Making Christmas Past Present

This Christmas feels more nostalgic than most Christmases. My wife and I both lost our Dads this year.

Deb’s Dad was quieter, more thoughtful in his approach to family celebrations. He often took a backseat to the festivities. He was an observer; cherishing the love and joy from a slight distance and holding it all in his heart. Still, he knew more about what was going on than most because he watched; he listened; he paid attention to the details. And he loved us.

My Dad liked to be front and center. He was always in the mix (sometimes in the way). He was bold and loud and he loved the spotlight. He sometimes missed the subtlety of a situation because he was way too busy trying to get his point across; tell his joke; make his mark. But he loved Christmas and loved being being surrounded by his family. And he loved us.

Two very different men. Two very different ways of celebrating Christmas.

So here we are, celebrating Christmas without our patriarchs. I know that both would want a happy Christmas for us all. This year I will try to make Christmas past present.

I will step back when I can (realizing of course for me this is a struggle) and breathe in the spirit of it all. I will try to be the astute observer that my dear father-in-law was. I will try to cherish those quiet moments and pay attention to the often overlooked details of our gatherings. I will keep an eye out for the forgotten; the weary; the under-served in our family, community and world. That’s what Pop would do.

I will also be cheerful (even when I might feel a bit melancholy) and try to lift the spirits of those around me. I will eat a little too much, laugh a little too loud and tell some of the same old jokes a little too often. I will compliment everyone on everything and truly be thankful for what I receive. I will remind us all how lucky we are to be part of this family, community and world. That’s what Dad would do.

We are blessed this year. Our children and grandchildren are with us to celebrate Christmas. We are healthy. We are fed. We have shelter. We have faith. We have hope. And even though two great men have left us this year, they remain present in our love for one another.

May you and those you love find peace this Christmas,

Denis

For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful. Isaiah 9:5-6



The Greatest Gift

They say the greatest gift a father can give their children is to love their mother. Our Dad gave us that greatest gift! Dad was an example of a loving and devoted husband. Dad worshiped Mom.

He talked his way into their first date by playing on her sympathy because he had just returned home from the Pacific after World War II and he spent the next 72 years talking her into other various situations. Thank goodness, because I might not be here otherwise. In truth, Mom took care of Dad more than the other way around but Dad was still her hero and her protector. And their love story is one for the ages.

We lost Dad yesterday. He was 95 years old. In the 2-1/2 years since Mom passed away Dad has lived in an assisted-living community. No visit was complete without hearing how much he loved and missed Mom. He disliked the fact that she had died before him and often wondered aloud why God would have done that. He couldn’t change it and he couldn’t understand why it happened that way. He couldn’t fix it. He couldn’t negotiate a better deal. He couldn’t talk his way out of it.

And Dad was a talker. And a dealer maker. And a fixer. But he couldn’t fix the fact that he was alone after a lifetime with Mom. So, he adapted and learned to live without her physical presence but she remained always with him.

Dad was always quick with a joke and looked at life as a glass half-full. He never met a stranger. He made friends everywhere he went. As a kid I used to be embarrassed by his knack (or annoying habit) of striking up conversations with anyone he encountered. He was the kind of guy that could ask an amputee how they lost their limb and somehow not be offensive. He talked his way into places, jobs, relationships and talked his way out of jambs and traffic tickets (and probably some jobs as well). He adjusted pretty well to life at his assisted-living community. The other residents and the staff at his complex loved him and he was sometimes the life of the party or the instigator of some mischief. Always smiling. Always talking. Always making the best of it.

Lately he seemed to be missing Mom more than usual. He died on what would have been her 93rd birthday. It was his last gift to her, that they be united once again. The greatest gift Dad gave me will live in my heart forever. His loving devotion to Mom eases my pain and lessens my grief. And I pray that I can give my children that same gift.

I have a great example to follow.

Peace,

Denis

In word and deed honor your father that his blessing may come upon you;  For a father’s blessing gives a family firm roots.  Sirach 3:8-9

Falling Leaves

Working from home can be a blessing but it can be challenging as well. Today as I sit in my office working (or trying to) the leaves keep blowing out of our maple tree. Each flutter of breeze brings another cascade of gold and red and orange leaves flying just outside my window. It’s as if they are waving goodbye. And I suppose they are. Next spring they will be replaced with green buds and leaves will sprout again. Until then we must endure another winter. Another dying. Waiting for the warmth to return. Another opportunity to learn patience and embrace hopefulness.

