My maternal grandfather — his name was Thomas Barker; but we called him Pappy — had only one child: my mother. He died in her home in Cortland, New York, on September 24, 1994. He was 85. After the funeral, Grandpa (my fathers father) told his wife, “I want to go like Tom Barker did.” Pap’s was a beautiful death—at home, in relative comfort, surrounded by family and at peace with his God.
When Pappy went, he went quickly, though he had been on a gradual slide for some time. Tuberculosis had left him with only one lung many years previously, and by the time he moved into our home in upstate New York after the death of his wife Mary in 1989, he had become a largely sedentary fellow. Most days he spent sitting in our back room. After reciting the prayers of the Rosary, he read the Daily News and the New York Post, and often part of a detective novel by Tony Hillerman or Dick Francis. He noted the weather (and other significant events) in his diary and watched the seasons’ effects on Mom's backyard garden through the enormous plate-glass window. Evenings, he ate dinner with us before retiring to the living room to watch television. Summers, he took us on vacation, as he had done since forever.
Mom tried to get him to exercise. Most days, she brought him up to the local college for walks. She also engaged a physical therapist, who later noted in a thank-you card for the bequest he left her, “Sometimes I think there were more days of laughing together than exercising.” Pap, a gregarious ex-political man with a love for clever nonsense, had a gift for casually chatting his way out of odious propositions such as moving about, and so it was no big surprise that the muscle mass in his legs continued to deteriorate. His lung also grew gradually weaker. And I wonder whether Mom didn’t push him as hard as she might have—he had lived a long time, he was the family patriarch; surely he had some right to avoid certain unpleasantries?
In the summer of 1994, he began to take oxygen, trailing the slender tubing along behind him as he ambled through the house. I’m sure he hated the indignity of the tube snaking out of his nose, but he kept a cheerful countenance, smiling when he referred to “this damn thing.” He also smiled after taking one of his occasional falls, falls executed with an astonishing grace for a man so unsteady. He had been a big man, and though his bulk had diminished, his frame still inspired alarm as it began its slow, twisting descent to the ground— a long way down. When he landed, however, it seemed that the ground had been lined with pillows; no impact was discernible, no jarring shudder rippled through him. He would smile and shake his head, and we would help him get up.
I had just returned to college here in California when Pappy began his final descent He had been sleeping later and eating less for a few days, and his oxygen levels had been slipping. My mother wrote in her journal that coming downstairs on the tenth of September “left him so distressingly out of breath that we decided to make a bed in the new room [his sitting room] that night.” He spent the day just staring out the window, except when he watched Notre Dame beat Michigan State on television with my father. When evening came, he asked to go back upstairs to what had been our guest room before his arrival — “I like that room.” Mom weighed the doctor’s advice against her father’s routine and desires and joined Dad assisting Pap up the stairs toward bed.
“I really admire you, Daddy,” she told him after his strenuous ascent.
“Well, don’t admire me.”
“Well, I do. You’re going through all this, and you’re not swearing or anything.”
“I don’t have enough breath to swear!”
The next morning, Pappy could not rise from bed. He would never get up again. He had no interest in the paper, and for more than a day, he refused food and water. “He figured this was it,” said Mom. “He didn’t want anything. But I kept offering him something to drink, and he started taking it.” When Sweetheart (our name for my maternal grandmother) died in ’89, he immediately moved into our home. After her funeral, Mom said to Pappy, “Daddy, we want you to come live with us in Cortland.” (She always referred to her parents as “Mother” and “Daddy,” and I took these titles, so often discarded after childhood, as a sign of the remarkable bond they shared.)
“I can’t do that,” he countered. “You have your own lives.”
My father joined in. “Pappy, we want you to come.”
Still he resisted. “I can go to Jack’s restaurant for dinner...”
“Mother asked you to come live with us after she died,” Mom reminded him. And that was that. He was docile to his wife’s wish. But somehow, even as a callow youth, I got the impression that there was another reason for his coming — to console his daughter.
By all accounts, Sweetheart was literally a saint, one who is assuredly in heaven. A lifelong smoker, she died of cancer of the base of the tongue after nine months of hospice care in her home. During her decline, she had proclaimed, “When I get to heaven, everybody’s going to get help!” The night she died, Sister Jean, the hospice chaplain, was cured of a strange, apparently untreatable rash on her stomach and back. A short time later, Joanne, the woman who had served as Sweetheart’s nurse, went into another patient’s home to check on her. Though Joanne was alone, the patient asked, “Who’s your friend?” Later, Joanne told my mother that she felt sure the patient had seen Sweetheart by her side.
Soon after Pappy moved in with us, my mother was taking him for a walk up at the college when she noticed that “a little yellow butterfly kept flying all around us—around our feet and all around. It kept coming back, around and around. I thought, ‘This is weird; I’ve never had this happen.’ Then it occurred to me that maybe Mother was sending us this butterfly, and I said, 'Ah, I would have to see a monarch butterfly for me to think this was a heavenly sign.’ When I got home, there were three monarch butterflies flying around in the garden. I was so touched.”
A few weeks after that, Mom and Dad went away for their anniversary (September 10) to a secluded little Pennsylvania inn. As they were packing to go back home, Mom broke down. Despite what she had previously regarded as heavenly reassurances, she found herself sobbing, “If I only knew where she was. If I only knew she was all right.” The storm passed, and while Dad checked out, Mom went to sit on the porch. “I was all by myself. There were all these flower boxes on the railings, and I was in a rocking chair. I was rocking, and Tom [Dad] was taking a long time, and I started humming, making up a tune. I thought to myself, ‘I haven’t done this since I was a little girl.’ I felt kind of out of time and space; I just felt like everything had fallen away. And this butterfly landed on the flowers in front of me and just fluttered there for a long time. It’s a funny thing about signs. To somebody else, it would just be a butterfly landing there, but I knew that it was an answer to my desire to know that Mother was okay.”
On my mother’s next birthday, she saw Sweetheart in a dream. “It was morning already, the kind of dream you have right before you wake up. I was in a room with Daddy. There was a door in the room with a window in it. I looked through it, and Mother was coming down some kind of hallway toward the glass. It wasn’t brightly lit, but it was very plain to see, like daylight. She was just beautiful. She wasn’t young; she was a mature woman, and she was just beautiful. Her hair was beautiful. I said, ‘Oh, Mother, can you stay?’ And she shook her head no. She said, ‘Heaven is so wonderful.’ And I woke up. I told Daddy, and he said, ‘I wish I could have a dream and see her.’ ”
Now he was on his way. From the day he took to his bed to the day he died was only a week, Saturday to Saturday. That first morning, my father began the effort to secure a priest to hear Pappy’s confession. Father John, the parish’s pastor, was on vacation. Dad called the deacon, Dick Dwyer, to see if Father was coming back very soon. No, replied Dick, but he would be glad to help find a priest. Dad called the other Catholic parish in town, as well as the Newman Center at the college, and left messages. Sunday night, Deacon Dick called back and said he would come himself to bring communion and say prayers for the dying, which he did. Dad still wanted to find a priest.
I’ve often thought to myself, as I race across town to make it to a church before the priest’s all too brief time in the confessional box draws to a close and I face the prospect of still more time with discomfort from my festering sins and anxiety for my precariously situated soul, how terribly funny this scurrying about must look to a non-Catholic. The idea that you’ve got to find a certain sort of man to tell your sins to, and that you can’t just tell him over the phone, but you have to go and see him (even if you can’t actually see him but are behind a screen), that he’s got to say certain words. It must seem ridiculous, even though I believe there is an account that makes some sense of it—Christ’s institution of the sacrament after His resurrection and the basic need to tell another person of our wrongdoings.
