In 1964, nuns at St. Charles Grammar School, in San Carlos, had a way of beating a subject (religious or otherwise) into the concrete floors of our upper level classroom. With a four-foot-long pointer in hand, our teacher walloped her elongated weapon for decorum across her palm as she praised God’s mystical glory.
“How can you be present for something you can’t see?” I wondered.
But assuming the position, elbows firmly planted on the edge of my desk and my fourteen-year-old face cupped in my hands, I pretended to be engaged as my mind flittered to the fantasy world of young love and the pre-pubescent hunk-of-burning love sitting dangerously close just to my left. Now that I could be in attendance for!
During my sixteen years of parochial education, that phrase was repeated over-and-over, but I never took the time to understand the meaning. After all, life was busy. Working a part-time job while going to school and investigating intricate ways to maneuver around the opposite sex left little time for introspection, let alone reflection.
Then my children’s father entered my life. As we began creating a world that looked ever so promising, I was confident I finally grasped the significance of those words. What could be more awesome than being in love and the excitement that goes with it?
But in 1981, I experienced an epiphany and the true meaning of wonder and awe was revealed with the birth of my first child, Michelle.
Peering down on this perfect little creature with sapphire-blue eyes and tuffs of finely spun white cotton candy hair, my heart stopped beating. The miracle of birth took my breath away. From the moment she was placed on my chest, I knew I was forever changed.
Wanting to relive that experience, I gave birth three more times. But when my father passed away last October, part of his legacy was the realization that I could have such experiences every day, not just on special occasions.
Jack Madden was a man of few words. In fact, he rarely had much to say because he preferred to be an observer and not a talker.
Watching him smile joyfully at the sound of a baby’s giggle, or the time he took to smell a freshly budding rose from my garden, silently told me, “Live your life awake.”
For dad, it was the little things that gave him pause to reflect, revere, and honor. Big things were easy to detect. They exploded like a brilliant display of fireworks on the 4th of July. True magical wonders required a moment of silence to unearth.
Since the privilege of witnessing the surrender of his soul back to his creator, I’ve made it my mission to carry on where he left off. I’m now a voyeur. Oh, not the kind that peeks in windows. That would be creepy. No, I peer into the minutia of my day.
When a time-out is allowed, I soak in my surroundings. I permit the enchanting sensation of wind dancing with my hair or the smell of fresh cut grass to saturate my five senses. I don’t over analyze the experience with words. I just allow myself to be present.
So, if you see me on the street and I look like I’m not breathing, don’t worry. There’s no need for CPR. I’m just being a spectator in a marvelous mind-blowing moment.
Beaming from ear-to-ear with his welcoming smile, the pastor hugged me tightly. Then, his grin turned to a quizzical look as if something was out of place. “What are you doing here?” he asked.
Stunned, I wondered why he would say such a thing. I’d been a member of this parish for 31 years after all. But I quickly realized why he looked so confused. This kind man only knew me from the frequent visits he made to my 96-year-old father, not as a member of the congregation.
Sheepishly, I looked down and felt like a naughty child caught doing something inappropriate.
“Perhaps I should show up in church a little more often,” I mused.
At home that evening, I relayed the story to my dad. The devout Catholic looked at me sadly and responded, “I wish you would.”
“Dad, I just don’t have the time anymore,” was my excuse. “Besides, I feel so out of place.”
When I became a single mother in 2001, not only did my new status create a myriad of fragile emotions, but it also made me question: “Where do I fit in?” The life I’d known and felt rooted in had been crushed like the withered leaves of fall under my feet. I was left without a solid branch to cling to when the wind blew too hard.
As my children moved away, going to mass by myself just enhanced the loneliness I was already feeling. Everywhere I looked, couples sat holding hands. It was painful to witness so I stopped putting myself through the agony.
But witnessing the joy my father’s faith brought him, I wondered if perhaps he knew best once again. So, I returned.
In the beginning, I hid in the last pew. There I’d let my mind wander to more relevant topics of my day rather than the sermon. Macy’s was having a huge sale and calculating my finances for my next expenditure required a peaceful setting. But when I began attending the services Father Warwick presided over, my attitude started to change.
As he spoke of our blessings in the presence of the Lord’s divine grace, I surveyed the congregation with eyes wide open. People of all ages, some married, and some not, sat in kinship embracing a higher power. Lovely memories washed over me as I watched families with children huddled close. A tear found its way to my eye recalling my own four babies crawling all over my body before snuggling in my lap as I lowered my head in prayer.
Two months later, on October 28th, my daddy slipped away to heaven while resting in my arms. In that moment I understood what he was trying to teach me all along. Dying is the most important job we ever do. We prepare ourselves every day to walk into the light by living a life of gratitude which is renewed and refreshed through faith.
I’ll miss my dad’s gentle ways and wry sense of humor. I’ll yearn to hear him ask about my day and the, “I love you” that followed. But I’ll especially long to witness his head bowed in grace as he said his nightly rosary, silent, reverent, and always at peace.
Thank you, dad, for helping me resurrect my gift of faith. It’s a present I plan to hold close to my heart every day until we meet again.
Frustrated to hear this once again, I did as I was told biting my tongue. My mother always taught to be respectful to my elders, but sometimes he made it impossible.
“And don’t forget to put a stamp on the envelope.”
