That was a quote on a cheap plastic plaque I gave my dad for Father’s Day when I was maybe nine- or ten-years-old. It was the type of thing a kid could find at the local drug store that perfectly captured that child’s sentiment. That’s how I felt about my dad, who died a little over five years ago. I found that plaque as my older brothers and I cleaned out his apartment and was touched he had kept it for so many years.
I thought of my dad a few nights ago as I read about Pope Francis giving final approval to name Popes John Paul II and John XXIII as saints, taking the rare step of waiving the requirement for a second confirmed miracle for John XXIII. The news brought to mind that 1970s Saturday Night Live character, Father Guido Sarducci, played by Don Novello, and his skit about Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton being declared a saint even though she only had three miracles to her name. The actual dialogue is just too funny, so I simply must reprint it here (thanks to IMDb.com for providing the quote):
”To be made a saint in-a the catholic church, you have to have-a four miracles. That’s-a the rules, you know. It’s-a always been that-a. Four miracles, and-a to prove it. Well, this-a Mother Seton-now they could only prove-a three miracles. But the Pope-he just waved the fourth one. He just waved it! And do you know why? It’s-a because she was American. It’s all-a politics. We got-a some Italian-a people, they got-a forty, fifty, sixty miracles to their name. They can’t-a get in just cause they say there’s already too many Italian saints, and this woman comes along with-a three lousy miracles. I understand that-a two of them was-a card tricks.”
My dad loved Father Guido Sarducci, thought he was hysterical. My dad could be a pretty rigid guy: he had a dry sense of humor, the type of man whose jokes were particularly appreciated because they were rare. When my dad thought something was funny, it always seemed particularly funny. And my dad though Father Guido Sarducci was funny. He would repeat his jokes whenever Sarducci was featured on SNL, and I’d double over laughing every time. My dad also loved a later SNL character, Church Lady, played by Dana Carvey. He’d repeat Church Lady’s famous phrase, “Isn’t that special?” for a few days after seeing one of her skits and again, I’d burst out laughing immediately.
I think of my dad every day, to be honest, because he was one of the most important people in my life and most days, something brings him to mind. It could be a person or a joke or, increasingly, ways I notice myself performing certain tasks and approaching the world. Like I said, my dad was fairly rigid and, I have to admit, I can be pretty rigid, too. Funny that his rigidity was the thing that most irritated me about him, yet here I am, a 44-year-old woman, and I notice myself quite frequently being just as damn rigid and—OK, I’ll admit it—obsessive-compulsive as he was. Go figure. The sins of the fathers are revisited upon the daughters or something like that. My dad died June 2, 2008, at age 74 from aggressive prostate cancer. He was too young to die, really, as he’d been in terrific health his whole life, a former military man who’d graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and spent his early years in the Air Force stationed outside Paris. He and my mother came back to the States in their late-twenties to be near family as they raised their own. My dad retired from the military and took a job as an insurance salesman working for his father-in-law. Insurance sales became his career but never his passion: he was always musing about getting out of the business and doing something else, but it never happened. No—tennis, West Point, and his kids were his true passions in life. He and my mother divorced after twenty-plus years of marriage; other than their early years of marriage when my father was stationed in France, they never were all that happy together. So my dad always struck me as a man who never quite fulfilled his dreams: never renewed his pilot’s license, never returned to Europe after those three years in the Air Force, never pursued another career, even though all those things were goals he discussed with greater and lesser degrees of enthusiasm over the years. I suppose my dad was like so many of us in that respect, dreaming but never doing, feeling somehow thwarted by life and circumstances beyond our control. I used to criticize him for it, think to myself that I would never be like that, never fail to pursue my dreams, never live a life of seeming mediocrity, yet here I am at age 44, and I can see how it happened. He did lots of wonderful things for sure, but he never accomplished those dreams. Maybe that’s good enough, not just some acquiescence to mediocrity. Maybe some dreams are never fated to become reality anyway. Maybe the secret to a contented life is accepting that it’s O.K. for some dreams never to come to fruition.
There is hope to be gleaned from my father’s final hours on this earth, hope that good enough really is good enough. You see, my father—again, like many people—was afraid of his own mortality. Yet in his final moments, my father achieved a sense of peace I witnessed with my own eyes. I like to imagine it was because he had two of his four children by his side and had a sense his life, however it had turned out and regardless of what he’d “accomplished” or not accomplished, was enough. That final night was difficult for me but an experience I will cherish for the rest of my days, because it allowed me to see a man formerly plagued by fear achieve a sense of acceptance. Maybe there’s hope for the rest of us. Below is a recollection of that final night I wrote as part of a writing retreat in Whitefish, Montana, led by a fabulous instructor and shared with ten wonderful women for whom I will forever have loving memories, wherever our life paths may take us:
I stared down at my father in his hospital bed, watching him breathe slowly and with difficulty, with the assistance of an oxygen mask delivering very little of the stuff. I was in the room with my older brother Craig, his wife, Erin, and my husband, Lanse. We were waiting for him to die, and the process was being narrated by my brother, a surgeon who was explaining what was happening inside my dad’s body in real time. It was a little disconcerting, trying to separate the emotions I was experiencing as my dad lay dying while my brother gave the medical play-by-play in a somewhat clinical tone. “See, now his oxygen count is down to fifty percent, but his heart is incredibly strong, so even though he’s breathing so shallowly, his body is still very much alive.” I suppose it was easier, for all of us, to focus on the clinical aspects of the process. That way, I wouldn’t think about the fact that only five hours earlier, my father was cognizant enough to tell me not to look when an angelic nurse gave him a sponge bath and changed his gown to make him more comfortable, even though she knew he had only hours to live. My dad always was modest, and the thought of his only daughter seeing his naked body, even though he too knew he was dying, was too much for him to bear. I guess that’s one of the last things to go; at least it was for him. I knew he was aware of his fate, because I had told him earlier that evening the doctors were going to reduce his oxygen slowly. While they had informed me and my brother there was nothing they could do for him, we hadn’t used those exact words with my father. I simply said, “Dad, they’re going to reduce your oxygen, do you know what that means?” Since my father had pneumonia and had been on one hundred percent oxygen all day—this after aggressive prostate cancer had ravaged the rest of his body—he knew what that meant. “Yes,” he replied. “Are you O.K. with that?” “Yes.” So there it was: my dad, terrified of his own mortality for as long as I’d known him, so much so that he’d had a nervous breakdown five years prior at the prospect of radical surgery for his then newly-diagnosed prostate cancer, had achieved a measure of peace with death.
You were more than good enough, Dad; of that much, I am sure. And truly, no one can fill your shoes.