Deep in the stillness and peace of my dream, my father held me up in a tight embrace, swaying me back and forth in a dance. There was no music but it was as though angels were singing. It was a beautiful and pleasant heavenly song, one clear but quiet. My father spoke nothing but just smiled, looking into my eyes with those deep, soulful hazel eyes of his. In that moment, I knew he loved me and had all along. But for 23 years I never knew the depth of my father’s love. The light of the dream faded off and the morning reality woke me. This was one of many “grief illusions” that I had had since my father’s passing.Though I knew he was gone, his spirit lived on and my heart could not let him go…
It has been over a year since my father’s passing and I have felt compelled to share his story: the story of his suffering and death and the pure love we shared. I have felt this calling to write, like a tug on my heart and I cannot avoid this call any longer. However painful for me to relive the memories of this heartache in losing my father, the greatest man that has ever existed in my life, I know the graces that will come from it and as always, I am confident that Our Lord will use it for good to help so many others.
When illness plagues a man and paralyzes his body, he has a choice to turn to God and suffer with Him, or to turn from God in anger and refuse repentance. Heaven is a choice and hell is a choice. My saintly father was everything that I ever needed him and wished him to be in those last seven months before God called him home. The word cancer: this terminal illness that brings so much fear to peoples ears and the sadness it has in effect on so many families, somehow had made it’s way into my home. His suffering came on slow but strong, but at every stage, I was reminded of Christ’s passion and death. At every step of the way, it was made known to my eyes. I watched his health decline slowly every day and I felt all I could see before me was what Christ went through in the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary: the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning of thorns, the carrying of the cross, and the crucifixion. In these months since his death, when I meditate on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, all that can come to mind is my father’s face and the pure love he showed in every suffering he encountered, large and small. This is the story of his journey to heaven. May we all encounter Christ in our paths, as deeply as he did.
Stage one: The agony in the garden…
I will never forget the day when I first saw the dreaded test results. I read the words “large mass of the liver” and tears swelled in my eyes. I knew deep in my heart that I had to prepare myself for this grief. My dad was going to die and I knew we didn’t have much time left. Knowing of this terminal illness, this was his agony and mine as well. I took such great pain in knowing that my father would never meet my future husband, would never walk me down the aisle, would never look into the eyes of my first child, would never be able to see my success in life and see and hear the things I am most proud of. The memories we could have made together, knowing that they would never be, that was his deepest agony. To know all that he was leaving behind was his deepest pain.
I remember often, from the time of my childhood, entering my parents room and seeing my Father kneeling by the side of the bed saying his night prayers. I would stumble upon him fervently praying, kneeling with the rosary clasped in hand, and his eyes closed tight. I saw this too, when he discovered his terminal illness. The realization of the seriousness of his situation in facing death, his prayer was continual and his faith unceasing. We knew that he would not receive a healing of the body, but we prayed for the deepest healing of the heart. The cancer was at stage four and fully developed. There was a large tumor on the liver and one of the colon. It spread and developed over the months and slowly overcame every small function of his body. Yet he still prayed, kneeling by the side of the bed for as long as he could, attending the holy sacrifice of the Mass while his body was mobile and functional. This reminded me so much, of Christ’s agony in the garden. A man so full of faith, trust in God, integrity, patience in adversity and full submission to God’s will, my father was in the process of teaching me his last lesson: to die a holy death. Like Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, when He sweat drops of blood at the sight of what His Father willed Him to fulfill, my father knew and accepted all that God had in store for him. He knew that every stage would develop and decline further. The words of Christ as he said “Father, let this chalice pass from me. Not your will but thine be done,” was all I could think of watching him at this stage.
