What if it were all true?
You know, the ghosts, the demons, the dead walking among us. All of the spiritual realities in which at least a portion of mankind has professed belief for all of recorded history, and likely many long millennia in the forgotten recesses of our cultural past: what if they weren’t just a cultural legacy, but instead a spiritual reality?
Tonight is Halloween. In centuries past, long after it had ceased to be the Celtic day of the dead known as Samhain, this was a hallowed evening, being the night before an important holiday (holy day): the solemnity of all souls, a.k.a., the memorial of the faithful departed. Every November the 1st, Catholics around the world would attend Mass in order to pray for their beloved dead, that they might complete the process of post-mortem purification through which all had to pass, before achieving the unblemished spiritual perfection that Christ taught was absolutely required for entry into Heaven.
For most of us, Death is an infrequent visitor to our daily lives. For me, it had been almost unknown for over four decades, at least in terms of close friends or relatives. Then, this past April, Death came for my father.
The experience, this entire process, is something that is still unfolding for me. I’m poorly prepared to write about it in any depth, or at least with any depth of insight. At this point, it’s still a cascade of impressions, unfamiliar experiences, new routines and different perspectives, all centered on a topic and an experience about which I had thought so little, until so very recently.
Eventually, I will write more, or more completely, but for this moment, I will write just enough to convey the core of the idea that’s plaguing me tonight.
My father was one of the millions of post-Vatican II Catholics for whom the Church remained a badge of cultural identity, but for whom it was no longer an unquestioned source of spiritual insight. Maybe in his case, it never really had been.
Taking my cue from his lukewarm example of passion for the faith, I too dropped away in my 20s, fully embracing the secular lifestyle of the 1980s. When a life-changing metaphysical experience brought me back to Catholicism in a very powerful way, I was over 40, newly single, and really ready to change my life.
My father’s life had never really changed – he had just droned comfortably along, attending church every Saturday evening (one of the few changes in the post Vatican II Church that he liked), but never fully participating in either the parish life, or the spiritual life that is part of any fruitful journey of faith, Catholic or otherwise.
I remember taking him to a special place for me, where this spiritual conversion or mystical (some might say miraculous) experience of mine had struck me like a bolt out of the blue. It was a Father’s Day, and he had agreed to come with me on a mini-pilgrimage to a place of great sanctity, a monastery hidden among the pines and the rolling hills of northern Alabama like a chunk of Assisi come hurtling out of the sky to land in the middle of the Baptist Bible Belt with meteoritic improbability.
We sat there, on the cool stone of a medieval-looking niche set into a quiet corner of the magnificently quiet monastic enclosure, after we had attended Mass and then spent time in a contemplative spiritual exercise called Eucharistic Adoration, and we talked about God.
He stunned me that afternoon. He said that his faith in God was based on two things: first, a belief that because God was supposed to be so good, it was unlikely that whatever sins he had committed in his life were of any consequence to God; and second, that he didn’t really believe too strongly in a God who would allow so much suffering to exist in the world.
Coming from the man who had dragged me unwillingly to church every Saturday afternoon for much of my life, this was pretty shocking stuff. All I could do was talk about my own experiences, my own newly-found passion for God and for all things religious, and although my Dad smiled and nodded and made encouraging noises, I could see that each of my points, however passionately delivered, were bouncing off the armor of his indifference like a handful of pebbles hurled against the cold, hard steel of a tank. He just didn’t really care. He didn’t hate God, but he sure didn’t love Him, either. He was just sort of along for the ride, in case all this religious stuff turned out to be true, in the end. And at that stage of his life, the end seemed pretty distant.
Well, life has a funny way of determining its own timelines, and they often run directly contrary to our expectations. Plan to marry at 25, and you might find your spouse at 19, or at 47. Map out your career to peak at 55, and you might find yourself retiring a decade early, or unable to do so, two decades late. And so it was with my father, who had predicted his death at 40, then 50, then 60… only to have a triple bypass and yet ascend to better health afterwards than he had enjoyed in the decades previously.
I had that crucial talk with him at the monastery when he was 77, a more vigorous and confident man than I had known him to be thirty years earlier, and it seemed like he would go on forever.
Until I got that call in early April, about his fall, and that he was in the hospital. My Dad and I talked every afternoon: 7 days a week, at precisely 4:44 p.m., my phone would ring and he’d say “Check in time! I’m still alive: how’re you doing?” And we’d talk. Sometimes for 30 minutes, sometimes for 30 seconds. He always sounded the same, ageless, just as vigorous and sharp as ever.
So you can imagine my shock as I stood there in the hospital hallway outside his room, talking with his doctors after getting off the plane in Atlanta only hours before.
“Mr. Brennan, your Dad is between a rock and a hard place. We can’t do surgery” (he had injured his leg in a fall) “…until his cardiovascular health improves, and that won’t improve until his leg is better and he can exercise more.”
I knew there was something more. I waited.
“But the real problem is his kidneys. His function is declining, and renal failure is a likely outcome.”
I asked what they recommended.
I was stunned. I had flown out in the expectation of visiting him for a few days until they got him back on his feet again, then returning home. It was with an icy feeling in my gut that I heard them out.
They concluded with words that hammered my disbelief. “He’s not coming home. This is an unrecoverable situation.”
I signed the paperwork, and they moved him into the hospice. My life changed at that moment, but with nothing of the drama that my father’s did, of course. He accepted his lot with surprising equanimity, telling me that he had already been to Confession with a priest, for the first time in over 50 years.