Added to this clerical search was my mother’s social anxiety—if we went and got a priest after Deacon Dick came out, would the deacon be offended? Would he' feel as though we were discounting his efforts, which had been considerable? (I would have wondered how many sins Pappy could possibly have on his soul—his life was so tranquil, seemingly free of the occasion for real sinfulness. But then, I’m a young man; I suppose I’ll know better in 50 years.) Dad prayed about it and concluded, “If it were me, I would want a priest and confession.” Mom agreed.
That night, while Mom was changing Pappy’s sheets, she jostled him. Not feeling himself, he yelled at her. She was hurt. Because he required frequent checking (he sometimes knocked out his oxygen tube in the night), Mom and Dad set up mats—one on the floor in Pappy’s room, one in the hallway outside—and slept there, though Mom never slept much anywhere during that time.
Father O’Heron, the priest from the Newman Center, arrived the next morning. Dad let Father know that Pappy wasn’t speaking much; could he still participate in the sacrament? Father smiled. “We’re going to try to make contact,” he said as he mounted the stairs. A few minutes later, he called down, “We made contact!”
That night, Pappy, needed to use the urinal, and Mom held it next to the bed for him.
“You did it right,” he told her.
“Thank you,” she replied. Peace was restored.
Later in the night, in the warm dark of our guest room, Pappy began speaking to Mom as if she were Sweetheart. Several times during his years with us, Pappy had addressed Mom as “Mary,” an understandable momentary transfer. On this night, the transfer was total; Pap looked right at Mom as he spoke. This was very difficult for Mom, but she reluctantly played along.
“It was a good life,” said Pappy. “Was it good [for you]?”
“Yes, a very good life.”
“Were you satisfied?” he asked.
Mom was overcome; she couldn’t answer. Pappy looked hard at her. “Were you satisfied?” he asked again, agitated.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “I was satisfied. I loved you, and you were a good wife.... Do you think we made heaven? I hope you did. I think I did,” he paused. “I’m bragging.”
“No, you’re just relying on that confession this morning.”
“I wasn’t so good, but I tried my best.”
By referring to the confession, Mom tried to make it clear that she was his daughter, but to no avail. Surrendering to the pretense, she said, “We had a lot of fun.”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Sang a lot of songs.”
“Yeah, and best of all, I had you.”
A little while later, Pappy asked, “Am I still here?”
“Yes. You’re right on the borderline, Daddy. Can you go to sleep?’’
“Do you think I should?”
“You know, I feel okay.”
The next afternoon, he waved her over to him as she came into the room with a sandwich for Dad. “You’re a brick,” he said.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“It’s a great compliment,” said Dad.
“You and Sadda and Ruth, the Three Musketeers,” said Pappy. He was back to thinking of Mom as Sweetheart.
Pappy talked about the past for a while, seeming to slip in and out of awareness. Then he had a period of real clarity and gathered himself to make his goodbyes. He called for my dad, as well as my brother Mark and his wife Lisa, who had driven up from their home in Maryland. “Tom, I want to thank you for everything. I’ll see you on the other side. Good luck, Mark.” Then something that sounded like another language.
“I don’t know what that means,” said Mom. “Maybe it’s Irish.”
Mark: “Maybe you’re receiving the gift of tongues, Pappy.”
Pappy: “You’re a good kid. You’ll make it.”
Mark: “Thanks for everything you’ve done for me, and Matthew too.”
Pappy: “Is that a fact?”
Lisa said, “I want to thank you too, Pappy.”
“Good-bye, Lisa. I’ll see you again.”
Then to everybody: “OK. Go now.”
Everybody: “Good-bye, Pappy.”
Mom remained. Pappy kissed her hand and said, “I love you, honey” At this moment, Mom felt he was recognizing her as his daughter.
Mom: “I love you, Daddy”
Pappy: “OK. Go now.”
Mom: “You want me to go?”
Pappy: “No, I don’t want you to go.” A pause. “OK. Go now”
Mom: “Daddy, you’re going to see Mother.”
Mom: “Mother. If you haven’t seen her already. Have you seen her?”
Mom: “She sent me a lot of butterflies. Tell her how much I appreciated all the butterflies.”
Mom: “And if you’d like to send me something, I’d appreciate that too.”
From her journal: “At some point he told me to say my prayers and a couple of other things.... Within a short time, the lucidity' was gone.... I am so happy Daddy talked to me as his daughter.”
Later that day, Pappy attempted to pray along with a visitor. He couldn’t remember all the prayers but apparently remembered the sounds, since the words he inserted rhymed with the actual words. Pappy was enthusiastic, and everybody thought it sweetly funny. Afterward, Dad said to him, “You gave us a good laugh, Pap”
“Well, if I can do that, God will forgive me a lot of things.” As they left the room, he called, “Thank you very much! You’re a jolly group!”
Wednesday, the death watch began in earnest. Attention shifted to the deeply material: Pappy’s loss of control and loss of motion eventually necessitated diapers. His breathing became more and more labored. Mom all but stopped sleeping; she would wake up in a panic, wondering if he was still breathing.
Pappy’s struggle to draw breath was taking its toll on his spirits. One day when my brother was in the room, he held up the oxygen tube in exasperation and said, “Cut this tiling.” He had no desire to prolong things.
Mark answered, “Pappy, Mom would be very upset with me if I did that.” Shaken, he went downstairs and told Mom, who went up and talked to Pappy: “Daddy, this oxygen is not prolonging your life as much as it is keeping you comfortable. God will decide when He wants you, with or without the oxygen. Now, you’re going to meet Jesus soon. Do you want to meet Him with a smile, or... ?” No reply. “Daddy, I know this is hard, but we have to wait for God’s time. Are you willing to go the distance?” Pappy nodded.
Pappy was able to stay at home because Bill Boudreau, a close family friend who was also a doctor, had agreed to provide care. During a visit that day, he asked, “How are you feeling?”
“I’ll take care of that.” He prescribed lithium.
Mom began to be exhausted by the long wait for the inevitable. She barely slept, and not knowing if she was doing the right thing was taking its toll. Dad had been away on an overnight business trip, and his return flight was twice delayed. He arrived late Friday night.
Saturday morning, Mom sat with him at the top of the stairs. From the journal: “Anguish. When would this be over? Were we doing the right thing by him? Could a hospital make him more comfortable? What was he actually feeling?” By this time, most of his communication was through moans. “Was he mostly unaware or way under the surface (we hoped)? If only I could be sure of that. Was he depressed, distressed? So hard not knowing. I prayed out loud. Pleaded with God for clear direction. We would do whatever He wanted, and we weren’t praying to change His timing, only for strength and for direction. It was a fervent prayer, and in the past, God has given me fervent prayer when He’s about to answer. Tom and I went back to our own separate [mats] and to sleep.”
Pappy died later that day. Bill, the doctor, had told the family that Pap’s heart would keep beating for a short time after he stopped breathing. Dad entered the room and beheld Pappy’s ashen face and slack musculature. The oxygen tube had fallen out, and Dad could tell that there was no breath. “Come quickly,” he called to the others, “I think he’s gone.” After they had all arrived, Mark found his pulse and monitored it until his heart stopped. The first thing they did after he died was clean him up, an incredibly tender gesture. They believed that Pappy was gone, that what remained was now a hollow shell, but it had been him, and they treated his body with kind regard. They removed his clothes and scrubbed him all over. Mom remembers, “Mark scrubbed his back for the longest time, because probably nobody had ever washed his back, even though he took a shower every week.” They washed his hair and put new sheets on the bed. Then they said the prayers from the Mass for the Dead in the old Missal. They sang “Salve Regina” and called the funeral home.