Stage two: The scourging at the pillar
Christ was bruised, beaten, slapped, struck and spit on. His precious body was scourged and his flesh torn from his bones. The agony and pain was unspeakable and unfathomable! And as He had revealed to St. Bridget of Sweden, “He received 5480 blows.” Yet in some very small way, as Christ teaches us to carry our cross, my father could understand this. I will never forget the day that my mother had found this certain clinic that offered natural cancer treatments such as heat therapy for the blood and vitamin C infusions. These treatments had a very high success rate for its patients and I remember so well the joy in my heart and the hope I felt at seeing my parents emracing each other, experiencing the joy at the thought that my father had a chance at survival. As cancer grows only in an acidic environment, my father’s diet would now consist of alkaline based food, very bland tastes, no seasoning, no spice, no longer any pleasure or delight in the taste of food. Every day he had to consume a liquid called “cesium chloride.” This was meant to kill the cancer cells and prevent it from growing but in the process, it also killed his taste buds. We humans take so much pleasure in the taste of food. Here in America, rather than eating to survive, he often only survive to eat. My Father who once took so much delight in my mother’s delicious Italian cooking, could no longer enjoy it. Prevented from any carbs, breads, desserts, fried foods, soda, absolutely anything that is enjoyable, his diet was now extremely limited. In a very small way, my Father’s body was slowly being beaten and changed. As the cancer progressed, his body once so strong and handsome on the exterior, bacame pale, frail, swolen and disfigured. Yet in the process, his soul became one of the most beautiful souls that I had ever seen in a human being. At every stage, I truly felt that I was seeing Christ suffering and dying on His way to Calvary.
Stage Three: The Crowning with Thorns
“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. “ (Isaiah 53:5)
The five holy and mortal wounds of Christ which after the agony and the scourging, were made vivid and eminent on His body, are also shown in our own small way, when disease takes over. The day my father went to the hospital was one of the hardest days of my life because it was when I could really see the disfigurement and the change in his form from this terminal illness, which I knew would eventually take him. They had removed most of his colon and the colostomy bag he now had on his one side, with the large mass on the liver which we had just discovered had doubled in size. The tumor in the colon had doubled as well and he was beginning to have spots on his lungs. It was spreading slowly but fast at the same time. We met with the paliative care nurses and the people from hospice. Hospice which is such a terrifying and final word to someones life potential, I now stood facing one of my greatest fears in life: to lose a parent and to therefore lose a part of myself. Knowing that time was short and any small memory was so precious, I relieved myself of my work duties to spend a week off at home. I came to the hospital that first day, up on the fifth floor where they place all patients who have terminal illnesses and therefore not much hope of being on this earth much longer. In the deep recesses of my mind I remembered seeing a strong healthy man with a deep voice, muscular and brave, strong as an ox, hardworking and always doing what needs to be done. But instead I entered the room to find my sick, frail, pale father whose body was so disfigured and mishaped due to the disease that plagued him. This surgery and this illness I had seen seemed to have aged him another 20 years! He no longer looked like my father on the exterior. He looked like my grandfather. I went to the side of the bed and he reached out for my hand. In that moment it was like a spark went off in my heart, a change that I had never felt before. Despite all the pain and hurtful words from the past, all the anger and fighting, I loved my father so deeply and I knew he loved me. I felt an explosion of love in my heart so powerful that I did not know what to do with it. I knew in that hand embrace, which was the first I could remember in my whole life, that I was going to lose my father as soon as I found him. Yet I thanked God for this grace. I was his little girl, his youngest one not yet spoken for. My being at home gave him something to look forward to and he always asked for me. My being home made him feel as though he was still in the fatherly role. And what a tender and loving father he was in those last seven months! During his time in the hospital, we prepared our home for his arrival and in preparing it, we were preparing ourselves for his death. The hospital bed was to come, the walker, the wheelchair….it all was to become so real to me and I was to face this every day. As time went on his health declined more and more. His body once so strong and healthy, became so terrible to see, sick, frail, weak yet in the process his heart became so beautiful. His true self was coming out as his body became more weakened and wounded. Yet the tumors, the colostomy bag, his legs which became so swollen, the dryness of his mouth from not being able to eat or drink several days before his death…these signs of his suffering, were his crowning of thorns and in obtaining them, I knew he was obtaining sainthood.