I have another distraction today, too. After 20 years of faithful service; 20 years of accepting our cars coming and going, we are having our driveway replaced. The cracks were becoming unsightly and possibly a tripping hazard. Still, the old driveway was dependable and serviceable and welcomed us (or at least our vehicles) home on our many returns. I suppose it’s strange to consider our old driveway with such anthropomorphism but there were times when I felt like that driveway hugged us on our return home. Today begins a new chapter in our lives. A new driveway – straight and clean and ready (in 7-10 days) to welcome our vehicles (and us). More hopefulness for many more years of happy returns to this home that I love.

My mind is occupied with the leaves falling, the workmen outside, the temperatures dropping because I don’t want to think about what is really happening. My Dad is 95 years old and resides in an assisted-living retirement community, which is a euphemism for “old folks home”. He is in declining health. He has fallen a lot lately and he just returned to his apartment after nearly 2 weeks in the hospital because of pain from his latest fall. He was badly bruised but fortunately nothing was broken. While in the hospital he had pneumonia brought on by pulmonary aspiration. He’s back home for now but no one knows what lies ahead. More hopefulness is required. But I am struggling. Dad has always been a big man – literally and figuratively. 6 feet tall and still strong but growing weaker each day. Dad, always quick with a joke, the teller of tales and the life of the party is now often confused and his thoughts are getting cloudier, as his needs, both physically and emotionally, grow greater.

As I watch the leaves fall, I think about Dad falling. As they tumble to the ground gracefully, effortlessly, I pray that Dad’s eventual decline is gentle and peaceful. I want him to live another 5 years or 10 years but I know that’s not likely. He misses Mom. He longs to be reunited with her but I’m selfish and I want to hold on. Perhaps it’s my own mortality I fear. I’m so much like Dad in so many ways that seeing him this way is like staring into my future. I’m afraid. I’m afraid of losing him. I’m afraid of what lies ahead for both of us. Dad’s always been a fixer, a problem solver, a make-things-better guy. But Dad can’t fix this. And neither can I. Things will change but spring will come as it always does. And new life will emerge because hope is eternal.

For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance. Romans 8:24-25

So now I pray for endurance for Dad (and for me).

Peace,

Denis

Hope

This has been a tough couple of weeks. A dear friend died unexpectedly. Controversy at work and school has been brewing over Covid-19 mandates. Family members have been displaced from New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida. Our friends’ son underwent emergency heart surgery. Everywhere I turn there is something else to worry about; pray about; ask God “WTF?!!” about. Not to mention the 24-hour news cycles of Afghanistan, Texas’ abortion laws, the January 6th insurgency investigation and subsequent political wrangling, flooding in New York and New Jersey and the seemingly endless fires in California.

Hopelessness has come crashing in around me. My prayers seem shallow. My worry keeps me awake at night. And my questions remain unanswered. While praying my feeble “why?, why?, why?” prayer last night, I remembered Anne Lamott’s book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. In it she writes: “Hope is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is bigger than any grim, bleak shit anyone can throw at us.”

That sentence reminded of a time many years ago when when we were living in Wisconsin and I was feeling hopeless. Battles with our then teenage son Blake were at times cataclysmic. Raising any teenager can make you feel hopeless and completely inept. This one managed to really push all my buttons. As with many teenagers, there were the usual sullen and angry moments. Life was unfair. His teachers were unfair. We were unfair. There was a lot of unfairness. I grew tired of his sulking and decided that I should show him some real unfairness up close and personal. Back then I occasionally volunteered at a homeless shelter and a soup kitchen in one of Milwaukee’s poorest neighborhoods. He would come with me the next time that I volunteered at the soup kitchen. We’d see if his bitching about how unfair life was would be silenced for a day or two and my hopelessness about being an ill-equipped parent would be eased for a little while longer than that.

When we arrived at the church we joined the other volunteers, some from our own suburban parish, and others from city parishes, and still others from rural parishes. We were all there to do God’s work – to serve the poor; to feed the hungry. We began with prayer and then were given our assignments. I was to dole out a (not too generous) spoonful of green beans to each person; Blake was to clear and wipe tables.