Then they called me, finding me as I was taking my ease on a Saturday morning in far-off California. It was very strange to receive the news, delivered in a steady voice by my father. He had been preparing for this event for some time, worn down by days and sleepless nights of waiting. I had called every day, but my daily routine had remained unperturbed. I was a senior in college. I was happy in love with Deirdre, the woman who would eventually become my wife. I was in Southern California. The news of the previous week had been like rumors of war—far off and not touching me as much as I knew it should. Now, he was dead, and it was time for me to come home and enter the course of events that had him as their center.
Still, I resisted a little, which was perverse, since I had always imagined that I shared a special rapport with Pappy—a similarity of humor and temperament. There was a flight out of LAX at 2:00 p.m. and another at 10:00 p.m. Mom would have liked me to make the two o’clock flight, just to have the family together, but I didn’t try as hard as I might have to get packed and off campus. I found Deirdre, told her the news, and asked her to come to the airport with me. I found the chaplain and slipped into the dry-goods pantry of the kitchen where he heard emergency confessions — I didn’t want to board a plane with sin on my soul. I didn’t leave until after noon, and it soon became clear that it would take extraordinary measures to make the earlier flight, measures I didn’t feel obliged to take. The grief of it hadn’t hit me yet, but I was a little stunned, and I wanted to spend those first hours with Deirdre and not with a bunch of strangers on a plane.
We journeyed to the Century City Mall and saw Quiz Show. Then to Ben & Jerry’s for White Russian ice cream cones. Then coffee somewhere. Then looking for a restaurant, cruising through West Hollywood.
“There’s a cool-looking place,” suggested Deirdre.
“We’d be the only straight people there.”
“No, no, we’re out of West Hollywood.”
“No, we’re not.”
It turned out I was right; we ate there anyway. We ended up having dessert on the upstairs balcony, a narrow space that required some effort to reach. There, we lost track of things, until it finally occurred to me to ask somebody for the time — neither of us had a watch. When the answer came — ten minutes to ten—my stomach dropped We had arrived almost five hours earlier; how was this possible? How was I going to tell my mother, who had just lost her father, that I wasn’t going to be on the plane? Could she ever forgive me? Would she be mad at Deirdre as well?
The answers to those last two questions were yes and no, though Mom was plainly upset with me, a rare and painful situation. She booked me a flight for 6:00 a.m., and Deirdre and I parked in front of the white zone at LAX to wait for morning, lulled by the friendly warning of the parking announcement. “The white zone is for the immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. No parking. Parked vehicles will be cited and maybe towed at the owner s expense.” Over and over, first the cheerfully chiding woman, then the plain-spoken man. It was there that the loss of my grandfather hit me, and I buried my head in Deirdre’s lap and sobbed violently. After a while, we drifted off to a fitful sleep. I woke at first light and made my flight. I was full of shame over missing my plane the night before but glad I had been with Deirdre while I grieved.
I don’t remember a great deal from the calling hours, except how empty the generously proportioned room felt. Pappy had said before that he had outlived everyone he knew. These empty hours of visitation, held in Albany, the city where he had made his life, seemed to lend credence to his claim. Of course, we had to be there the whole time, watching the empty room, studying the corpse—how thin he looked! And how unlike himself, his lower jaw seemingly sunk into his throat, his false teeth no longer supporting his lips. How still he was — he had been essentially animated during life;, even when sitting still, there was a lightness about him, a willingness to be happy. He had always been a source of mysterious good cheer to me, even before he sent me a postcard from Florida with a picture of a pelican on the front, and this handwritten ditty on the back:
What a funny bird is the pelican
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
It was years before I found out he hadn’t invented that himself. But by then he had enchanted me in other ways. I loved his stately black Mercedes (in fact, it was a 240D, their cheapest model, and he had bought more out of regard for its durability than its status), loved to wait for it to turn the corner at the bottom of our street and chug gravely up the hill. He and Sweetheart visited every six weeks or so. Every Sunday during their visits, we would go to the Community restaurant on Main Street for breakfast after Mass.
Afterward, Pappy would take us next door to Basil’s newsstand to buy comic books white he picked up the New York Post and the Daily News. We would always charge in ahead of Pap, and Basil would greet us with the usual declaration: “Moneybags must be in town!” Pappy wasn’t rich, but his expansive, generous nature could certainly give that impression. Plus, he looked the part.
Later, I became enamored of his somewhat romantic past He had spent his life working in Albany for a series of New York City mayors. I know almost nothing of his professional dealings, but I did know that the Albany Democratic political machine held on until the early 70s and that New York City offered its own share of cheerful corruption. He seemed to belong to a looser, happier age, one more good-natured about its policies of patronage. When I told him that I wasn’t sure how I was going to find a job after college, he advised me to go and see my ward leader. He told stories about speakeasies and taking pitchers of martinis out on boats on Lake George. He quoted snatches of poetry from Robert W. Service—“Oh, the northern lights have seen queer sights, but the queerest they ever did see...” He was forever dropping 20s into my hand, careful to make sure I was financially equipped for any outing. He was wonderful, and if I have let sentiment make me nostalgic for an era I never knew, it is because of him.
Watching over that great empty room heightened a sense I had about my mother’s family (and my family) — how contained it was, how close, how uniform in its beliefs and sensibilities. There were no rifts, no apostates, no black sheep—there wasn’t anybody out of the fold. (The only relative I can recall was an older, dissipated-looking fellow who had once played saxophone at the Newport Jazz Festival. I do not know how he was connected to my family; I had not heard of him before, nor have I heard of him since.) This was partly because the fold was so minuscule, but the cause was unimportant That contained quality provided a great comfort, especially in time of grief.
For one thing, we were all Catholic. Religious differences are naturally emphasized in the presence of death—what you believe about what has become of the deceased will have considerable effect on how you think and feel and probably on how you behave. In our case, no one had to be careful not to offend anybody’s different beliefs, no one had to pull punches or speak gentle fuzzinesses. Pappy had confessed his sins and died. What remained was to pray for his soul’s quick release from Purgatory (where he would make reparation for his sins). Of course, it was not simply a matter of sharing certain doctrinal beliefs; it was an atmosphere of unity. We had a common life that presented no barriers to our clinging together as we stood in the gap Pappy had left.
That night, we dined for the last time at Jack’s, a dim, clubby sort of steaks-chops-seafood restaurant that preserved, as far as I could tell, the last vestige of the glory that had been Albany, back in the days of bootlegging and Keeler’s restaurant. Waiters wore mustard-colored cutaway tux jackets and appeared silently with lighters lit before a cigarette had reached a diner’s lips. During my childhood, there had been one fellow in particular —his muttonchops compensating splendidly for his shiny bald head — always standing at the door, waiting for “Mr. Barker,” ready to lead us to our table. Over dinner, we shared remembrances of Pappy, which Dad wrote down and strung together to form his eulogy, which was read at his funeral Mass.
Five years after Pappy’s death, in 1999, it became clear that my paternal grandparents could not go on living in their Florida home. Their house was nestled lightly on a comer in a tranquil senior community just north of Daytona Beach. Moving there from Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1985 had begun the happiest chapter of their lives: warm weather, year-round gardening, daily swimming, dancing lessons, a community of retirees who had not become rich but who had been able to escape the difficulties of wherever they were from and find refuge i/the moist Florida sunshine. I visited them once when I was in ninth grade and reveled in the unalloyed attention, the trips to Wet ’n Wild and Sea World, the cheeky naughtiness of the James Bond movies Grandpa had taped off HBO.
Though Grandma was a spark plug, crackling with wiry energy, the combined effect of Grandma and Grandpa was less jovial than Sweetheart and Pappy. Grandpa was lean and quiet; he seemed a man accustomed to hardships. The quiet was not entirely self-imposed — he sometimes told Dad that he couldn't find the words for things he wanted to say. He had never finished high school, a regret that stayed with him all his life. But he had made up for his lack of formal education with a ferocious work ethic and a deep thirst for general knowledge. He started his career at the Hudson River State Hospital shoveling coal in a power plant Besides working a second job to help supplement his income, he stayed up nights, studying for exam after exam that would help him ascend through the institution's ranks. By the time he retired, he was a senior stationary engineer.