I sucked in a deep breath and I released an exasperated sigh. I looked into my father’s blue eyes and said, “Dad, I’m nearly 60 years old. How do you think I’ve gotten this far without your help?”
With his impish Irish grin, he wrapped his gnarled fingers around my hand, winked, and said, “Sorry, I can’t help myself. You’ll always be my little girl.”
Tucking my 96-year-old father into bed that night, I studied his aged face of unbridled love and thought to myself, “I wonder if he’s ever going to let me grow-up?”
Long ago a brilliant and inquisitive mind set my dad on a course to be an authority on nearly every subject. I, on the other hand, skipped through life by the seat of my hot pink pants. I had to taste, touch, feel and dance my way through a subject in order to learn anything.
My dad knew that academic learning and I were never good friends, so instructed me time-and-time again, “Jackie, if you’d just do what I tell you to do, you’ll be successful.”
Successful? Who cared about something so vague at 7-years-old in the mid-1950’s? Besides, instinctively I knew that was a lifetime away. All I ever wanted was to be one with nature – hanging from a tree, picking flowers or finding a body of water to splash around in. Talk about a thriving life! Fortunately for both of us, I finally did come to understand the wisdom of his tutelage and took heed.
I listened to his advice. I found it was much better to drive on the on the right side of the road and follow the speed limit if I wanted to stay on a friendly basis with the local police.
As I entered the business world like he instructed, I discovered I could scale the corporate ladder if I worked hard, proved to be punctual, polite to my superiors, and dressed in a professional manner.
But his greatest example for a flourishing life was lined in the supple cashmere jacket of his rich Catholic faith. Not only did it make him deeply moral, respectful, kind, and honest, but in these last years of his life, it has been a blessing and warm comfort. It’s a spiritual seminar I’ve found myself waffling in for many years. Now because of his shining example, I’ve decided to re-enroll in a second course to find my own way back to God.
While old habits die hard, and in his heart I’ll forever be that exuberant child with strawberry blonde ponytails that bounced merrily as I skipped behind his every move, I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be allowed to become an adult. Each time he tells me when to check the oil in my car or how to lick an envelope; I know it comes from his need to be useful, to still have a purpose, and his deep love for his child. For no matter how old he becomes, he’ll always be the father and I, daddy’s little girl.
“Jackie, hurry up. We’re going to be late,” he ordered.
In the Madden family, punctuality was right up there with perfect manners and good hygiene. We were never allowed to be late for anything. Being tardy for school, church, or dinner was equal to a mortal sin. It was a sign of disrespect and punishable with near death, or at least a good grounding.
“Dad, I still have five minutes,” I hissed, desperately trying not to be insolent. “You can’t rush a girl when she’s in the final stages of fluffing herself.”
And doing his typical “harrumphing” when at a loss for words, he pointed at his watch and said, “You just wasted one minute. You have four left.”
Since I was a child, I’ve always found it amazing that he could shower and shave in less time than if took to pour a bowl of cereal. I, on the other hand, seemed to need an entire day. Picking out that special something to wear took time and deliberation. And hair and makeup? That took an eternity. Now the tables have turned and I watch my 96 year old father get ready to make his final journey home.
Each day say starts with a simple routine, a sponge bath in bed. Next, he’s dressed in sensible sweat pants and easy to slip on cotton shirt, and then wheeled to his breakfast of oatmeal, fruit, and medication. All this takes about one hour and it’s off to his tattered and worn-out recliner for a day filled with what appears to be devoid of anything substantial. With his eyes closed, he looks like he’s asleep, but I know better.
Jack Madden is a gentle man that converses with the Lord daily in his mind, body, and soul. In those quiet hours alone in his chair, he connects with the spiritual world. I know my mother is calling him to come be with her, but he’s not ready. He has things to think about, a lifetime to remember, and people to pray for.
This journey with my dad has me constantly re-evaluating the gift we call life and a family’s role in it. Why do some die young and others live way past what is deemed reasonable and even necessary? Has medical science gone too far in keeping people alive longer than they should be? Is it a requirement that an adult child take on the care giving of their aging parent after they’ve just raised their own children? Sure, our parents cared for us when we were young, but that was their choice. They wanted children to complete them just as we’ve done. Will we be expecting the same from our children? There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Only what works for the people involved.
Years ago, I made a promise I’d never leave my father alone in a nursing home. Has it been easy? Hell no! The house constantly smells of dirty diapers and the floors and walls are permanently scarred with divots from the metal spokes of his wheelchair. I have no freedom for he can never be left alone and I feel trapped and often angry at the unfairness of it all.
Does it have its rewards? Absolutely! With my dad by my side each day, I’ve learned not only about my heritage and the incredible human being I’m proud to call my father, but about humanity – especially mine. I’ve been able to care for another human being despite the hardship and pain to me. I’ve learned to set aside my negative emotion and selfishness because of a treasured life. But most importantly, for me, because it’s been the right thing to do.
So, as I watch him get ready to give me that final last kiss good night, I pray, “God, give him all the time he wants. Let him stand in front of that mirror in his mind and study every line that traverses of his handsome face for it’s the map of where his life has traveled. Let him look into his closet and take hours to pick the perfect outfit to wear and allow him more time to comb that beautiful white hair for as long as he wishes.”
As far as I’m concerned, this is one time my daddy can be impolite and throw punctuality out the window. I’m thrilled he’s too busy to die because I’m too selfish to let him go.