On the day he found out he had an aggressive form of leukemia, my father received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time in 53 years.
Many faith traditions place an emphasis on atoning for wrong done. In the Catholic Church, we believe in confessing sins in Reconciliation to be absolved of them. This sacrament is a doorway to so much more in the Church and eternity.
“It all came pouring out,” Dad told my family through a landslide of tears. Fear of being judged or reprimanded kept him from Confession all those years. He had just needed to be vulnerable and trust in the Lord’s mercy.
My dad, at least to us, was famously distant. He often skipped family gatherings and we had to excuse his absence. Maybe tell a little fib about why he wasn’t there. We grew up not knowing my uncle, his brother. My dad cut him off after a disagreement. Dad had a temper, and famously held long grudges. Eventually, it also happened with other family members and, finally, us: his children.
Coming to terms with my own anxiety issues in recent years, I regret he didn’t seek assistance for his own problems. He had anger issues and clear social anxiety. It often led to him barricading himself in the basement or his apartment. He never picked up the phone and he even hid when someone knocked at the door.
Eventually it became too much for my mother. As he wanted to disengage with the world, she began to want to engage more. My parents divorced in 2004. My dad moved back into the apartment complex where he lived during the early 1970s after marrying mom. He regressed. All of his issues got worse.
Post-divorce, my mom went off and finished her degree. She bought her own home, determined to build a life that unleashed her potential and displayed her independence. I remain proud of her spirit.
If you scroll through my Facebook page, you’ll get a rough outline of who I am and my life story over the last 13 years. The photos, in particular, show how much family means to me. If I’m not hugging my siblings or my mom in a picture, I’m holding and kissing and hugging their children, my children, or my wife, Casey.
There’s no sign of my father in the story of my life in those photos. His absence there tells the story of our estrangement.
My dad often said things to us to purposely make us back away. His could be cruel or vindictive words. Faced with fight or flight, my dad always chose to split. He put up walls between himself and his fellow humans.
Prior to this month, the last time I saw him was at his mother’s modest funeral in 2009. It had been six years since we’d talked at that point. We were cordial and said we needed to talk more often. It didn’t happen.
He replied to my wedding invitation with a card signed “Dad” and a $20 check. That was the only thing I heard from him for 11 years. I convinced myself that one day we were just going to get a call saying he died. And that, sadly, would be that.
Last month, Dad’s 80 year old brother called my sister and said we needed to reach out to Dad. He was in the hospital with pneumonia. I was hesitant to reach out. My sister, who’d often been the subject of cutting comments from Dad, called him. She still cared. I cared. It’s just that, like my dad, I was too stubborn to simply reach out.
But, when it came time for my sister to visit with her children, my dad waved it off. Dad put up his wall of protection again. My sister didn’t give up, and thank God for that.
We discovered my father had also had a heart attack and the leukemia that was so ravaging his body, silently. My sister told me she didn’t want Dad to die alone and that she was going to head down with her husband. I told her that Casey and I were coming, too.
So the next day, Elizabeth and I walked into his room unannounced. He didn’t recognize me at first. It was my “dad weight.” Then he focused his eyes and heard my voice. He locked in.
“Boy, where did you get those cheeks?!”
We shook hands. Elizabeth gave him a kiss. And then we talked for four hours. He met my wife. And I perversely got to give him the surprise of his late life by wheeling his ex-wife into the room.
Let me tell you, it’s rare when you’re in your 40s to get your parents’ blood pressure up. But when Mom came in, he spiked. They even had to do an EKG. (He was fine.) I stifled laughter like an altar boy thinking of something funny during Mass.
It was during that conversation that he shared his Confession story and stories from his time in the Vietnam War. How he and some Army guys had a doo-wop group. I never heard that before. A commanding officer told him they could be famous.
He joked, “yeah, I was gonna go on tour with the guys while walking ankle deep in brown water in Vietnam.”
My dad saw FaceTime for the first time that day. He thought Elizabeth would get charged money for it. She explained that it’s free on her phone.
Then he saw my brother who was in Southern California. His face lit up. It was a brief conversation. But joy-filled. His three kids were back.
He was like that most of the visit. Happy. My wife called him charming. She said later it was a grace-filled moment rooted in mercy. (She’s such a Church worker. God, I love her.)
The last thing he and I said to each other that night was, “I love you.” We looked at each other when we said it. We meant it.
Less than a week later, Elizabeth and I were called to the hospital. Dad was declining fast. The leukemia was ravaging him. My sister and I drove hours to get to Georgetown. They were keeping him somewhat alert so we could talk to him.
He had a mask on. He looked gaunt and in pain. We told him we loved him. He whispered it back. We could hear him. It broke us.
A priest came. We held dad’s hands as he was anointed and given last rites. He mouthed the words to the prayers he’d known his entire life.
We held his hands over the next 12 hours as he faded. We watched his last breath, as he was there for our first.
My dad taught us something genuine in the last weeks of his life. It’s never too late to forgive and to atone. Make things right. Comfort the sick and dying. Love. Love, even when it’s difficult.
He died on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t easy. But, life, forgiveness and humility rarely are.
Thanks, Dad. Be at peace.
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Matt Palmer is a journalist and media relations director who led the U.S. Bishops’ social media effort during Pope Francis’ visit in 2015. He was born in Washington D.C. and is married with two children and lives in Baltimore.