He read the papers and gathered bits of information from multitudinous sources for redistribution throughout the family. During college, I received several letters from him containing clippings on what made for good humor, how to be funny, and the like. I later learned that he kept folders with our names on them and was forever cutting out this or that article which he thought different family members might enjoy.
In 1943, he went off to war, serving with the Army Medical Corps in Europe. When he returned, he bought my grandmother a $300 raccoon coat with the money he had made by selling the soap and sundries she had sent him during his time overseas. He paid close attention to his children. He did right by his family.
Now, in his latter days, he had sunk into himself. The family didn't need him in the same way. Once he began to think of his own happiness, he grew less tolerant of unsatisfactory conditions. He noticed problems. When we went out to eat, he was bothered and sullen if the water for his tea wasn't boiling hot, sometimes complaining to the waitress when she asked how things were. And he developed a mild form of Parkinson's, which kept him fretting over his health.
Over the years, Grandma's spark had been smothered — first by shingles, then by the consequent neuralgia, which left her in chronic pain. (Happily, Grandma's suffering had the good effect of bringing Grandpa out of himself, he sensed her need and responded.) The pain in turn gave rise to depression and anxiety and an excruciating entanglement with a phalanx of doctors and their various medications. I don’t doubt their goodwill, but their inability to diagnose and treat whatever was ailing her took its toll on Grandma, and she began to seem less and less her old self. She also stopped being able to take care of herself and her husband of more than 50 years. To further complicate matters, Grandpa developed a lung condition on top of the Parkinson's, one that caused his alveoli to fill up with blood and occasionally burst This would leave him spitting up blood. He grew frustrated at his weakening, his inability to do things he had once done, and fell into periods of prolonged silence, which further distressed Grandma.
My aunt Cheryl, an artist living in New York City, began making two-week visits to Florida every six weeks with her husband Chad, a photographer. She bought them a freezer and would prepare meals and freeze them for consumption during her absence. Even so, she would get calls while she was in New York — Grandma wanted her to come, Grandpa said there was nothing to eat in the house.
The breaking point came in March. Grandma had a urinary tract infection that went undetected and untreated long enough for her to become disoriented and eventually, unconscious. She was taken to the hospital and treated, but when she came home, she was consumed with anxiety. She couldn't bear to be alone, ever. My mother flew down and took a caretaking shift. On the day she was to leave, “I cooked chicken breasts for them, and vegetables. They just had to fix two plates for dinner and heat it up. The next day, when Cheryl arrived, Grandma said, ‘We were so tired by the time we got dinner on the table that we couldn’t eat it’ Something had to happen.”
That something was the Farm. My mother dreams of a French chateau, preferably with turrets. Barring that, she dreams of an airy lakeside cabin in the Adirondack Mountains, where she used to vacation as a child. Barring that, she dreams of a large, comfortable place in the country where our family—Mom, Dad, Mark, Lisa, Deirdre, and I, along with our growing brood of children—can gather, dispelling for a little while the distance occasioned by geographical separation, and hopefully restoring something of the familial intimacy that grows only through extended contact and provides nourishment for love.
That third dream began to come true right around the time Grandma and Grandpa started failing. My brother and his family were living with Mom and Dad at the time, and Lisa told Mom that she thought “Grandma and Grandpa should be up here where you can look after them.”
“Oh, they wouldn’t come here unless they had a place of their own.”
“Well, what about a gentleman’s farm?” She and Mom had stopped by an open house at such a place a while before, just as a lark
“Go ahead and look” Lisa opened the paper and found an ad for just that—a “gentleman's form” in McGraw, ten minutes from our home. Amazed,
Mom decided to go along with what looked like Providence, and she and Lisa visited that Sunday. “I was getting out of the car,” recalls Mom, “and I was looking out, and my heart just sort of flipped. I was looking past the house toward the hill,” eight acres of tree-dotted hillside that rose up past the eight acres of flatland behind the house, “and something happened inside.” Once inside the house, she found herself talking like a serious buyer — talking about her in-laws who needed a place to live, making sure there was a downstairs bedroom with a bathroom attached (there was). Then, “we walked out on the deck and looked at the hill, and I just couldn’t get over it. It just seemed like heaven on earth to me.”
“Absolutely not,” said Dad when she broached the subject with him. “Were not buying a house.” They had discussed the possibility of an apartment in town, but a second house seemed unworkable. Still, Mothers Day was coming and, with it, a meeting in Florida between Dad, Cheryl, and their brother Terry. The subject was, what to do about Grandma and Grandpa?
“Look,” said Mom. “There’s a bedroom and a bathroom downstairs. I don’t know why I went to see this house. Maybe God is leading us in this direction.”
Dad still resisted, but he was losing ground. It happened to be Mom’s birthday that day. “I would like this for my birthday,” she told him. “Will you pray to be docile to the Holy Spirit?”
Dad consented, and after his morning prayers, he was ready to look. When he arrived, says Mom, “He walked out immediately right through the deck doors, down the deck, and out to the farm.” Mom went with him and took some Polaroids of the house from the hill. “I said, ‘Okay, put these in your pocket and take them to Florida. You don’t have to say anything, but maybe you’ll want them.’ ”
As they returned home and climbed the front porch stairs, Dad turned to Mom and said, “You can get it.” The Florida meeting produced nothing until Dad pulled the pictures out of his pocket.
“Mom, Dad, do you want to live on a farm in McGraw?”
Grandma turned to him. “Oh, I didn’t know what was going to happen to us. But now I have hope.” They came to Cortland in July, stayed with my parents through the summer, and by September, they were ensconced in the Farm. Thus, life entered into its curious course for the New York contingent of my family, curious because the contained, tranquil quality enjoyed by my nuclear family was suddenly disrupted. Different sensibilities came crashing in from the outset.
My grandparents hate to fly. When my grandparents flew out to Pennsylvania for my brother’s wedding, it was the first time Grandpa had been in a plane since World War II. The flight from Daytona, on which my mother accompanied them, was tranquil enough, but things deteriorated quickly after they arrived in Syracuse. Mom had asked Dad to be sure to be there at the gate when they arrived so he could help carry bags and such. Dad set out in plenty of time, but he had been on the highway for only a mile and a half (out of 30) when the engine froze on the 1980 Mercedes we had inherited from Pappy. It was out of oil Dad had to jog back to town, borrow my brother’s Toyota Tercel, and dash up to Syracuse.
He arrived (late) and shepherded his parents to the car. When Dad opened the trunk, the lid sprang up and bashed him in the forehead, opening a gash. He then discovered that the trunk was full of luggage belonging to Mark’s sister-in-law, who had been visiting and was preparing to leave. The bags had to be stuffed into an overhead carrier; what wouldn’t fit there went into the car with the four passengers. They got on the road, then stopped for lunch at Burger King along the way. After lunch, Dad missed the entrance to the highway. When he finally got on the road, thoroughly flustered, he floored it. “Slow down!” cried Grandpa. Dad hit the brake, hard. By the time they got home, Grandpa was angry over the trauma the trip had caused Grandma, and he was by no means ready to forgive my now-penitent father.
What was extraordinary about this situation was that, as Dad told me later, he thought he might simply have to accept the feet that his father (for whom he had just bought a house) wasn’t going to forgive him. When I was growing up, my dad wouldn’t let people go to bed before peace had been made, no matter how bad the fight had been, no matter how much humble pie had to be swallowed. “Never let the sun go down on your anger,” I remember him saying. Already, the dynamics were shifting — he couldn’t command that peace be made if his father wasn’t ready to make it. Eventually, Grandpa came around, and peace was restored, but the wonder of it remained.
