On November 4, 1983, I saw my Dad for the last time. He had slipped into a coma the day before after checking into Providence Hospital with a bleeding ulcer. His liver could not handle the amount of blood protein his digestive tract was digesting. It created ammonia that went into the blood and sent him comatose.
I stood next to his bed. He was breathing rapidly and snoring loudly. Emotions came in waves that evening. Mom, Rick, Mike, Jan and I sat there in the waiting room alternately crying unstoppably and then (as is the Shea way) making jokes or telling stories. Then more tears. Up and down.
Standing by the bed, I held my Dad’s hand and prayed for him. A very tumultuous time that, oddly, I have trouble remembering clearly. I remember my Mom kneeling next to his bed and praying some prayer she’d learned in the Anglican Church when she was a girl. It was odd to hear my Mom pray (I don’t come from a particularly religious family) and even odder to hear her pray in that peculiar sort of sing-song voice that children use when they pray a memorized prayer. Somehow it revealed how small and fragile she was in the face of this.
We left the hospital that night and there was a huge windstorm blowing. I had the sense that huge and powerful forces, beyond my comprehension, were at work for my father’s good. Somehow, the big wind consoled me.
The next morning, shortly before 7:00, the phone rang in the kitchen, next to my bedroom. I heard Mom answer it, a pause, and then her voice say, “Ohhhhhh”. All the grief in the world was in it. My heart was pounding, because I knew what it meant. I was out of bed in a flash and I think my Mom had already hung up. She was crying. He was gone.
It’s funny, but all my life I’ve struggled with the fear of death. Fear of what I’d do in the face of it. My first experience with death was of watching the film of JFK’s assassination and it burned into me a sort of pagan conviction that death just strikes out of the blue and reveals the universe as pointless, meaningless and destructive. It’s a deep fear and a sort of intellectual concupiscence since it’s easy for me to believe, despite the promises of Christ. However, the odd thing is that, when Dad died, I found that when the worst happened, it did not destroy me. I found God was still there, and hope remained.
That was a great grace, and one of the reasons I’ve always had the sense that Dad ended up okay. I pray for Dad, of course. Always have since the day he died.
In the same way, I have had to say goodbye to my mother Phyllis, to our unborn baby Julie Elizabeth, to my sister-in-law Norma, to Jan’s parents Neil and Pat, and to my dear friend, Fr. Shane Tharp. And it is the most certain thing on earth that I–that you–will only be saying goodbye to more people till that day we say goodbye to them all as we ourselves pass through the veil of death. So I am grateful for All Souls because it reminds me first of the brute fact of death and does not sugarcoat it, but it also reminds me of the fact that, as Cardinal Newman pointed out, all who have ever lived live still.
May the souls of all the faithful departed–fathers, mothers, children, sisters, brother, dear friends, bitter enemies, and those with no one to pray for them on this bleak November day–rest in peace through Christ our Lord, and may we meet again, happy forever, in the world to come.
Love you, all my dear dead.