Relating to a Deceased Parent
June 28, 2017

“It is natural that a father’s care for his son should endure to the end of his life.”
Thomas Aquinas, SCG Bk III

My mother is moving today from the house to which she and my father came over twenty-two years ago. I have been helping in the enormous job of packing, and yesterday I spent some time collecting a few things from a very special place: my father’s garden.

There is nowhere that I feel my father’s presence more strongly than among the trees, plants, and soil that he tended. I have not had time to maintain what Dad planted—though much still remains, and so it has been especially difficult for me to go there. There are some beautiful garlic plants still growing among the weeds, having reseeded themselves for at least eight years. Dad passed almost four years ago, and he was unable to garden in his last several years.

So yesterday I rummaged through the weeds, in search of a few garlic bulbs to dig, as well as some comfrey plants. One of Dad’s countless birdhouses—all were carefully made by hand—was there in the tangle. The front of the house was bulging out with an old nest squeezed behind it. I decided to take out the old nest and see if I could set the house aright; perhaps a pair of birds might use it yet again. Starting to remove the multi-layered nest—I suppose by unconscious habit doing it slowly—behold I spied a clutch of baby birds. I knew right away they were bluebirds.

Carefully tucking the nest back in, only then did I turn my gaze upward and listen. The tell-tale soft warble was not far off; and there was a father bluebird looking down at me. No distress call, no swooping down to ward off danger—common among other nesting birds; just a gentle, if somewhat concerned warble. “Don’t worry Mr. Bluebird,” I found myself saying in my father’s voice, “it’ll be alright.” I almost wondered if the bluebird recognized me.

At that point I was overcome with emotion, and I hung my head and wept.

The relation between a parent and a child is one of the most profound of human realities. My relationship with my father has changed since he passed away. He is present to me in ways that he was not and could not be before. Yet our current relationship remains grounded in things that we did long or not so long ago.

I think we have to be careful not to romanticize or white-wash our past interactions with parents who are now deceased. The wounds we carry are just as real as the blessings. But in the end, the wounds need not have the final word; indeed, they too ultimately can be blessings. When I am feeling the pain of some past wound, one thing I try to do is put it in the context of what I know my father most of all wanted to be for us children. I hope that my own children might be able to do the same one day.

So I go about my way, living in the presence of my father via so many memories and tangible reminders. Thomas Aquinas wrote that a father’s care for his children should endure to the end of his life–a remarkable thing. I think we can go even further: it can endure even to the end of his children’s lives.

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NOTE: Please forgive me for putting off until next week the What to Do This Summer installment.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274) is considered by many to be the greatest theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages. A Dominican friar, a major interpreter of Aristotle, and a Master of Theology at the University of Paris, he was known for his humility, and his single-minded devotion to teaching.

Image: a male Eastern Bluebird

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  1. We are losing my father due to dementia. There is no preparation for any of this; save in the knowledge that thanks be to Jesus – this is not the end. Yet that doesn’t seem to lessen his fear.

    It is such a powerful reminder that a life lived far from Christ becomes a difficult journey when you know you need to find a way back – because the road is coming to an end – and you just don’t know how. I just wish it was a reminder more readily available to the young.

    Thank you for your sweet writings; they are often a blessing.

    1. Susan, thank you very much for sharing. One thing I would say to you: treasure the moments together now. As I look back on my father’s last two years of dementia, I still wish I had spent more time with him…just being together.

  2. Losing a spouse is like that, only so very much worse…………

    1. Gay, I try to reckon with this almost every day with my mother. God grant us all the grace to grow through the suffering together…

  3. Beautiful sentiments. I lost my father 20 years ago; he was 91 and so had a long fruitful life, but I still miss him terribly. I agree that we should not whitewash past interactions with parents now departed, although I found, and I trust that you will, that over the years, memories of the good, the worthy and the kindnesses, serve to tamp down any memories to the contrary. God bless our parents.

    1. Kenny, Thanks very much. That is a very beautiful thought, and I can see that happening already. Thanks again. God bless them indeed.