My grandparents had “their own place,” but they were not self-sufficient, any more than they had been in Florida. Every morning, my mother had to get out to the Farm to make their breakfast, then help them get dressed. For the rest of the morning, she took care of the domestic duties, then made lunch. After lunch, she returned to her home for two or three hours before heading back out to the Farm with Dad to make dinner. The family then ate together, a blessing, but by the time Mom and Dad cleaned up and got Grandma and Grandpa ready for bed, it was close to eleven. The Farm was my mother’s home away from home; gradually, her kitchen began to make a slow migration — a pan here, a blender there, until even the good knives went out to McGraw. During a visit home, I set about making bread pudding, and when I asked after the nutmeg, I saw the sadness on my mother’s face when she informed me that it was at the Farm. I wasn’t so upset, but she was sad not to be able to provide a functioning kitchen for her visiting son.
That visit got my dander up. For years, I have watched my mother make quiet plans for her home: books on redecorating, old Architectural Digests, loving graph-paper diagrams of the backyard flower garden, furtive stabs at various renovations. She almost managed to redo the dining room—new paint, new sideboard and lamps, repaired ceiling, raw silk drapes — but her new schedule kept her from procuring a new rug, even after we sent her a check for one. Today, the peach walls still collide with the burgundy of the worn oriental. Elsewhere, the carpet is off the front stairs, and about half of the wooden steps have been stripped of their ancient, beaded varnish. The other half await a free weekend, one that doesn’t seem to be coming soon. All the projects that a person tells herself will be accomplished when the kids leave the house remain unfinished. As one of the kids who left the house, I want to see this transformation completed.
I know my desire is at least partly selfish. I want to see my parents happy because I love them but also because I now know something of what they gave to make me happy. I can’t return the favor, but I wouldn’t mind seeing them share in my state. My arrival forced them to work so hard; shouldn’t they get a break now that I am out the door? Apparently not.
Mom, of course, never complained, never suggested that she thought that things should be other than they were. When she asked Dad to be docile to the Holy Spirit, she wasn’t administering medicine she couldn’t take herself. This was God’s plan for this chapter of her life, of that she was certain. She kept on running two households and caught up on what got neglected when Cheryl and Chad came up from New York City, about ten days a month. She never considered consolidating things by moving out to the Farm herself. “I have no desire to do that,” she told me, and kept a cheerful disposition.
And this new situation was not without its consolations. Dad began to forge new ground in his relationship with his father. He resumed reading the New York Times—even though he had long since lost respect for the paper — and discussed the day’s stories with Grandpa. He started watching TV with him, notably Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — remarkable for my father, who never watched TV except for college sports with Pappy and me. Seeing this, I realized I had never thought of my father as having much of a personal life outside of his wife and children — his Professional duties kept him so busy, and his social circle was almost nonexistent. No doubt this development brought him happiness, and Mom must have enjoyed having him at the Farm, where there was no computer to claim his evening hours for work.
For my part, I was amazed that Mom could take care of two households that so completely depended on her. During those morbid moments when a child (me) imagines the death of one or the other of his parents, I used to think of Dad, bereft of Mom, taking up the life he had led as a grad student: renting an unheated back room in someone’s house, living on tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, wearing fingerless gloves so that he could keep typing in the bitter cold. He struck me as a man who needed looking after, seeing as how he had a thousand appointments to keep, trips to take, conferences to prepare for, speeches to write, books to review, and so on.
I was frustrated. Having got myself stuck on this coast, there wasn’t much I could do to help, and I started to resent my grandparents for not just admitting their utter dependence and moving in with Mom and Dad. I understood, at least abstractly, the difficulty of giving up even the semblance of self-sufficiency after having spent a lifetime taking care of yourself, but I didn’t like the thought of my mom trekking back and forth between households. This is the difficulty in watching people suffer when they are holier than yourself— you want to do their complaining for them.
Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that — my parents were not left alone in their task. Cheryl and Chad stayed at the Farm when they visited; they had painted and decorated one of the upstairs bedrooms. The place had acquired a homey quality for them, to the point where they started looking at nearby properties, and they were certainly a huge help with Grandma and Grandpa Chad worked on the property and ran their finances, and Cheryl doted on Grandma.
Grandma and Grandpa hung on, though they got weaker as the months went by. Grandpa, who was fond of riding in the electric carts at the grocery store, ducking out on my mother as she walked the aisles, ran into something. That was the end of riding the carts. One day, as he rose from the dining room table and began to turn around, he told Mom, “I can’t move my legs.” Then he started falling. Mom says that he fell with much the same grace that Pappy had displayed; she was convinced that he would , always avoid serious injury.
The first time, he stumbled on the curb coming out of the grocery store. Then he slipped in the bathroom and cut his hand on the sink, but the X rays showed that nothing was broken. The third time, he was sitting on the edge of the bed and slipped off. Mom was still at home, and Grandma called her in a panic.
“You have to come. He fell.”
“We’ll come right away”
“I’m holding him up with my foot. He’s going to hit his head if I don’t hold him up. He’s pulling at me. His head is right next to the bed frame, and he’s going to hit it if I don’t hold him up.” Dad rushed out to the Farm, and Grandpa came away unscathed.
The fourth fall came the day before Thanksgiving of last year. Mom and Dad were home, packing to go and visit my brother’s family in Michigan — a rare treat Cheryl and Chad were at the Farm with Grandma and Grandpa, and my Uncle Terry was due to arrive that day. Mom takes up the story: “Cheryl called that morning and said, ‘Dad fell. I called 911.’ “ ‘Well, how is he?’
“ ‘He’s moving around. I’ve got to get him checked.’
“I tend to minimize,” admits Mom. “Some people think there’s always something wrong. I tend to think there’s nothing wrong, which isn’t good either, probably, but I thought they were overreacting. I didn’t think he was hurt, and I didn’t think we should stay home or anything, because I thought they’d get him to the hospital, take an X ray, and send him home. So I said, ‘I think he’ll be all right.’
“ ‘Well, talk to Mom. I have to go and see to something.’
“When Grandma got on the phone, she said, ‘Do you think you should wait until we get the report from the hospital to leave?’
“ ‘Oh, Mom, we won’t go today [if we do that]. You know how long it takes for X rays. It could be hours. We won’t get there. [It’s a nine-hour drive, and it had been snowing.] I really think he’s going to be okay. Look, I’ll call you in a couple of hours from the road. If anything is bad, we’ll come back.’ She said okay.” Mom and Dad got going around noon—our family has never been fast out of the gate. An hour later, they pulled over and called. Cheryl answered the phone. There was no report yet, but “Cheryl was very upset with me. She didn’t know how I could have left.
“ ‘I have to tell you,’ she said, ‘I feel very unsupported. If you had just said you would try to arrange a car for Terry.’ [They hadn’t been able to drive to the airport to pick him up, and he had had to rent a car.]
“ ‘If you had asked me, I certainly would have.’
“ ‘I just have to get this off my chest.’
“ ‘Now it’s on mine.’
“ ‘I’m sorry about that, but...’”
Dad got on the phone. By conversation’s end, things had been smoothed over. Since there was no news, bad or otherwise, Mom and Dad got back in their car and kept on toward Michigan. “When we got there, Mark and Lisa were in the kitchen. Mark was finishing up dishes. Clearly, something was wrong, but nobody wanted to say it right off the bat. Finally, they said, ‘We’re really sorry.’
“ ‘Well, what’s going on?’
