It is amazing, that of all the conversations we might ever have, with complete strangers to the dearest love of our lives, the conversations that endure, always being fresh and insightful, if not prophetic, are those last words exchanged before death.
In the ten years since my father unexpectantly passed away, my life has changed beyond what I could ever have imagined, with children, and people, events, vocations and locations that make the past seem strange. Yet I am always mindful of my last conversations with my father. Whereas the past might seem be unrelatable to the life I now live, those conversations speak to me today as if I was hearing them for the first time.
Six days before my father (or “Papa” as everyone called him) passed away, he had an appointment with his doctor to go over some test results. No one was really talking about it so I knew something was up, and I finally was able to get a hold of him while driving in an ice storm. I asked him not to beat around the bush, and tell me what was going on. So he said that he had an aggressively growing tumour in his colon, and it most likely was cancer.
But without missing a beat, he went on to thank God for everything – really everything – from his wonderful grandchildren, children, to our spouses who helped “complete us”. He thanked God for the love of his wife (who had passed away 8 years earlier to the very day that I had this conversation), the blessings of his friends and fellow priests, and the parishioners whom he had served in Ottawa and Edmonton; for being forgiven seventy x seven and healed by the Lord, and for the honour of serving at His Holy Table, interceding for creation, and bestowing the Holy Mysteries of the Church for those whom he served. He was thankful for those who had reconciled themselves to Christ, and those who had accepted the gift of forgiveness and love. He thanked God for His wonderful acts and miracles, the small and seemingly insignificant ones, and the ones that changed the course of life.
It is an understatement to say that I was a bit gobsmacked at this, but he went on, with even more clarity and sincerity, as convicted as he had ever been.
He continued to thank God that His joy, peace and victory could not be taken away by this sickness, nor blighted from his heart, for Christ is Risen, trampling down death by His death. He thanked God for the chance to put his hope on Him, in fleeing from the false hope this world offers, to a loving God who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to seek out the lost one, who fully took on our broken nature to restore us to the communion we had at the beginning. More profoundly, he thanked God for the honour to suffer with Him, so that having no distractions of health, of comfort and privilege, he might know real love, and that he was loved first by the Lord (1Jn. 4:19 ).
By this point I had dissolved into tears of grief at the thought of losing my father, mingled with tears of gratitude and joy, at what was in essence an eucharistic prayer, offered like those prayers of the martyrs of old who bravely thanked God even when the flames were licking their feet, or the beasts were pouncing.
When I had somewhat collected myself, he went on to console me, with the words of Isaiah “He does keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee” (Isaiah 26:3), assuring me that there is peace, the Lord’s peace, even in his sickness, and a joy which no one can take away.
As it would seem, not even death could take away that joy from my father.
At the time, his words seemed to reflect the disposition of his soul, but in the context of his passing away that week, his words turned out to be the offering of a whole life in thanksgiving: not the successful moments or accomplishments, nor the fantastic and funny parts, but the whole of a life that encountered Christ through the little things life brings us, and the life-changing challenges that stop us in our tracks.
I consider that conversation frequently, most often in front of the Altar; and I am convicted at the hardness of my heart that sees only my desires and pride, a delusion where Christ is the God I demand things from, or blame things on. But I am also inspired to change, accepting the love of God who gives everything to me, that I might be a child of light that darkness cannot defeat. Christ is my life, and He brings all things to pass. Thus, even the hard things in life reveal the only element that means anything – love.
I know that the same thanksgiving my father offered for everything that day, he now offers at the throne of God, as he sings a new song that to this day fills up the life of those who knew him, and those whom never met him; those who loved him, and those who hated him; those who were lost, and those whom he guided; those who just try to love, and those who reveal the love of the Lord.
May we be inspired to be thankful. May his memory be eternal.