As our “clients” came through the food line and settled into the battered folding chairs and worn cafeteria tables in the humble church hall, I realized that Blake was also sitting down. What was he doing??? He was supposed to be serving the poor! He had an assignment to clean the tables. I asked another volunteer to take over my bean-serving job for a moment so that I could have a word with my son. How dare he? I was going to set things straight! I was going to make this kid understand he was there to serve others; to stop thinking solely of himself for a change!!!

When I approached him full of arrogance and self-righteousness (after all I had been serving the poor for months now) I was determined to teach him a lesson in love and compassion. Instead I came upon Blake and an elderly gentleman having a conversation. Blake was talking to this man; really talking and listening to him as well. It occurred to me that while I had been dutifully dispensing food all these months, I had never taken the time to speak with anyone. I barely looked folks in the eye. Was it my embarrassment because I believed that I had so much more than they? Or was it my shame because I couldn’t face the reality of living in a world where so many have so little?

Now I was the one being humbled. I was the one learning about God’s love. My son, my beautiful son, taught me that I had been missing the point. I had been feeding bodies but he fed this man’s soul. He showed he cared. He gave this gentleman dignity. He loved him.

And I’m still thankful for the lesson he taught me that day and how he restored my hope in us. Hope is not about proving anything. It’s the grace of God through others that sustains us and gives us hope.

Peace,

Denis

Then and now (he still gives me hope)


Still Waters Run Deep

My father-in-law was a thoughtful and loving man. He was more comfortable as an observer than a participant in most situations, but when he spoke it was always worth my while to listen. I’m more of doer and a talker (too much of a talker, according to some) and I was often humbled by his quiet wisdom.

We lost him last week. And I’m certain that the angels welcomed him to heaven.

Pop was a father, grandfather, great grandfather and father-in-law. Nothing made him happier than being surrounded by family. We are all better persons for having had him in our lives.

He grew up poor in Southeast Missouri. He lived a hard life as a kid. He earned pocket money killing rats in the cotton and watermelon fields as young boy. He lived in his grandparents’ home when his mother couldn’t afford a place of their own but he never complained about his upbringing. He never voiced any regrets. He was grateful for all that he had in life.

In many ways he was ahead of his time. Unlike many men of his generation men he wasn’t afraid to do what was considered “woman’s work” and he often did the grocery shopping, would clean the house on occasion, do laundry and could prepare a meal if necessary.

He enlisted in the Air Force and then had a 40 year career with American Airlines but he never forgot his humble beginnings. What I remember most is that he never uttered an unkind word about anyone. He never looked down on anyone. It didn’t matter where you lived or what you looked like, he accepted you as you were. I never once heard a racist or anti-Semitic word or phrase pass his lips. He truly believed that all men and women were created equally. And he lived his life that way.

He taught my wife how to be a person of dignity and more importantly how to afford dignity to others. Since his passing she has wished that she had asked him more questions – about his life as a boy; his time in Korea in the Air Force; his love affair with her mother; his career; his grandparents and great grandparents; his hopes and his dreams. But if she had been able to ask all those questions, I know in my heart that he would have likely shrugged and said, “I have no regrets. I’ve lived my best life. And as a bonus I got you as my daughter.”

Pop would have done anything for any of us, but he didn’t like being fussed over himself. The night he died we let him get some rest. His health had been declining rapidly and he had had a fitful time the night before. We went into another room and reminisced about happier times. When we went to check on him the second or third time, we realized he had found his way home.

Our son commented later about Grandpa not wanting to be hovered over. He said, “It was just like him to sneak off while no one was watching.”

And so it was…

Peace,

Denis

I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. 2 Timothy 4:7

“Dad” – the best honorary title I’ve ever been given

It’s Father’s Day. The day that Hallmark invented because men were feeling a little left out because of all the Mother’s Day hoopla. It’s true. The dollars spent on Father’s Day pale in comparison to what we fork over on Mother’s Day gifts, cards and flowers. Of course, mothers deserve more respect and reverence (and stuff, I suppose) if for no other reason than enduring childbirth. I was in the room for a couple of those. I’d take a double hernia any day!

Still, dads have some tough stuff to do, too. As dads we change our share of poopy diapers and mop up puke and wipe away tears. Some of us taught our kids how to ride a bike or drive a car. Some of us have instilled great wisdom in our young charges. Some of us are models of virtue, faithfulness, patience and courage. But most of us are just trying to make it through to another day.