“ ‘Grandpa’s in the hospital. He spit up blood.’ ”
When Grandpa arrived at the hospital, they did a chest X ray. It came back negative as far as broken bones go, but it did show that he had a mild pneumonia. They sent him home with a prescription for an antibiotic. As Chad helped Grandpa out of the car, he collapsed in Chad’s arms and began hemorrhaging blood out of his mouth. Cheryl ran to get paper towels, which she gave to Grandma, who kept handing them to Chad. Then Cheryl called 911 again.
Dad called the Farm, but nobody was there. Then he called the hospital; no luck. Mom tried again in the morning and got through. “I guess they said we shouldn’t come home on Thanksgiving, would we come home on Friday? We said yes, and we kept checking in. His vital signs seemed to be pretty good. Chad, however, said, ‘He’s not coming home.’ He felt that if he did get out of the hospital, he would probably be permanently in a nursing facility.” The doctors thought he might recover to the point where he had been before, but if it didn’t get better, it would get gradually worse.
As it was, it got worse almost immediately, at least in terms of affect “When he first went in,” says Mom, “he was in a regular ICU unit, which is open on three sides. The next day, when [Cheryl and Chad] went to visit him, the hospital had put him in isolation, and they didn’t even really tell Cheryl and Chad They went in to see him, and he was moved. The doctors said that there was a possibility that the bleeding was because he had tuberculosis. Since that would be contagious to everybody in the hospital, he had to be isolated.” The doctors took two tests for tuberculosis with contradictory results; neither was conclusive. Then they took swabs and started growing cultures; it would be two weeks before we knew for certain.
The violence of his collapse served as the first significant difference between the declines of Grandpa and Pappy. He wasn’t going “to go like Tom Barker,” at least in terms of going gentle into that good night. Isolation in the hospital provided the second difference; he was denied the comfort of domestic surroundings. He opened his eyes only twice, so he was spared the sight of his family hidden by masks—the hospital, afraid of spreading the possible tuberculosis, had requested they wear them.
There were advantages to isolation. “We had a room to ourselves. You could have a whole bunch of people in there. We could stay all night, and somebody did stay all night every night.” That was later. Thanksgiving Day passed as normally as it could in Michigan. I was at my in-laws’ in Kansas City, and my phone call to Mark’s house provided my introduction to the situation. It registered as an unfortunate oddity. I wasn’t afraid for Grandpa’s life; he seemed frail but steady when last I saw him, and he had spit up blood before.
My first feeling was sorrow for my parents. This was supposed to be a break for them: a family gathering with religious (giving thanks) overtones in a religiously consistent setting— my brother’s home. Back at the Farm, things would have been a little more complicated. Grandma and Grandpa were both Catholic, but two of their children had left the fold. Uncle Terry, who was visiting, had once told Dad he was an atheist. (He recently told Grandma that he does believe in God, but I didn’t know that at the time.) Cheryl certainly believed but had apparent difficulties with the notion that Jesus was God’s Son. She abstained from the formal grace at meals wherein Christ’s name was mentioned, but then offered subsequent prayers of thanks and petition. Chad seemed to share her sensibilities.
This diversity did not strain the bonds of family. I felt the difference more keenly than my parents; I’m the one who got uneasy at the traditional “What are you thankful for?” Thanksgiving topic. For Dad, the difference was a cause of sadness rather than tension; he wished his siblings shared the faith he regarded as true. I wanted Mom and Dad to enjoy this Thanksgiving without that sadness; I wanted them to partake of the ease that comes with a shared faith and worldview. But it would be hard to be at ease now, given the trauma at the Farm and the many miles between them and Grandpa.
The next day furnished another late start, for a number of reasons. By the time Mom and Dad were on the road, it became clear that they wouldn’t get home until around three in the morning. Fading, they decided to pull over and get a motel room around midnight Dad called the Farm and got Terry. Mom reports: “Terry said that they didn’t know if Grandpa was going to make it through the night. This was a great shock. We looked at each other, and we checked out.” Coffee and the adrenaline rush brought on by the bad news got them home around 5:30 Saturday morning; they drove straight to the hospital. Grandpa was still alive.
Mom met Cheryl in the hall. “I was kind of stiff. She gave your father a hug, and then she gave me a hug. I said, ‘Cheryl, if I had known.. .’ She said, ‘Don’t say one word about it Don’t. think anything about it.’ I do think there’s something here about family and about love. We were all there and there were no bad feelings, and yet we do have very different beliefs. It has to come from the parents; it has to. Everybody was doing this for them.”
Cheryl asked Mom to get a priest for Grandpa. “I had this feeling; you know, ‘Don’t bring a priest out on a snowy night.’ It was early Saturday morning, and I didn’t want to call the priest But I did, and I got a machine. It was about seven in the morning. I said, ‘Father John, Tom’s father is in the hospital. He’s taken a turn for the worse; we don’t know if he’s going to make it. I hate to call, but we would really appreciate it if you would come.’
“He got there about ten o’clock, and he stayed for a couple of hours. After he prayed over Grandpa, he just pulled up a chair next to the bed and just sat there. He had his prayer book open, and a lot of times, we weren’t talking— we weren’t praying all the time. He was perfectly at ease, which means that everybody else was at ease too. Everybody was there, and he was saying some prayers, and he said an Our Father and a Hail Mary. I didn’t look around, but it seemed like most people were saying it [along with him], including Cheryl.”
It wasn’t until after Father John had left that Dad realized that Father hadn’t heard Grandpa’s confession. When he did realize it, he was distressed. This time, his concern went beyond the general conviction that it was good to face death with a newly shriven soul. This time, he sensed a particular spiritual wound that required attention. He told me about it: “When we first read the Bible and prayed with him when he was in the hospital, he actually became agitated.” (Another difference between Grandpa and Pap: after the collapse, Grandpa never spoke again. His last words had been to ask whether anyone wanted to stop at Bob Evans for breakfast on the way home.) “It happened separately with Mom and with me, and then it happened when we were together. We were reading some psalms, and then we said, ‘Dad we’re going to pray a Rosary.’ It was as if his body tensed, and he sort of furrowed his brow.
“I had an intuition that it was arousing guilt — he had a sin on his conscience which he perhaps hadn’t confessed yet and which hadn’t been forgiven.” What was more, Dad had an idea what it might be about. The Sunday before his collapse — the last night that Dad spent with Grandpa at the Farm—“we finished dinner late, about nine-fifteen. I said, ‘Well, shall we say the Rosary?’ Dad had never objected to saying the Rosary; he sometimes proposed saying it, and of course, he had taught us to pray as a family when we were kids. But this particular night, he just sort of waved his hands and said, ‘Millionaire is on.’
“ ‘Dad, if we wait until ten o’clock, when that goes off, that’s going to be too late. We’ve got to get home and get up for Mass tomorrow morning. You know it’s just too late.’
“ ‘Well, you’ve got to have dinner earlier. You’re trying to get in too many things.’
“He was making these short, staccato statements. Not wanting to push prayer, I just walked away from the table. I was upset with him, both because he was putting TV ahead of the Rosary and because he was saying, in effect, ‘If you’re going to have dinner this late, [you can’t ask me to do things].’ I was not happy. I went into the kitchen and didn’t go back into the dining room. Mom came in later; she offered him dessert, and he nodded yes, and then he went and sat in his chair and fell asleep, which wasn’t normal. Normally, he would have stayed for his dessert.
“I didn’t go back in to try to make things better.... I gave in to my own kind of sin, [thinking], ‘Well, if he doesn’t want to Say the Rosary, that’s on his shoulders and conscience.’ And I was feeling a little bit stung by the criticism.”
