What happened in Charlottesville was evil. Pure and simple. The same evil my father fought in WWII, now come home to America, complete with swastikas, seig heils (including “heil Trump”) and chants of “JEWS won’t replace us”, and, in the end, murder. The KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists, spewing their hate, were out in full force.
This is not a partisan issue. It is not about who you voted for in November 2016. It is about good versus evil, love versus hatred, and every American who believes that we are all, each one of us, created in the image of God, must have the courage to speak out against the dehumanizing tactics and beliefs of the evil that had arisen in our midst.
The summer after my mom died ten year ago, I discovered a cache of letters, poems, and old photos I had never seen before, many of which dated back to her high school and college years. It was disconcerting, to say the least, to discover that my mother–my mother!–had once been as immature and silly as I remember myself being during those years. Well, almost. There were other surprises awaiting me as well.
I think I was somewhere in my twenties when I realized that my parents had actually been people before I came into their lives. Interesting, intelligent, fun people, growing and experiencing young adulthood just as I was at the time. My head almost exploded at the thought. “Well, of course,” my mom said mildly, barely looking up from her mystery novel when I shared my discovery with her. My dad just looked at me. “When I was your age, I was fighting a war, ” was all he said, while I stood there with my mouth hanging open and my world tilted on its axis a bit more. Ever since, I’ve been hungry to learn more about them, the young woman and man who became my parents.
My mother’s letters and poems have helped me understand how she dealt (actually, she didn’t really deal) with the sudden loss of her father in a farming accident when she was 20. Reading her prose makes me sad that she never followed up on her youthful ambition to be a writer, and makes me more determined than ever to somehow, someway, realize my dream of becoming one, chronic migraines be damned! Looking through her papers I am continually reminded that although I may not be her flesh and blood, I am so much like her I might just as well be…The passionate love poem she wrote to my dad shortly before their wedding, well, I just have to keep putting that one aside because I can’t wrap my mind around that one, nor am I entire certain I want to!
But most astounding and overwhelming letters that I found were the ones I had no inkling existed, the letters she wrote to God when she converted to the Catholic Church in her early twenties. My mom was a real Christian; she lived the Beatitudes and was warm, generous, joyful, and loving, forgiving, nonjudgmental and kindness itself. But these letters reveal a depth of love so overwhelming that it is shocking, in the the same way some of the more mystical writings of the saints are shocking. It’s a good reminder that not all saints are canonized, that even those we love most have hidden depths, and that, indeed, we are all called to holiness.
I am so incredibly, amazingly, crabby at the moment. I overdid it with my physical therapy exercises yesterday and am paying the price today. I also, I admit, was (to my surprise) completely emotionally overwhelmed yesterday by the election of Pope Francis. Pope Francis. But I am experiencing a tough letdown today after my elation and tears, which is making me headachy and grumpy.
It’s so easy to find grace in the beautiful moments, the happy times, when it seems as though God’s love is in the very air we breathe. Which it is, of course. But now? As I sit here in our cluttered bedroom, staring at the immense pile of dirty laundry that is refusing to wash itself, not to mention the many books which I swear mate while we sleep that have no home at the moment, and I could really use a shower, if I could work up the energy to turn on the water, get some towels (any clean ones?) and dig out some shower gel and shampoo which I know we have, somewhere or other.
Yet…I look at the face of my sleeping cocker spaniel, faithfully dozing next to me on the bed. I look across the room and see our wedding portrait, and I remember that I have a husband who takes me to all of my doctor and physical therapy appointments–and they are legion–and never complains. I remember my mother, and how thrilled she would be to see Pope Francis, and I smile, and say a quick prayer to her. And I think to myself, wow, am I blessed. Even if I do suspect my physical therapist of trying to kill me.
Several years ago, our local archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, asked readers to respond to the question, “Who is My Neighbor?” For some reason, this question has been on my mind recently, perhaps because of what is happening in our political discourse (about which I will say no more). I believe that, as the Jesuits taught us at Boston College, we are truly called by God “to be men and women for others.” But it’s not enough to simply make abstract statements; a wonderful writing teacher taught me that it is much more effective to show, not just tell, in my writing. So I’ve copied my response to The Catholic Spirit and posted it below:
Dwarfed by the hospital bed, surrounded by IVs and beeping monitors, she was a tiny, frail elderly woman with enormous haunted dark eyes dominating a white face. A native of Poland, she spoke little English, but was nonetheless able to understand the diagnosis: inoperable stomach cancer. Six months, maybe less, to live.