Did you ever take your 13 year-old daughter swimsuit shopping and have to examine in detail nearly 100 swimsuits all of which “weren’t quite right”? Or have to sit through your 9 year-old’s ‘Parent-Teacher Conference’ and listen to Junior’s litany of sins while realizing that your kid is smarter than this teacher? Or did you ever have to fish something out of the latrine at boy scout camp that your son couldn’t manage to hold on to, and find yourself screaming, “Why the hell did you have that in here in the first place!” These experiences are not for the faint of heart. It takes a real man. It takes a Dad.

I’ve been blessed. God has chosen me to be a Dad. Somehow with limited intellect and no training or background in child development I was able to plod through this journey of fatherhood. My efforts were, at best, questionable and my mistakes as countless as the stars. Still my results were beyond my imagining. Three amazing humans walk this earth that I have the joy of calling my children. They are loving, caring, capable people who you would be better for knowing. So if a dumb-dumb like me can pull off a feat like this, there is hope for all of humanity.

Being called Dad is an honor and it is one that I treasure with my whole being.

Happy Father’s Day to all dads, stepdads, foster dads, mentors, and men who make a difference in the lives of children.

Peace,

Denis

Baby’s Breath

2:00 AM and the baby is crying. It requires every fiber of my being to pull myself out of my dream of being single and carefree and childless. When I finally realize that my beautiful wife has finally drifted off to much-needed sleep and is even more exhausted than I am, I rouse myself and stumble into the nursery, There he is. Warm, wet and bawling his little blue eyes out. I change what by now must be the 10,000th diaper and look at that face which is a startling reflection of my own. Why did we do this? What were we thinking?

Shh! Shh! Shh! I plead with the 2:00 AM screamer, hoping that he won’t wake the five year-old and three year-old who will be bounding out of bed in mere hours wanting breakfast and love and attention. I wonder then if the milk is bad and if we have enough cereal in the pantry. I know I’m running short on attention but I remember that I’ve been told (or read in Reader’s Digest or some other scholarly tome) that love multiplies it never divides. And so I trudge on.

I pick up the squaller and cradle him in my arms and I am overwhelmed by the sweet aroma of baby’s breath. That sweetness is nearly miraculous and I am humbled and frightened because fatherhood is a daunting responsibility.  I carry him to his mother’s arms and lie down next to them. Suddenly everything seems manageable. Somehow we will make this work. 

As I dose off to blessed sleep, I think of the young nurse in the hospital, who just a few short months before, was surprised how happy and excited we were when learning that this was our third child. Perhaps she had never smelled sweet baby’s breath or had never experienced the soul-transforming power of a tiny heart beat next to her own. 

Family

1983

Our baby boy was born on the day after Father’s Day in 1983. But that moment; those memories, were yesterday, and today, and tomorrow and will remain with me for the rest of my life.

Peace,

Denis

Faking Fatherhood

I became a father at twenty-three. To say that I was clueless would be an huge understatement. Not only did I not know what I was doing, I didn’t think I needed to know anything. Within five years we had two more kids. My knowledge of fatherhood had not increased. I pretended to comprehend the magnitude and seriousness of fatherhood with it’s wisdom and overwhelming responsibility for nurturing and molding young minds and bodies. But I was just faking it.

Don’t get me wrong. I was knee-deep in diapers and feedings and bath time rituals and nighttime prayers and all the rest. I was a hands-on dad. I wiped up puke and dealt with tantrums, and frantic searches for lost pacifiers. But didn’t know any of the “important stuff”. How could I be a father when I could barely take care of myself? When I tucked those babies in at night I prayed for wisdom. I prayed for patience. I prayed that I wouldn’t screw things up too badly. But I was just faking it.

Then came the school years with sports and science projects and Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and all the rest. The kids had homework that I couldn’t possibly do. They played sports that I couldn’t have played as a no-talent, last-to-be-picked-for-a-team kid. I went on Boy Scout camping trips that I hated. And I just kept faking it.

Years flew by and the kids grew up and became adults. Off to the Air Force. Off to college. Down the aisle. I sighed (and cried) but I put on a brave face and big smile and faked it. They weren’t ready for what was coming their way because I hadn’t done my job. I hadn’t prepared them for adulthood. And I just kept faking it.

family

Faking it big time!