Eventually, Grandpa woke up and came in and ate his ice cream, even though it had melted. “Mom offered to help him get his pajamas on. She said he was acting confused, [saying], ‘I’ve gotta do this. I’ve gotta do that’ Things he normally didn’t say. In the meantime, I got the grace to go into the bedroom and say, ‘Dad, I’m sorry all that happened. I’m not going to be here tomorrow, because I teach. Then on Tuesday, I’ve got to give a talk. Wednesday, were going away to Mark and Lisa’s for Thanksgiving, so I wont see you until next Sunday night.’ ”
They embraced. As Dad turned to leave, Grandpa said, “Youse a good boy.”
“It was this little light touch; we had our reconciliation.” But after the collapse, when Grandpa started getting agitated around prayer as he lay silent in his hospital bed, Dad concluded that maybe there hadn’t been reconciliation with God. Sunday night, Dad sat with his father.
“ ‘Dad, I feel bad about what happened with the Rosary that night. I should have come back in and talked to you about it and worked it out so we could say it. I kind of gave in to anger, and that was my sin. You know, you taught us to say the Rosary when we were kids, and we sometimes gave you a hard time about it, and so the devil tried to get in there then. I think he got in there the other night. But you know, God knows and the Blessed Mother knows how faithful you’ve been to the Rosary, and I don’t want you to feel bad about it. Just tell God you’re sorry about it. I’m sorry for the sin on my part, not coming back out and making things better.’
“He squeezed my hand. He hadn’t done that when I had taken his hand before, but now, there was a definite gentle squeeze of my hand. After that, when we prayed the Rosary or read from the Bible, there was no agitation of his spirit.” But he still hadn’t confessed. Now, Tuesday, Dad was going away again, this time to a conference at which he was the keynote speaker. “I felt that the right thing to do was to fulfill my commitment; it was not something that I felt I could walk away from. That was just my sense of it. I had been with him for many hours, through two nights. I had prayed with him and spoken with him in his best moment of consciousness.”
Dad’s decision came as no surprise to me. I am, I suppose, a lazy man, but if I recognize something as a duty, particularly a duty that people are counting on me to perform, I tend to rouse myself and attend to it. I attribute this to my upbringing and the example Dad provided. But Cheryl couldn’t believe it. “She said, ‘Why don’t you talk to these people, see if they can help you with it?... You know, you have to be at peace with what you decide.... It’s between you and God; you have to make your own decisions....’ ”
Mom recalls Dad’s response: “ ‘Cheryl, I can’t. There’s going to be a room full of people who are depending on me. I don’t know that he’s going to die. I have to keep my obligations. I had to go away when Judy’s father was sick.’ He was back when Pappy died, and he was very glad to get back before he died.”
“He could have lasted another week,” says Dad. “His signs were stable.” So Dad left. But before he did, he asked Mom if she would call Father John and ask him to hear Grandpa’s confession. She said she would.
Father John arrived on Tuesday morning. Mom told him,“ ‘Father, he’s not speaking or anything...but….can you say something?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I can’ — as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, I know how this works’ So he came in and sat down and said—in a pretty loud voice—‘Mr. Lickona? Mr. Lickona It’s Father John. I’m going to hear your confession.’ ”
Grandpa didn’t move. Mom spoke to him. “ ‘Dad, it’s Father John. He’s going to hear your confession.’ His eyes opened. Father John took his hand and said, ‘Okay, you’re sorry for all the sins of your past life. You agree? Okay. We’re going to say an act of contrition. I’m going to say it, and you’re going to say it. Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for my sins... ’ During that [time], Dad put up his other hand, the hand that was on the side I was on. He was kind of swinging it — he was reaching for my hand. I took his hand. He opened his eyes and he drew a real bead on Father, but he took my hand, and I know it was gratitude for the priest. I know it was. His reaching for my hand was the last real motion. That was the last I saw his eyes opened. When Dad called, I told him that Grandpa had gone to confession, and [Dad] 'was so happy. He was praying for him the whole time; for being away, he was closer than anybody.”
When she said that, Mom was referring to a kind of spiritual closeness. Because Cheryl, Chad, and Terry didn’t share Grandpa’s faith, at least not in its entirety, they perhaps could not sense the urgency that he confess, that his soul be bolstered by prayer from other persons. He had been afraid of death; he had said so some time before. Now he was powerless to communicate and surely felt all but alone on the path to the next life. Did he feel panic? Did he sometimes wake from unconsciousness, surprised to find that he was still alive? Did he long to say some last, important words? Did he have final perseverance in faith? Did he long for the ordeal to end?
I did, at least a little, and I am ashamed to admit it. After a few days of phone calls, it began to look as if this was Grandpa’s death knell. Knowing that he was going to die, I found myself waiting for it. I didn’t have those last days of sitting with him, of wanting to squeeze time for every last possible moment together. I wanted to devote time to him—he certainly deserved as much — but all I could do was pray, and prayer lacked the immediacy of sight. Tuesday was a lovely, sunny day here in Southern California. My wife and I sat on our back patio and said a Rosary for my grandfather, so far away.
I thought of two remarkable occasions, times when words and actions had sprung from Grandpa like water from the rock, standing in sharp relief to what I perceived to be his character: a little hard, a little brittle, a little less happy than Pappy. (I didn’t hold these things against him; life just seemed to have colored him that way.) The first had come on our last Christmas visit to Florida, after breakfast in a mall restaurant. The family had become dispersed in its pursuit of sprinting children, and Deirdre and I ended up alone with Grandpa. He began talking, fast. His voice, which had always floated up muffled from his chest, was faint, and I couldn’t get every word, but he was saying something about how he was proud of us, how we had done it right. We were making a life for ourselves; we had a good marriage; we had good, beautiful kids. He was giving us his blessing. The moment was enormous; I was all but speechless. I think I said something about how he should get a lot of the credit, since he raised my Dad, and Dad had raised me. It wasn’t enough, of course, but I was too amazed to hear such things coming from this reserved, almost silent man to say more.
The other memorable occasion came at Easter 2000, during our last night at the Farm. We were preparing to leave, gathering toys and children and coats, saying our good-byes. Sinatra was on the stereo. Without a word, amid and against the general outward motion, Grandpa took hold of Deirdre and began to dance. He moved slowly, taking tiny, deliberate steps. Deirdre shot me a look that indicated her astonishment but did her best to follow. When the song ended, she thanked him, and we left. It was our last night together.
Wednesday, I called the hospital around 11. I got Chad. He told me that Grandpa had died that morning. Somehow, I had the grace to say, “You were a son to him,” which was true. Chad had gone to extraordinary lengths, physical and otherwise, to care for his father-in-law. After I hung up, a couple of tears fell from my eyes. An hour later, I cried briefly, and that was all. Tears are funny that way.
Friday night, I got off the plane in Syracuse and met my father at the gate. I don’t remember what I first said to him, a man who had lost his father two days previously. I don’t think I said I was sorry for his loss.
We stopped at a wine shop in Syracuse, there to procure enough vino to satiate the various relatives and guests who would be visiting the Farm over the next few days. “Mom said to pick out a few things you would like,” said Dad. The checkout girl rang up the purchase as costing about three times more than it should have; Dad didn’t even blink at the $300 total. (It was only after a further mix-up about a bottle of sparkling wine I wanted to buy myself that we caught the mistake.)
After a snowy, windy drive, we got to the Farm; it was about 9:00 p.m. The house was busy. Besides Cheryl and Chad and Mom and Grandma, Ann and Bruce, two people somehow related to me, had arrived. Ann was helping Mom to make dinner — prepping and broiling salmon. Commenting on her ability to function in a foreign kitchen, she used the word “bitch,” smiling with self-deprecation. It hit like a whiff of ammonia-such language, in front of my mother! (Mom, of course, didn’t flinch.) No more were we the self-contained little band we had been at Pappy’s funeral, no more perfect unity of faith and mores. This event was to be a little more rough-and-tumble.