  4. I lost my father when I was 8…. this was so wonderful to read. Can’t express my thoughts but just a beautiful post that makes me recall the few things I do remember. Thank you. – Mandy D.

    1. Mandy, That makes me so happy. Thanks very much.

  5. His love of simple beauty is my memory of him and I see him everyday. Thanks, Uncle John.

    1. Paul, You are a man after Grandpa’s, and your father’s, heart.
      You are very welcome.

  6. John,

    You pass the gifts your father brought to your life on as you parent your children. The lessons you learned from goodness and from his flaws. I am happy for you that you went back to the garden you had been avoiding. As you taste the garlic that started with him, now tended by you and fed to your home his life intertwines with yours. It grows. Your recipe won’t taste the same, the soil you place the bulb in will be different, the sun, the water, the nutrients, the surrounding plants, and your own nurturing will nuance its flavor. It will have part of him though, and it will be Good.

    1. Malia, I always so appreciate your thoughts–they help me process my situation. Thanks very much!

  7. Beth Fittin Wiene

    My parents are nearing the ends of their lives at ages 96 and 93. I enjoyed reading this John. It brought me comfort and perspective. We have to enjoy what we are given and be thankful despite the imperfections that are a part of the human condition. Joy only comes when we are able to accept life’s sorrows with the knowledge that there is a greater end.

    1. Beth, Very well said. What a blessing to have your parents with you for so many years. God bless you all.

  8. My father had to leave school as a young man to help support the family. To bring in a few more dollars he became a professional boxer.
    Without schooling or any contacts, he ultimately became vice president of one of the largest advertising agencies in the nation. He had Irish charm and a brilliant mind and my three sisters and I loved him very much. His was quite a man.

    1. What a great story. May the richness of his legacy live on in all of you.

  9. This was a special post – which resonated with me, since my Dad was killed in a car accident 2 years ago… I, too, am keenly reminded of him in his garden, and I have an old bird house which he put together – I thank you for these words of none other than Thomas Aquinas. Our fathers can , I believe, still hear us when we pray for them, to them. And sooner than we realize, the veil will be lifted that separates us from them.

    1. Elizabeth, I am very glad to hear this. And you are so right: it will be sooner than we realize. Thank you.

  10. Beautiful! So many images and memories of my own parents. The fruit trees and flowering
    bulbs my Father planted on his property are a wonderful reminder of him and more importantly the wonder of God! Thank you John.

    1. Isn’t there something so unique about trees and plants planted by a loved one? You are very welcome, Marylee.

  11. As I read this am remembering his hands and the way he touched the plants, the bird houses and me too. I think his hands are one of the main things about him I will never forget. I’m grateful to you for writing this post!
    –Mary T.

    1. Mary T., You are so right! There is so much in the hands…

  12. I am weeping with you, John. For me, it is my father’s workbench. And having just bought my own first home, he is with me every time I use one of his tools. Thank you for touching that part of my heart that is missing him so deeply today.

    1. Karen, Thank you for sharing. What a blessing to have that connection through his tools, as a reminder of your deeper connections.

  13. I lost my father 12 days ago. Thank you for this post. It will help me in the days ahead, as will some of the conversation from the comments.

    1. Carie, I am very sorry. I will remember him, you, and all your family in prayer. May this be the beginning of new ways of being with and relating to your father.

  14. John:

    What you quote from St. Thomas is truly wonderful. I recall what our teacher D. Berquist has asked:

    Q: What’s better than seeking wisdom with your friends?
    A: Sharing wisdom with your friends.

    So, when I recognized the passage, I looked it up to find the next sentence to be most fitting for the occasion of your reflection:

    “Therefore, if even in the case of birds the care of the father gives rise to the dwelling together of male and female, the natural order demands that father and mother in the human species remain together until the end of life.

    The wisdom of this part of the SCG is sorely needed today so we might know ourselves better, know our parents better … and know God better.

    Thank you! And may your dear old Dad, Chris, rest in peace!