at other times during my childhood, at a time when kids weren’t allowed in the hospital.  I certainly felt his absence and missed him terribly, and yet… I always knew he loved me…even when I couldn’t see him or kiss him goodnight. Throughout his years of illness, pain, and suffering, he never lost faith in God. In fact, his faith was unshakeable, and I have vivid memories of the later years when we had a hospital bed in the house of him reading scripture, praying the rosary, and taking about God. During those last couple of years before he died, my priest friend Fr. Sauter was assigned to our parish in Rockwood, and I remember him coming to our home to visit my dad, pray with him, and bring him communion. Of course, I was always in the midst of all that and it was then…when I was just 5 years old, that Father Sauter and I first became friends.  I learned compassion and faith from both of these men and would later be privileged to care for Father Sauter and be at his bedside when he died, in much the same way that he did for my dad. God had a plan! 

No matter HOW bad things got; no matter how much my dad suffered or how bleak the situation looked, my dad never lost his faith in God and always had hope that things would get better….but knew that no matter what happened…..God would always be there. That faith, taught to me by my parents, helped me through some pretty tough days…and continues to guide me on my journey today.  That same faith kept me alive in those years of darkness 10 years ago when my life hit rock-bottom, even though I had lost hope back then and almost succumbed to despair. That same faith keeps me going EVERY SINGLE DAY on this journey, and even though, like all of you, I have days when it is tested; I am weary and feel burdened; and doubt creeps in; I am always able to find my way back to the assurance that I am not alone on this journey….no MATTER how hard it gets; how much I want to give up; or how bad/sad the days are. Certainly, like yesterday, I have my share of sadness.

Another thing my dad taught me was to CELEBRATE the life you have. Even when he was sick, I still remember joy in my home. Christmas was a really big deal when I was a young child. The outside of our house was always all lit up with lights and holiday decorations and family celebrations for the holidays and other times was a priority. Earlier this week I put up my Christmas tree in my own house and I carefully unpacked a silly, beat-up, Styrofoam Santa Claus face that has been part of EVERY Christmas for the past 50 years, as well as a plastic Santa figurine dressed in a dingy velvet Santa suit that my grandparents purchased for my first Christmas. Both of these old “pieces of junk” as others have called them are incredibly precious to me and remind me of the importance of CELEBRATING… and family…even when it/they are not perfect.

Holidays were important, but so were ordinary days, and family meals/gatherings/picnics/weddings etc….even when he was not feeling well; even when he knew his days were likely numbered; even when he could no longer participate like others who were present.  A few hours before he died, he played a marble game called Aggravation with my mom and grandparents for a little while before he could no longer do so and needed to rest. I remember that day like it was yesterday and it taught me to enjoy life as best as I can; to never give up trying; and celebrate the gift of life….regardless of how bleak it might seem.  That principle guided my journey and taught me the importance of celebrating the small victories of my journey….like fitting into a smaller size; walking my first quarter mile without a cane/walker/ getting under the 300 pound mark for the first time, etc.  Even though I was/am not where I want to be, I recognized that there was still/are many things to celebrate. Life is a gift…to be enjoyed NOW…regardless of what the scale says!

Finally, he taught me love… a love for his children and family, but mostly a love for my mother. Those two had a love affair like none I’ve ever known.  They married much later in life than others during that time period (they were 25) and their short 9 year marriage had much heartache and sadness, but produced three children, and was strong and loving. When I was in my teens, my mother showed me a very large scrap book, overflowing with cards and letters that the two exchanged. Cards for every occasion…or none at all….expressing his love and gratitude to my mother for her presence in his life; letters expressing his desire to come home from the hospital and how much they missed each other; and offering thanks to God for the gift of each other. WOW….although I’ve been in several relationships over the years and have been blessed with the love of others, I have yet to understand/know a love like that. Perhaps, their love was a rare gift from God to help them through what would be turn out to be a relationship that had more than its share of sorrow and heartbreak.  Still….my dad taught me that, first, THAT kind of love is possible, second, that love does not depend on physically being present and carries on beyond the grave, and most important, that love….not just romantic love but love for ALL people and in all forms, is a gift from God and I had better be sure to let those I love know it because life is very short.

As I sit here in the darkness, thinking about my dad, I am so grateful that I was blessed with him for eight years, and that the things I learned from him continue to motivate and influence my journey today.  I encourage you, when you have time to think about your own journey, to try to identify those characteristics and traits you need to succeed in your own life-changing quest.  In my option, while physical things….like exercise, diet, support groups, etc….are important parts of your ability to succeed…emotional/mental/spiritual traits are even more critical to draw from because there will come a time when you will not be able to exercise due to age/illness or loss of desire/motivation, and there will be times when your eating habits will be challenged or abandoned for a celebration or whatever.  There will be times when you will want to quit and will struggle to find the motivation you need to keep going or start over. You will have some difficult days when temptation is overwhelming.

 During those times when you feel hopeless, sad, or experience struggle; when grief or illness threaten your peace of mind; when days are difficult for whatever reason (maybe even as ‘what some may call as insignificant as losing a pet) it will be those internal characteristics that keep you going and will help you get through the day. It will be FAITH…HOPE….LOVE….that keeps you going and encourages you to start over.

What characteristics/ past experiences/memories do you have like that…..Stubbornness….determination… unshakeable faith….and so forth….that has guided you through life thus far and has molded you into the person you are today? Who taught you those things?  Those things are far more important to your success than a pair of sneakers (although sneakers are pretty important!!!)  because, long after your sneakers wear out or your treadmill quits working, those characteristics will keep you going.  Another important thing to reflect on is “What are YOU teaching others by the way you live/act/think?  I want to be a better person today….because I spent some time thinking about what a wonderful man I am blessed to say is my “dad.”   

Have a great day today….