Since my mother fell asleep in 2003, life for my father has been most difficult. To say that she was the center of his life would be an understatement. Theirs was as a storybook romance. They met at a football game while in high school, he from the “visitor” side, and she on the home-team side. She was three years younger than he, and after a three-year courtship they married.
Like all those who came of age in the mid-twentieth century, they struggled with maintaining their marriage (and sanity) amidst the momentous changes and difficult challenges of that turbulent time, which included my arrival on the scene (having had to deal with me as a teenager should be considered meritorious towards sainthood in and of itself).
My mother was a woman of simple faith, who lived the faith more clearly than she could explain it. She had suffered from breast cancer and almost reached the “five year” mark when recovery complications from surgery suddenly took her life. While I grieved for her, I have never had doubts that ultimately she would be accounted among the just on the day of resurrection.
But my father, like many of that era, suffered from a defective understanding of the Faith, which led him at best to consider himself an agnostic. Several times over the years we would talk about the Faith and he would comment that he wished he could believe but just couldn’t.
For him, my mother's passing was a wound from which he never recovered emotionally. Although surrounded by siblings, family and friends, he closed himself off and spent countless hours working on jigsaw puzzles. It was a “hobby” that became an obsession. He claimed it was the only way he had to pass time even as we all encouraged him to get out and be with people.
When Matushka died last month, my father traveled to be with us for the funeral. He came with my uncle, who expressed great concern over his health. My Aunt had begged him not to go and my uncle noted that the drive had been exhausting for him. Indeed, he was obviously too ill to have come, but would brook no denial of his intentions. The day after Karen’s funeral he and my uncle returned home – another exhausting drive.
Two days later he was in the hospital and was almost immediately placed on a ventilator. It was not very surprising.
He had long suffered emphysema, and since my mother’s passing had begun to drink too freely, stopped exercising and stopped caring for his diet. This all had led to diabetes (which he ignored as much as possible), congestive heart failure (which any action to stave off via exercise the emphysema complicated), and pancreatitis (generally caused and exacerbated by his drinking).
Over the course of last month my uncle and I were continually in contact with each other and the doctors, as they struggled to control his condition and we hoped to talk him into moving in with my family on his release. Unfortunately, his health continued to deteriorate and ultimately I had to go oversee his wishes to be removed from artificial extraordinary devices.
I felt it my duty at least to offer him the opportunity to convert; but I had little hope he would be receptive.
Yet, he was receptive.
In the final hours before the ventilator was removed, they discontinued the sedatives so that he and I could ‘communicate’ to some extent. By a series of eye blink responses and my crosschecking that his ‘answers’ were not just random or vaguely understood responses; he accepted the Catholic Faith and so received Last Rites. This not only brought great joy to me for his sake, it also clearly brought him personally a measure of peace that both of my aunts, who were present, commented on.
As I have had to begin the sorrowful work of taking care of his estate, I have come across too many jigsaw puzzles to count – in boxes, half-finished on tables, or glued in place and framed. He had just kept on buying them, working on them, and finding more.
It has struck me that for him no puzzle seemed to bring him satisfaction. He just continued to find more and more puzzles to work on. It also struck me that since my mother’s passing his life had become a jigsaw puzzle in which she was that missing piece he kept desperately hoping to regain. Yet, in a broader sense, the missing piece was God. His defective concepts of God and the Faith had led him to despair many years ago, and the loss of my mother had merely brought home to him the magnitude of that despair and hopelessness.
I believe his attendance at Matushka’s funeral provided the opportunity for him to reexamine his assumptions about life and the Faith. In the end, I believe he realized that God’s Love was (and is) greater than any of his doubts, fears or any sin.
In the end, he realized that accepting forgiveness is not a bond of servitude but a gateway to freedom and true life.
In the end, he found he could accept that freedom, that life and the Faith. He finally discovered that one jigsaw puzzle piece that truly completes the picture and brings with it Divine Peace.
In the end, he - like St Constantine - may have waited until the end, but in the end he died a Christian.
Thanks be to God.
As for your humble servant, his daughter and mother-in-law; please keep us and my father's siblings in your prayers.
UPDATE: With modifications, this eulogy became part of a sermon I delivered today (8 August) at the graveside service for my father. The Scripture text that prefaced it was St Matthew 21.28-32.