Dinner was good; we laughed a lot. The strain produced by this union of somewhat disparate elements drained away amid hearty laughter and wine, and an air of good cheer filled the Farm. By the time we got to Mom and Dad’s house, it was one in the morning, and I was beat. I’m sure they were beat too, but there were boxes to move out of my old bedroom, beds to be set up. Mark and Lisa and family would be arriving at about 3:00 am. Further, the house was not yet vacuumed. I couldn’t believe my parents’ activity: It was one in the morning. There had been a death in the family, an emergency situation; nobody would expect a vacuumed house. There was a funeral tomorrow; sleep was more important. Naturally, they ignored me — the house had been neglected during the past couple of weeks, and they were not about to treat guests to a dingy welcome.
By the time Mark and Lisa rolled in, around four, everybody was just about ready for bed—except their girls, who had been sleeping in the car and were now wound up with excitement. Lying in the guest room, listening to their chatter as it reverberated through the wall, I felt tired and grumpy. The dinner aside, the evening had felt like a long stumble: The stumble continued the next morning. The diocese of Syracuse was about to implement a sexual education course that, while it didn’t stray from the moral teaching of reserving sex for marriage, wandered into very young years to start discussing the subject. Folks were in an uproar, and they turned to my dad, a developmental psychologist and a staunch Catholic, for help. As the minutes ticked away with Dad on the phone, giving time-sensitive advice on how to proceed, Mom’s anxiety grew. He hadn’t finished his eulogy yet, and the funeral was a few short hours away.
Nobody had had enough sleep; everybody was ragged. Cheryl had expressed a desire to read the 23rd Psalm at the funeral Mass: “The Lord is my shepherd...” But she couldn’t find a familiar translation of it. Lisa offered to find it for her and type it up, which she did that morning on Dad’s ancient computer. Finally off the phone, Dad then took a turn at the screen, crafting his eulogy.
The atmosphere was frenetic. Mom was strained almost to the breaking point—calling hours had begun down at the funeral home; as Grandpa’s family, we were supposed to be there to greet visitors. Dad was still typing. Mark and Lisa were working on the prayers of the faithful to be offered at Mass. I drove Mom to the funeral home, situated just a short walk from the church, then returned for Dad. He left— late to his father’s calling hours, eulogy still unfinished.
Mark and Lisa disagreed about whether to follow my father's suggestion of including a pro-life witness in the prayers of the faithful, something about respecting life at all stages. Mark wanted to honor Dad’s wish; Lisa, who was going to read the prayers, thought it a bad place for proselytizing. I hung out with their kids. They finished the prayers and tried to print on an unfamiliar program. They accidentally deleted the file. Lisa broke down. I loaded their kids into their minivan, and then the bunch of us, sans Mark, hurried slowly down to calling hours. Mark started retyping. Everyone was miserable.
We arrived shortly before it was time to walk to the church for Mass. Chad had set up a wonderful display of old photographs in the back of the viewing room, along with a TV monitor that flashed slides of Grandpa and his family, some from his WWII days. At this wake, we were in my parents’ hometown instead of Albany; there were a lot more visitors, and the room was smaller. Grandpa had been reduced to ashes, in accordance with his wish for cremation (and against my father’s, though he never said anything). The cremains rested at the front of the room in a handsome wooden box adorned with a cross. It felt odd kneeling before the box, saying good-bye without seeing a face, saying a prayer before ashes. But I wept all the same.
Father John spoke and then led us in prayer. Dad sat in the back, methodically scripting the eulogy, trying to finish before Mass. To have to write such an important piece under such pressure — I pitied him. Mark still hadn't arrived.
Cheryl approached Dad. “Grandma is wondering where Mark is.”
“He's working on the intercessory prayers.”
Cheryl thought that he should have been there. She thought he should have had that done by now. She didn't know about the trauma of the morning; she had been at the Farm, attending to Grandma, who looked frailer than ever. And I will venture to guess that she believed that at this time, familial togetherness was more important than any particular part of the liturgy. There is a point there; it was an unfortunate circumstance.
Dad walked away, stung. Then he went over to Grandma and began to explain Mark’s absence. Cheryl thought his efforts inappropriate. “This isn’t the time for that,” she said.
“But you said it was ridiculous,” responded Dad. “Words have impact. I’m offering an explanation.” He walked away again. Cheryl followed and apologized; they reconciled. Everyone processed toward the church; Mark met us as we went in. After the Mass, Dad, Cheryl, Terry, and Chad each spoke about Grandpa. My father’s eulogy was a portrait of a man in shining detail. My favorite part was his memory of the phonograph records that Grandpa recorded and sent to his family while he was away at war. On each one, he addressed his son, who was not yet four years old. “This is your Daddy talking. You be a good boy for Mommy. I love you.”
After the funeral, everyone had something to feel good about—the funeral. Everything had gone smoothly; it had been a beautiful Mass. We drifted back to the Farm. Friends had brought food for a feast, and the rocky morning and afternoon gave way to a long, happy evening. Grandpa had been laid to rest, and so we could rest, even Dad. But at the evening’s end, there was still one more matter to be attended to: springing Grandpa’s soul from Purgatory. As Dad noted in the close of his eulogy: “We pray for the dead because only God knows where the soul is after a person dies. If the person goes directly to heaven, we praise God for that. If a period of purification is needed in Purgatory, we praise God for that too. Father Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal and a holy priest, reminds us that ‘we are all poor sinners.’ When we die, most of us will need a period of preparation before we are ready to enter into eternal glory.
“We prayed for Dad in life; let us pray for him in death. Let us ask the Lord to have mercy on his soul, look kindly upon him, and bring, him soon into everlasting joy.”
Dad hoped that “soon” meant “tomorrow.” The year 2000 was a Jubilee year in the Catholic Church, and the Pope proclaimed that a plenary indulgence might be obtained by fulfilling a certain set of conditions. (According to Catholic teaching, a plenary indulgence remits the temporal punishment for sins, deriving satisfaction to God from the “treasure of merits of the saints, from Christ Himself, or from His mother”) Plenary indulgences may be applied to those in Purgatory, thereby gaining the souls immediate release, and Dad was eager to obtain one on Grandpas behalf.
The whereabouts of Grandpa’s soul had already been an issue. On the night of Grandpa’s death, Dad joined the family at the Farm. After hugs and some tears, Cheryl asked Dad if he wanted to see their father’s body before it was cremated. Dad said, “No, that’s not Dad. I don’t want to see him.”
Later, Grandma asked Dad the same question. This time Cheryl answered for him: “Tommy doesn’t want to see him. He said Daddy’s in heaven now.” Dad replied softly, “No, I didn’t say that. Only God knows where a soul is after the person dies.” Cheryl looked down. Grandma tried to lighten things up. “Well, he might be in Purgatory!”
Dad wanted to make a pilgrimage the morning after the funeral to Syracuse; the rest of us were not so eager. “God’s time is not our time,” I joked, trying to lessen the urgency. As it happened, remembers Dad, a close friend of the family had “some additional indulgences from her time in the Holy Land that she had not applied, and she said, ‘I’ll apply one to your father’s soul.’ I was, of course, immensely grateful. She applied it at the moment of her Eucharist at Mass the next day. The hymn at that Mass was ‘Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king.’ That was deeply moving for me; tears were streaming down my cheeks. I believed [Grandpa] was indeed with the King at that point, and it was sooner than I had hoped.”
A month later, we were all gathered again for Christmas. At the dinner table that night, Mark said something as an aside to Dad about indulgences; he mentioned Grandpa’s name. Cheryl overheard his remark and commented, “Speaking personally, I have no doubt that Daddy is in heaven.”
Nor do we,” said my father. “Nor do we.”