I was a chaplain intern with a grand total of three weeks experience, observing my first hospice consult. What could I, a 27-year-old graduate student, possibly say to a lonely frightened dying woman who didn’t even speak English?
As I stood huddled in a corner of the room and watched, a tear formed in one of those dark eyes and slid slowly down her face. Then another. And another. Her fragile body began to shake; and suddenly I found myself far from the safety of my hidden corner, my inexperience forgotten, my arms around her and my face buried against her shoulder, I dug out my little blue plastic rosary, and as we wept and prayed together, the healing love of Christ transcended the gulf between us, overcoming the barriers of language and age, binding us together as fellow pilgrims walking hand in hand on our journey home.
In truth, I have come to realize since, we are all fellow pilgrims on a journey home to the God who created us. We are, indeed, our brother’s (and sister’s) keeper, and we are called to bear each other’s burdens. We have more in common than we realize, as I discovered in my first hospice consult, and it is through Christ’s love that we are able to journey with, and heal, each other.
Impossible to believe. I’ve lived without my father for two decades, despite all of my wondering on the day he died how I could last a day without him. A testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, I guess. And to the importance of cherishing our memories of those we have lost, in the knowledge that goodbye is not forever. Below is a repost of a tribute I wrote to my dad on this anniversary day several years ago:
He died face down in the cold, wet, new-fallen snow twenty years ago today on a shivery, white, mid-January Minnesota day. A day much like today. He was a husband and a father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew, a cousin, and a friend. And although Tom Brokaw hadn’t coined the phrase yet, he was one of the “Greatest Generation” the United States of America ever has known.
He was born in 1919, the third of eleven children in a large, exuberant German-Catholic farming family. He was forced to leave school after fifth grade, at the age of ten, to go work and help support the family. That was the year he and his older brother Leo shared one pair of shoes; one day Leo would wear them, the next day, Leo’s little brother got to wear them. In his teens he worked in the CCC–the Civilian Conservation Corps–sent all of his pay home to his folks, and remained a New Deal Democrat until the day he died.
He was sitting at the kitchen table filling out his card for the Selective Service (i.e. the draft) the afternoon he heard over the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Within a few years, he would take part in the bloodiest nightmares World War II had to offer: landing in the third assault wave on Omaha Beach, spending Christmas Day 1944 in some of the fiercest fighting the Ardennnes saw during the Battle of the Bulge, helping liberate one of the sub-camps of Buchenwald in the Hartz mountains of Germany (a work camp, not a death camp, was all he would ever tell me, adding a moment later that there wasn’t any difference).
When he finally came home in September of 1945 and discovered that his mother had saved all of his combat pay (which he’d sent home for the family to use) in a bank account for him, he used the money to buy the place where the family had been tenant farmers. He, his dad, and brothers founded a construction company too, and built many of the barns and houses in the Rush City-Pine City area of Minnesota, a number of which still stand today. He was the son who stayed home to farm and look after his mom and dad, putting off marriage and family until his parents decided to move into Rush City to live with his sister Julie. He was always the doting older brother and uncle, though, the tease, the one who made sure every niece and nephew had a Christmas present. He was the reason his little sister Jo refused to let her boyfriends come visit her at home–she knew she’d NEVER hear the end of it once her big brother found out a boy liked her! (Funny, his daughter had the same problem many years later…)
But in 1963 he married the girl he’d had his eye on for more than a decade and they settled down together in Minneapolis. They adopted a tiny daughter of five weeks in 1968. He almost died five years later, when he suffered his first heart attack, but luckily, it was mild and he lived another nineteen years. He lived to stick by his wife through two separate bouts of breast cancer, to take care of his daughter when she had three back surgeries for scoliosis at the age of seventeen. He lived to teach his little girl to fish, to show her by example that nothing in the whole world ever comes before the people you love. He took her to the Shrine Circus (unaware that she was terrified of clowns), the State Fair, and, every year, to see the Christmas lights in downtown Minneapolis. He stayed up with her all night when, at eighteen, the boy she thought she loved stood her up to go out with the campus floozy.
He was my father. His name was Leonard Henry Resch, and I adored him beyond reason, beyond words. And twenty years to the day he returned home to God, I still do. I always will. To have him as my father was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given. Thanks, God, you may have him back now–as long as you promise that some day, I’ll see that twinkle in his eye again, and I’ll get to kiss him on the forehead once more. That we’ll all be home again. Together, at last.