Dad suffered kidney failure on the 4th of July, 2010. Fourteen months later he left us.
The interim was a painful blur of dialysis, hospital visits, and convalescence. Of the last nine months of his life, he spent nearly half his days in the hospital or in rehabilitation care units. He said he wouldn’t wish what he was experiencing on his worst enemy, though I don’t think my dad had any enemies.
He had been optimistic about his recovery, that he would get the swing of dialysis, perhaps even be able to take control of his own care, until about two months before he died. Optimism and a sense of humor were two of his trademark qualities. As his days wore on, his optimism turned more wistful but never left him, even as he and I talked through his last wishes, filled out a living will, and discussed the business of his death.
Just a few weeks before he died–he and I both knew it was just around the corner, like the birthday party he started imagining was going on outside his hospital room–I started asking him, “Dad, is there anything else you want me to take care of after it’s over?” I never had the fortitude to say, after you die. I never actually had to say after it’s over, to be honest: he just knew what I meant.
He would lay in his bed in ICU, shake his head, and reply, “No, there’s nothing else.” I think it was infinitely more difficult for him to accept my offer to do something for him than it was to admit that he was dying.
Every day for the next few days I would ask him the same thing. Is there anything you want me to take care of? And he would always reply, No, son, I can’t think of anything. Then one day, less than two weeks before he would die, I came to see him at the hospital. I had given up asking him a few days prior, but on this day he announced, “I’ve thought of something I want you to do for me.”
“What’s that, Daddy?” I asked.
“The next time you go to the Vatican, I want you to pray for your Mama and me.”
He had thought about it overnight and was resolute in this request, as if being firm in his wish helped control the emotion he surely had in requesting it of me. I assured him I would do it, though I found it profound on many levels, which is a story for another day.
He died in September, and what none of us expected was that Mom died in November, the week of Thanksgiving. I was still somewhere between grief and shock come winter when we started talking about a summer trip to Europe in 2012. Our itinerary setting is usually a give-and-take process, but I insisted for this trip we needed to go back to Rome. I had a request to fulfill. Lori, her sister Susan and Susan’s husband Randy would be going with us, and they were easily persuaded, though I didn’t tell them what I needed to do.
We had been to Saint Peter’s before, but for this visit we planned to take the Scavi tour. While World War II raged in Europe, Pope Pius XI secretly ordered excavations beneath the basilica. Nearly two thousand years of tradition, supported by sparse documentation, held that Saint Peter was interred there, in a cemetery adjacent to Nero’s Circus where he had been martyred, and that the basilica had been built (and built again) on top of the cemetery. Nobody knew for certain what was actually beneath the church, and the only way to know was to have a look. The archaeological findings are fascinating, another story for another day.
Reading about the Scavi tour, I wondered if it would be possible for me to fulfill my Dad’s wish not only at the Vatican, but in front of the tomb of Saint Peter himself. I became consumed with that as my mission, knowing that my alternate plan would simply have me attending mass in the basilica, likely as my dad imagined.
The day of our scheduled tour we showed up at the designated entrance well ahead of time, with in fact only two people already waiting ahead of us. They were two young men in their early twenties, obviously friends. We spoke with them after waiting a while, and found that they were high school buddies from Texas and one of them was in seminary in Rome studying for the priesthood.
Our tour group grew to a dozen, maybe fifteen. I can’t do the tour justice in describing it: only one that goes on the tour can fully appreciate it. I will say that it is not ecclesiastical in presentation in any form or fashion, and anybody, regardless of faith, creed, or lack thereof, would find it interesting, worthwhile, and informative.
Our group proceeded through the necropolis buried for nearly two millennia beneath the massive church, advancing slowly toward the culmination: a small room facing what might be the tomb of Saint Peter. The space was tight, only accommodating three or four of us at a time. I held back, letting most of the rest of my group go ahead of me, wondering if this would be my opportunity. It was.
There, in front of what many believe is the resting place of the apostle Jesus himself called the rock of his church on earth, was a place to kneel. I did, but I found it difficult to pray. My thoughts ran from a sudden, renewed grief of losing both my parents to an impatient realization that the group was now waiting for me. Dad was never one to like making people wait on him, and I inherited that gene twofold. I was overcome with emotion and I found it hard to concentrate. I wanted to see, to look into the tomb, my curiosity overpowering my sense of duty. I couldn’t fight the tears back, but I managed to close my eyes and recite the standard Catholic school boy’s litany of prayers.
As I did, a calm returned to me as I realized I had actually fulfilled my Dad’s wish. I hastily wiped the tears from my cheeks and beat a retreat from my kneeling position, only then realizing I wasn’t alone. Behind me were the twenty-something seminarian and his friend, kneeling as I had just been, their eyes wide and staring at me as if wondering if I were ok. I left the tomb and returned to our group, embarrassed knowing that everyone could tell I had been emotional.
The tour soon ended, and as we left Saint Peter’s we walked passed the two young men. “I’m sorry if I embarrassed you,” I said to the seminarian. I quickly explained what I had been doing, that I had been fulfilling my Dad’s last wish.
They both shook their heads vigorously, saying, “Don’t be embarrassed! You’ve reminded us why it is I want to be a priest.”
I’ve told this story a number of times now, and each time it evokes a new wave of emotion, and each time the emotion is a little different. I’ve thought of this story more the last few days as Father’s Day approaches, and I tell it in honor of my Dad.