It’s a Wonderful Life, is a great story, and I hope yours is a Bedford Falls kind of life. But our Pottervilles, both social and personal, still cry out for salvation, most poignantly during Advent and Christmastime.
I write this without attaching my name in deference to my mother and my family, who in no way need nor deserve to be exposed in an article of this nature. Still I write, hopefully, to comfort and console, especially at Christmas, those like us who experienced the death of a family member whom we wanted to love.
It was a little over a year ago that I received word that my father had died. To make things more painful, we learned that he had died two weeks earlier. It was just a strange coincidence that saw the news reach us at all. Not that it was a real surprise. He had been battling mesothelioma (“asbestos cancer” picked up in who knows what factory), for several years. He had been battling more serious addictions and debilitating demons for many more decades.
For a few years, when we were small, he was a really good Daddy. He loved to sing in the car, and told us his own made up “crazy tales” at bedtime, little kid stories filled with funny animals whose strange accents made us laugh. Too soon a combination of personal problems, financial and family issues, and alcohol, the ever present Irish cure-curse, took their toll. A few times, violence flared. After the divorce, he tried once in a while to be in contact with us, but it never really worked out. As we grew into adulthood, we had no contact with him. He did not attend the weddings of my siblings nor my ordination. He died having seen a few of his grandchildren only once; the majority of his grandkids he never saw at all.
On hearing of his cancer a few years ago, I reached out to him, and tried to reconcile, or at least let him know I knew he was still alive. It seemed something someone who professes a faith in a God of forgiveness and resurrection ought to at least attempt. But there was no Hollywood ending. We met once, awkwardly, talking of sports and politics, but of nothing that really mattered. Then, at a second meeting, he got pretty drunk and ranted. We drifted back to where we had been before, separated by not many miles, yet by light years of painful memories and ruptured relationships. No Field of Dreams catch in the cornfield for us.
“Too many adult children of alcoholism and divorce will learn of their parents dying, and will, like me, not even take a day off from work. In many ways, the death occurred years before. It’s just the obituary that
Why share this edge of sadness? Because I imagine I am not the only one who will experience a parent’s death in this manner. Too many adult children of alcoholism and divorce will learn of their parents dying, and will, like me, not even take a day off from work. In many ways, the death occurred years before. It’s just the obituary that arrives so late. Without a funeral or burial, without even knowing where lies the tombstone, the reality of death is strangely disincarnated. Still, the invisible casket carries the sodden weight of lost possibilities, and the flaming out of flickering hopes saddens the spirit.
At this time of year, winter wraps its cold arms around us. As the Christmas tree lights reflect and twinkle in our frosted window panes, we ponder and pray on all we are, all we do, all we give, all we have been given. We realize how much we have, but we rue a bit what has been lost in life’s litanies of love and longing. The chill and cold plunge us into the dark depths of our own pain and poverty of spirit. To know the infant who comes among us, baby bald, poor and powerless, helpless, it helps to look lovingly at our own impoverishments, and accept that God is somehow present, even in our lacks and losses. Such prayer keeps winter from freezing our hearts.
Those of us whose parents die disconnected need not feel guilty, sad or responsible (the unholy trinity stalking alcoholic homes). We can pray for the deceased. We must trust they did the best they could with what they had. And we should struggle and strive to maintain and nurture the good and loving relationships we do have in our lives, realizing how precious and fragile such gifts truly are.
Whenever I’ve preached on the fatherhood of God, I have always avoided telling this tragic tale. But I do let people know that the image of God as “Our Father” promises that God loves us as a good father would. God is not my father. God is not your father. God is “Our Father.” In Our Father’s divine mercy and love, I hope my Dad finally met and experienced God’s transformative grace and liberation. Peace, Dad.