Letting Go

I was not only my father’s son, I was also my father’s priest. Shortly after I accepted a call to a parish church in suburban Philadelphia in 1984, both my parents joined the congregation. It had benefits: first, it insured that we saw them weekly, keeping us connected to them as well as providing regular engagement between Mom, Dad, and my children – something all parties involved had missed when I was serving parishes in other states. It also bestowed some near-instantaneous prestige on my arrival as Rector (“My goodness, he’s only been here for two weeks and already the parish is growing!”). Many of the benefits emerged over time. About a year after our mutual arrival, my mother offered to knit a sweater for every child that I baptized. In the 20 years I served that church, she knitted almost a thousand sweaters for infants and children brought to the Font.

But there were a few downsides as well. My role with my parents changed almost immediately. Instead of just being a son (with all the tolerance and acceptance and impatience and irritation that comes with that), I was also now their pastor, their gatekeeper to sacramental life, an authority in a community of people they had embraced. At the outset, it was strange and somewhat uncomfortable, like wearing a pair of new shoes that haven’t been broken in, but we adjusted. I learned to hear their concerns about parish life without becoming reactive, they learned which interpersonal lines could be crossed safely, and which needed to be respected. In actual fact, we managed the transition remarkably well for a good ten years.

Then my father’s health began to spiral downward. Over a period of time, we noticed that he became desperately fatigued following the slightest exertion, that he was devoid of stamina, that his appetite, sleep, mood, and affect changed. A near collapse precipitated his admission to the Emergency Room of a nearby hospital, and he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurism that ran from his heart to the iliac. Following surgery to replace the aorta with a synthetic vessel, he never really regained his former strength or appetite for life. His resultant decline, if not quick, was steady. Less than a year later he was once again hospitalized and diagnosed with congestive heart failure and renal failure – a near systemic collapse. He died, as so often happens, in the low and lonely pre-dawn hours of an ordinary day, having spent the evening before with my mother, my sisters and myself.

The calls began: the hospital to Mom (“Mrs. Scott, I’m sorry…”), Mom to me and my sisters (“He’s gone.”), me to my secretary (“I won’t be in…”). I dressed and drove to my mother’s home and as I walked in the door, I was overwhelmed with the realization that I was more than a grieving son. I was the Pastor, the Priest, the Arranger, the Planner, the Set-Things-in-Motion guy. We hugged, we prayed, we sat down with coffee. Then I heard myself say “Okay, here’s what we need to do.”

I had done it innumerable times for others. Death is always accompanied by Busy, slamming into the numbness and shock of those left behind. We started. First on the list was the Funeral Home. We made arrangements to go later in the afternoon. Then there were more calls to be made, the will to be found, insurance companies and the Veterans Administration to be contacted, a date for the funeral, the organist, the florist, a caterer to provide refreshment for those traveling from a distance.

We arrived at the funeral home at the appointed hour, were seated at a conference table and settled in for something we knew was going to hurt. I knew what was coming. The funeral director said, “Someone will have to identify the body.”

“I’ll do that,” I said, before anyone else had a chance to even consider.

We went to a lower and more sterile room, a lumped sheet laying on a metal and canvas gurney just inside the door. The funeral director lifted the sheet away from my father’s face, cold, gray, inanimate. I reached into a coat pocket, withdrew an oil stock, unscrewed the lid, moistened my thumb and traced the sign of the Cross on my father’s forehead. “Robert, I absolve you of all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world. In the Name of God the Father who created you, God the Son who redeemed you, God the Holy Spirit who sanctified you. May your rest this day be in Paradise, and your dwelling with the angels of God.”

I had said those words a thousand times, two thousand times. But never to my father.

The Sacrament was accompanied by an immediate realization: I had to let go. At first, it was just the thought that I had to let go of any old resentments or hurts that had existed between my father and me. Blessedly, there were few, but no relationship lasting more than fifty years is free of emotional clutter. I had disappointed and hurt him; he had disappointed and hurt me. It happens. I had to let go of those moments. I soon realized that so much more had to be released: things that I clung to about him, about myself including that while we may not have been everything we wanted to be together, what we had been would now have to be enough.

But if there was release, there was also gain, albeit gain as insufficient compensation for loss. I realized that for the first time, I had my father’s whole life as a narrative (at least as much of that narrative as I possessed): that here was a life with a beginning and a middle and an end; that it was a story that could be told, a story that impacted and shaped my journey and the journey of others, still unfolding. I also gained an immediate sense of inheritance – not money or property, but rather values, commitments, relational lines of varying intensities. Like all things inherited, some of these would be cherished, maintained lovingly, others would be set aside as remnants of a time passed.

I missed one thing. While I cared for my family, I failed to care for myself. Grief delayed is grief that hits hard when it descends, and six months after my father’s death it hit me. Like everyone else who grieves, my sense of loss was tempered by time and engagement with those I love and a willingness to embrace new definitions of self and family. But there was also a new realization that shaped every day that followed: someday my own story will reach its conclusion and my children will have to decide whether to hold on, or to absolve and let go.