Now I have grandkids and I’m still faking it – the wisdom part; the knowledge part; the Fatherhood expertise part; I still fake all that. But the love; the love is real. And LOVE is amazing because it makes up for all my other shortcomings. Love lets me fake all the rest. And so I began faking it the day that baby boy was placed in my arms. Because love is all that really ever mattered.

And being a father is the greatest gift I was ever given. Turns out that you don’t have to be worthy, or brilliant or patient or knowledgeable, just loving…

Peace,

Denis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If The Prodigal Son Had A Sister…

FULL DISCLOSURE – THIS IS A REPEAT. Today’s Gospel was the story of the Prodigal Son and I decided to repost this from September 2011…

I have two sons and a daughter. The sons both live a distance from us – one in Wisconsin and one in Korea. The daughter lives nearby. We see the sons (if we’re lucky) a couple of times a year. We see the daughter (and we are lucky) several times a week.

When we talk (Skype) with the sons, it’s usually about important upcoming events and significant happenings – weddings, births, travel, careers, etc. When we talk to the daughter, it can be mundane – what’s for dinner, aches and pains, the weather, etc.

It occurred to me recently that perhaps our daughter might sometimes feel like the older brother of the Prodigal Son. Needless to say, she’s here day-in and day-out listening to our latest complaints and answering our latest requests – always supportive, always cheerful, always ready for more. When “the boys” come to town it’s cause célèbre. And she often helps plan and carry out whatever festivities take place. By contrast, when she comes to dinner, she’s expected to set the table, help prepare the meal and clean up afterwards. Hardly seems fair…

Lucky Dad with Best Daughter in the World

But fairness is never part of the equation. Bess (our beautiful and gracious daughter) has inherited her mother’s gift of charity. She seldom thinks of herself first. She wants EVERYONE to be happy (and cared for, and well fed, and loved, etc.). She always gives of herself and she rarely expects anything in return. Her cheerfulness is contagious and she makes others happy by just being around her (again – a gift from her mother).

She’s here. She’s available. She’s constant. And I know that they say (whoever they are) that familiarity breeds contempt. But in our case it seems to me that familiarity creates family. We are family. And I need my daughter. And I hope she knows how much I love and appreciate her. I try to tell her in lots of small ways because we don’t have big celebrations for her and Travis and their children. We just have small celebrations and familiar and comfortable times together. And for me those small intimate gatherings are almost always more meaningful than the grand events planned for our sons.

And because of who she is, I doubt that Bess has ever resented her brothers or felt pushed aside when we “slaughter the fatted calf.” But just in case, she should know:

My (daughter), you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. ~ Luke 15:31

Peace,

Denis (Dad)

A Rich Man

My best friend’s Dad recently passed away and last Saturday there was a Memorial Mass celebrated for him. He died on his 88th birthday after a long and full life.

When his children eulogized him, they each said that he was guided by his faith in God and his love of family. As a child I witnessed this first hand. He was a prayerful, patient and kind father who always put his wife and children before himself.

My best friend and I have known each other since we were seven years-old. When we were young ALL parents could and would discipline ALL kids. If you were in the neighborhood you were EVERY parent’s child. And growing up it seemed that I spent more time at my friend’s home than my own. During our formative years my friend and I did normal boy stuff. We weren’t bad boys, just boys that sometimes did bad things. Each time his Dad discovered our misdeeds, he would gently counsel us and we would promise to NEVER repeat our mistakes. Of course we often failed but he never lost his temper; never raised his voice. His disappointment in us was devastating enough and worse than any corporal punishment that might have been doled out. We would resolve to be better boys in the future. And again, when we fell short of that goal, he would once more lovingly remind us of our failures. I will never forget his patience with us and I would like to think that his example helped make me a kinder, gentler dad with my own kids.

His daughter recalled a time not too long along when their entire family was on float trip. They were all laughing and singing and having a great. Of course their Dad was in the center of it all surrounded by his children and grandchildren. As they were floating down the river, a stranger came beside and called out to him, “Hey Mister! Hey Mister!” “I don’t how much money you have but you’re the richest man I know!” What an amazing testimony. What a life lived to it’s fullest. He witnessed to all of us. Even strangers.

He was a rich man indeed. Surrounded by the love of his family and blessed by God beyond his dreams. Who among us wouldn’t treasure those riches?

Peace,

Denis

Fathers, do not provoke your children, so they may not become discouraged. Colossians 3:21