In Chapter 2 of My Sisters The Saints, we journey with Colleen as she recollects learning of her father’s Alzheimer's diagnosis how she experienced a role reversal of sorts. Colleen writes, “Now that I was finally old enough to know my father as an adult, he would become a child.”
Enter St.Thérèse of Lisieux, also known as Sister Thérèse of the Child Jesus and The Little Flower. Thérèse's father, like Colleen’s, also died of a slow, progressively debilitating illness, and Thérèse became a surprising source of spiritual comfort to Colleen. Surprising because Colleen confessed that she was once put off by St. Thérèse's "flowery quotes and syrupy-sweet likeness" on holy cards. As Colleen learned more about Thérèse, she came to appreciate how this childlike saint could help her make sense of what was happening to her father.
St. Thérèse really wasn’t on my radar either, for similar reasons as Colleen's, until about five years ago. Thérèse died on September 30, 1897. My dad died on the same day, 112 years later. I find it no small coincidence that he shares a death anniversary with the saint who is known for doing small things with great love. Many would say the same about my father --- a humble, simple man who loved well and found God in the ordinary routine of each day.
Dad viewed each day as an opportunity to say yes to God. In fact, one of his favorite expressions was, “I’m doing it for the Lord!” My dad's death did not come at the hands of a terminal illness or debilitating disease, however. It was one of those freak, fast, and tragic accidents that you read about and think, “Dear God. What a crappy way to die.”
I remember all too well the events surrounding his unexpected death. It was a lovely fall day in central Iowa. A warm breeze blew through the air, softly stirring the leaves that were just beginning to change color. The weather was so nice, I actually snuck out of work a bit early to enjoy the remaining hours of sunlight with my then one-year-old daughter, Lucy. I hated being away from her so much, and I was mightily struggling to achieve a healthy family-work balance.
Once home for the day, Lucy and I hit the backyard to play. She had just mastered walking, and I noticed she was adding a little trot to her stride. There was a moment, an occasion I now explain as the day when time stood still. I’m not quite sure how long it lasted, but I remember standing in our backyard, nearly paralyzed and simply staring out into space. My stare was eventually broken when I noticed Lucy toddling toward our deck, giggling with delight, arms reached out as if she was running to greet someone. I thought my husband, Joel, had arrived home, but when I looked up toward the deck, no one was there.
The evening marched on and probably an hour later I received a call from a cousin who broke the news that my dad had been in a very serious accident while working in his backyard -- a tree had fallen and crushed him to the ground. My cousin implored me to get to the hospital as soon as possible. By that time, Joel had come home from work, and we had just sat down for dinner.
We left the house in a panic to make the hour-long drive to my hometown. As we raced to get to the hospital, Joel and I prayed the Rosary, and each time I uttered the words, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” I just had a sense it was the hour of my dad’s death. I sobbed harder and harder each time we got to that line in the prayer. Before reaching the hospital, I received a call from my sister telling me dad had died, but in my heart, I already knew.
I often reflect on that time-stood-still-moment when I saw Lucy running toward something … or someone, rather … with her arms reached out and a big ol’ smile on her face as her sweet giggles echoed through the air. I have absolutely no certainty in anything, but I do know that according to the coroner’s report, my dad’s accident occurred at about that same moment as the experience I share here. My sixth sense tells me her little mind saw something extraordinary that day and my dad had a starring role.
A few weeks before his death, dad asked me a rather straightforward question. “Are you happy?” he questioned, referring to my obvious struggles of balancing family needs and professional desires. Even though I was receiving great accolades in the professional world and earning a cushy salary, I wasn’t happy. My professional commitments left me exhausted with little left in the tank to give to my family. I was denying my husband his wife, my child her mother, and myself an opportunity to fulfill my vocational call.
A few months after dad died, I found two squash sitting in my pantry, still in remarkably good condition. They were grown in my parents’ garden, and Dad had given them to me shortly before he died. He was so proud of them, and rightfully so. They were perfectly shaped and colored — Iowa State Fair blue ribbon quality, I reckon. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything with them. I didn’t want to cook them. I didn’t want to throw them out. The squash served as a physical reminder of my dad, and I obviously wasn’t yet ready to let go of the tangible.
Just as the squash served as a physical reminder of dad in those weeks following his death, his Are you happy? simple, childlike question lingered, stirring my spirit for months to come, serving as a powerful reminder of him — his simple, humble ways, and doing small things with great love.
A little over a year after my dad’s death, I resigned from my job in order to be at home full-time with my daughter. We’ve since welcomed two more children into this world.
Am I happy? Yes. Am I tired? Yes. Am I at peace? Yes (well, most days!).
Do I become frustrated and get out of whack spiritually as I attempt to do the small, mundane daily tasks at Das Schmidt Haus with great love? Absolutely, several times a day, in fact.
But I pray one day my kids will proudly say the same of me as I do about my dad — she was humble, simple, loved well, and found God in the ordinary routine of each day.
You know that our Lord does not look at the greatness or difficulty of our action, but at the love with which you do it. What, then, have you to fear?” ~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
To Ponder, Reflect, and Discuss:
- St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote about her “little way” which consisted of small, everyday acts of love. Look around. What are the small things that matter to God? How can you do them with great love?
- How can you find the good—and God’s will—in bad tidings?
- Just as Alzheimer’s made Colleen’s father more like a child in his faith, Thérèse also strove for childlike faith in God. What qualities do children possess that are essential to your faith?
Feel free to comment on your own thoughts from this week's reading, your impressions and reflections, and/or your answers to these questions.
Next week, we'll cover Chapter 3, "Trust Fall." For the complete reading schedule and information about our Book Club, visit the My Sisters the Saints Book Club page.
Copyright 2014 Lisa Schmidt
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