That was when I really believed that the doctors were right. For my entire life, my father had refused to “confess his sins to another man” as he had put it with an almost atheistic derision. But yet he had, and the peace that had come over him is what eased him into the hospice without a complaint.
The next few days, he seemed to improve. The attention from the hospice nurses, the quiet, private room in a corner of the facility, and the endless supply of chocolate pudding delivered with sincere smiles all cooperated to improve his condition. Although the glum-faced doctors continued to look at his charts and prod the catheter bag, shaking their heads solemnly.
My life was a sudden maelstrom of lawyer’s visits, afternoons spent digging through mountains of unsorted paperwork, evenings drinking my way to the bottom of a pitcher of cheap beer with my newly-found best friend, one of my Dad’s neighbors who I had never met in 20 years of visits, but who immediately proved to be the guardian angel that I was so desperately needing during those blurred, frantic days.
Easter was rapidly approaching, and I remembered with a premonition that both his older brother and a close cousin who was essentially another brother, had both died on Easter Sunday.
Holy week started, and his condition began suddenly to deteriorate. Monday afternoon, I had snuck away from his bedside to run some errands, when I was driving back on I-185 and I got a call from a 706 area code that I didn’t recognize.
“Mr. Brennan – this is the Columbus Hospice.”
Oh great, I think, I just missed it: he died, and now I’m the bad son forever because I wasn’t there for the big moment. A lifetime of regrets stretched out before me.
“Your father wants to talk with you, he said it was critical.”
Oh, this is even worse. Now he’s dying and woke up and I wasn’t there, so we have say goodbye on the phone. Another lifetime of regrets.
“Andrew? I want to tell you something.”
“I love you too, Dad.”
“No, this is important. Something you don’t know about.”
Maybe there was something I hadn’t found in the train-wreck of his office after all. A cigar box full of Krugerrands, a sheaf of Coca Cola stock from the ‘50s, maybe an unlisted bank account or IRA.
“Just hang on, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
I was dying of a guilt mixed with sudden anticipation, a strange horror at not being there, brightening with greedy joy at what treasures might be revealed in the next few seconds.
“I wanted to ask you… to bring more chocolate pudding.” Click.
I laughed, hung up the phone, then sat with him the rest of that afternoon while he dozed.
But the next day he got worse.
The decline was slow but steady, and although I didn’t see a major change hour to hour, I started to see it from day to day.
He had been sleeping a lot, not going through the usual delusional stuff one expects with the dying, but just sleeping like he was very, very tired. Sometimes, he’d come out of those long naps and tell me things about himself that I never knew, or just to ask me my thoughts on religious topics.
In many ways, it was like being back at the monastery in Alabama on that Father’s Day, except that now he was the one bringing the topic back around to God, not me. It was good to talk then, and his insights into things were strangely penetrating. He was very calm, and smiled more than I remembered in many years.
But still, he worsened on Thursday. The neighbor who had become my friend and staunch supporter, Jeff… he was there when I arrived at 7 that morning, a worried look on his face, a lukewarm coffee in his hand.
“He’s gettin’ real bad, Drew. I don’t think that boy’s gonna make it.”
I thanked him for doing the vigil, then took up a chair in the darkened room. Being with a dying person is an exercise of running from crisis to crisis, panic and boredom mixing together into an exhausting cocktail of tension and stress. You don’t know what’s coming up next – you’ve never done this before – and everyone’s standing around with sad eyes asking you what to do next.
That morning, the glum-faced doctor and the worried-looking chaplain both hovered around, seeking guidance from me, which struck me as perverse and puzzling.
“You tell me, you’re the professionals. I’ve never done this before.”
And the answer I got was just “we want to respect the family’s wishes”.
What wishes, I wondered. He wishes he were dead. I wish he won’t suffer.
But you guys won’t euthanize, and the Church won’t allow me to, so we’re all stuck sitting around in sad little circles in a darkened and overly-warm room, waiting for his body to give up the ghost while we’re doing our best to medicate him into a living a little while longer.
They left, and the chocolate pudding sat uneaten on his bedside table. I closed the door behind them, and stood at the windowed door to the garden outside, suddenly noticing the little angel sculpture that sat on the grass next to some struggling flowers.
Which was when he woke up again.
“Andrew” It was whispered, urgent but faint. I was at his bedside without being aware of moving. “I want to tell you something. Something important.”
I nodded. His eyes were open, piercingly blue and suddenly passionately intense, yet his demeanor was oddly humble, almost regretful. “You were right, you know. Right about everything.”
He looked sad, yet comforted and peaceful as said the crucial words. “It’s all true. I can hardly believe it, but it’s all true.”
I was deeply moved by my own realization of what he was saying. “You mean the spiritual realities that we talked about back then, at the monastery?”
He rested his head back on the pillow, nodded heavily, looking into my eyes with regret, regret for a lifetime spent wavering on the lukewarm fringes of the beautiful mysteries of the afterlife, then closed his eyes, and fell into a deep sleep.
I stood there and let his words sink in. My Dad was an executive, an engineer, trained as a tool and die maker, he went to MIT and graduated from Boston University with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering after serving in the Korean War. There was nothing of the religious fanatic about him. He was always scientific, rational, logical and fact-driven his whole life through.
Yet he had just said the most fundamentally earth-shattering thing when it came to his worldview.
He died four days later, on Easter Monday. And those were the last words he ever said.
“I can hardly believe it, but it’s all true.”