Stage four: The carrying of the cross
Three times at least written in scripture, we know that Christ fell. The memories that I have in my heart that I try so hard to suppress because they are too painful to face, are there still and I remember the look on my father’s face when he saw in his mind the hard road that he was to face. I remember seeing him staring off into space, hearing him say “well I’m still here,” as each day passed and he was waiting to meet the Lord, watching him slowly walk with his walker from one room to the next, when my mother called me at work and I had found out that he fell and could not get up, seeing him take his many many pain pills which in turn would make him fall into a deep sleep for hours, seeing how difficult it began to be for him to eat and do normal daily functions on his own. He now needed help for everything and in that humiliation, I knew he did his penance and time in purgatory here on earth. Yes he carried his cross and just as we see depicted in the stations of the cross, Simon of Cyrene helping Christ to calvary, I could see every day Christ Himself, helping my father carry his cross until the very end. To look in his eyes and see the pain he had, gave my heart the greatest pain. Up to the last week of my fathers life, I did my best to make even the smallest of tasks, easy and joyful for him. Even if I had to use all of my strength to hold him up to help him walk or lift his legs on the bed, it gave my heart such great joy to help in my own little way, my father enter eternity.
Stage five: The crucifixion
In the movie “The Passion of Christ,” we remember the graphic display of Christ’s cricifixion. I remember seeing it for the first time in theatres and actually I was sitting next to my dad while watching it. It was such a solemn and holy moment that no one in the whole movie theatre could make a sound at the sight. You could literally hear a pin drop. Christ after beaten and scourged, in His infinite love and humility, climbed on to the cross with his arms outstretched to poor out the rest of his blood to save us. The extreme love that was shown, was so amazing to see. How any other mere human being could show that kind of love, I could never know….
In my father’s final days, I came to see that his hospital bed, which was his death bed, became his cross upon which he climbed every night, with resignation, humility, love and supreme trust in God. Never in my life, except in what we know Christ went through, had I seen depicted before my eyes, that kind of faith and love. The way Christ gave up his life for us, my father gave up his will to God for the salvation of his soul and therefore the salvation of his family. The day I lost my father was the hardest day I have ever had to face.
I rushed home from work and while driving, I felt deep in my heart that that day was the day that God would finally take him. I prayed so hard to Our Blessed Mother in heaven and I asked her to come greet my father and hold his hand to take him home. When I saw the look on my father’s face when I came home to find his soul passed on, I knew that Our Lady had come to greet him. A small smile, a twist of his mouth, a subtle curve on his mouth was fixed there with a wide stare in his eyes. With his last breath, I knew that he had seen something heavenly. The scream that my heart made, I will ever forget. I had lost my father just as soon as I had found him. I reached for his hand just as we had held hands that day in the hospital when my heart felt such extreme love. Almost forgetting the reality before me, I expected to feel a squeeze in return. Yet for the first time, his hand which was still warm, fell out of mine.
I have heard it said before that when someone passes away, the soul of the person is still present for about an hour until the flesh goes from warm to cold and the skin hardens. With my mom, myself and all my five siblings present, we prayed the holy rosary in repose of the soul of my father. I truly felt my dad’s soul present in that room, yet not in his body. He was free and his greatest wish was now fulfilled: to be in harmony with God. Staring at the look on his face, on his death bed which truly was his cross, all I could picture in my mind was the moment when Christ after three hours of agony on the cross, finally bowed his head and said “It is finished, Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” My father, without knowing it, had so resembled Christ’s passion and death. A terrible way yet such a holy way to die! My father without knowing, had taught us all one last lesson: how to die a holy death. Though the pain that was in my heart and still is every day, I thank God for giving me the opportunity to watch a saint in the making and to help him in my own little way, enter the kingdom of heaven. May God bless you dad, now and forever. Until I hold your hand again, you hold my heart forever. All my love,
your little girl.