My dad passed away on 19 March 2019, the feast of St. Joseph, the patron of "happy deaths."
His favorite color was blue and I didn't even know that until I saw the beautiful sky-blue casket in which he lay. His choice reflected his love of the Blessed Virgin Mary - quite befitting for a man of his faith.
I didn't know a lot of things about my dad. When I was growing up, yes, he was very present in our lives. We had many family game nights, sing-a-longs, church activities, and vacations. He was the spiritual leader of our family. There were many times we had clergy members over for Sunday lunch after church and they stayed late, indulging in the guilty pleasure of deep, thought-provoking conversations with my dad about the church and its teachings. His faith and the words of the Bible were the collective compass for how he navigated his life. We drove on our vacations in the family station wagon, stopping along the way at destination points we still remember, like Meramec Caverns - Jesse James Hideout on Route 66 (so cool) and Reptile Land (so fun holding a snake on my shoulders). He was always challenging us to think differently and learn how to problem-solve. He was a sought-after turn-around man throughout his career. He was extremely bright and athletic. He was an accomplished bodybuilder, was in the Navy band (self-taught clarinet, saxophone, and piano player), was a deep-sea diver, and runner. He played football at Notre Dame and later earned his undergraduate degree at Hobart. He studied under Peter Drucker for part of his masters and later earned his Ph.D. in business. He wrote poetry, prose, and spiritual educational materials. He was a devout Catholic his entire life and his earthly mission was to bring himself and others closer to God. He has authored work that is housed in the Vatican library (yes, THAT Vatican) - who knew? He had a fantastic wit and great sense of humor, something that has been passed down to all six of his children. And, he loved his wife, his "Precious" "Darling" Dail. It was a privilege to see their love in full force during the last few months of my dad's life. May we all be blessed enough to have a "Dail" in our lives.
Years ago, our tightly knit family suffered harsh turns and painful trajectories that left me dangling on a string, trying to steer my life as someone who had lost her footing. We siblings ended up going separate ways on and off for decades. Some attempts at reconciliation worked, some didn't; some were long-lasting, some were not. At any one time, several family members were at odds, siblings and parents alike. In retrospect, it doesn't matter. To dwell on that which we all missed - and it has been significant - sends us down a black hole of pain and regret. So, we don't do it. And, yet, it was my dad's passing that seems to have changed all that. The irony is not lost on any of us.
My dad's health had been declining for years and in December 2018, it became critical. He asked to see each of his children and my older brother, Tom, and I went up first. Walking into his room, amidst his oxygen machine, PICC line, CPAP, other crap, and hideously unflattering florescent lights, I felt love supplant all of the years of estrangement. And, I still had more to learn and more gifts to receive.
My dad was a voracious reader of substantial tomes and complex philosophical pieces. In fact, the one place each of us could get what we wanted was the bookstore which we traipsed off to regularly as a family. The guideline was that we had to read what we got and we did. I know that almost all of my brothers and sisters still love a good book that satisfies our curiosities. Dad was extremely bright. His intellect was an offensive and defensive tool he used adeptly. I had always known him to engage intellectually rather than emotionally in our conversations. His style forced me to think deeply which I still love doing and it is no surprise that my degree is in psychology and philosophy.
After leaning down very close to my dad for our talk, I realized he was completely blind. My first thought was, "What a cruel injustice for a man whose entire life revolved around reading, absorbing, learning, processing, and sharing facts to support his faith and his positions on business and personal matters." My father loved the written word. Loved it. LOVED. It. (I do, too.) Dad wanted to speak with each of us alone. Sitting with him and holding his hand, I gently caressed his forearm, kissed his cheek and watched my tears fall all over him and me. He apologized and asked for forgiveness. He told me he loved me. He said he was proud of me. I did the same. We prayed together. I heard a gentleness and tone in his voice I had never heard. I saw emotions that were raw and sincere. I saw his deep love for God helping him reach out to bridge miles and decades of distance between us in the limited time he had left. He was seeking redemption on earth with those who meant much to him so that he could meet his God with a pure and contrite heart. It was real. It was deep. And, it was so special to me.
Here's the thing: After I left, I realized that my dad's blindness was the single most important gift God could have ever given to him before he passed away. It forced my dad to "look" inward and make decisions based on what his mind and heart were telling him conjointly. It allowed him to be still in a different kind of way and hear God by having to use one of his "secondary" senses. It was a true sign that God certainly knows what He is doing. Praise Him.
The weekend before my dad passed away, all of my siblings and I were at his bedside. His condition had deteriorated significantly from the last time I had seen him. He was unable to sit up and he didn't open his eyes but he let us know he was aware of our presence by muttering a couple of jokes - so my dad. The time together with everyone was bittersweet. Losing my dad was somehow bringing us all together in a way we hadn't experienced in years, at least for me. I saw in each of my siblings these incredible people I liked as adults, respected as individuals, and loved as my blood (that includes my brother- and sisters-in-law, too). I felt great around all of them. I had missed each of them deeply in different ways and silently vowed to make the effort to stay in touch more closely and more often. What an incredible feeling. As my twin said, "I realized that this is what I have been missing in my life." So true, me, too. (Kimmer, I'll call you tomorrow for our daily chat.)
Each of us had private time with him. I stayed a little late one night so I could steal a few more moments alone. The low lighting in his room was beautiful and calming. Our time together was more of a monologue than dialogue but I know he heard and understood my words. I told him again that I loved him and have always known he has loved me. I told him that he had been a great dad instilling in me some core beliefs and values that still pull me back into line when I stray (a constant struggle). I told him that I knew he was ready to meet God and that I was excited for him. I asked one favor of him: I asked him to give me signs that he was with me once he was in heaven. He has done that at least once a day already and I find myself breaking into huge grins that start at the corners of my mouth and settle into ever cell of my body. I'm not going to mention those things here; they are just between me and my dad. (Thank you, Dad.)
Three days after we had all left to resume other aspects of our lives, Tom texted us with a message that "Dad passed at 8:45 pm." My daughter was with me when I read the message. I broke into those ugly body sobs; my loving daughter comforted me. I called my brother to ask those odd kinds of questions that detail each moment-by-moment before my dad passed away. Tom told me that he was holding one of my dad's hands and Precious Dail was holding the other when Dad went to be with the Lord. I could think of no more honorable way for Dad to transition from this life into eternity. Tom wrote a beautiful obituary for my dad, helped plan the services with Dail, and was a model son and brother who balanced the very delicate and tricky task of sharing tough information and honoring the journey each of us had to travel to make our own decisions about how to deal with this. I adore my brother for how he handled all of this.
The funeral was held three days after my dad passed away. My dad's burial service was held at the Veterans National Cemetary in Fayetteville, AR. My daughter was with me and got to hear wonderful words about my dad. The priests' comments, the eulogy, the words from those who had come to know my dad through the church and their personal interactions with him were touching and made it clear that Dad had, in fact, brought all of us siblings closer to each other, brought me closer to him, and me - along with many other people - closer to God. Well done, Dad. You've been a good and faithful servant.