My Father's Last Father's Day

My dad came from a different world, but he was always there for me, whether kneeling at Mass or working day in and day out.

John Zmirak, Sr., 1927-2005

Last July my father went away, leaving my life with a dad-shaped hole that nothing will ever fill. Only the preceding Christmas, the stomach cancer he’d been battling for a year had seemed to be in remission after surgery and chemotherapy, and for some months he was eating again—tiny portions because the surgery had left him with only a tiny, fist-sized stomach. He’d slimmed down from the big, burly, Santa Claus-sized dad I’d always known, and for the first time I could remember we both wore the same pants size.


The treatment won him nine months of health, time for dancing again at the senior center with the woman he'd married after Mom died in 1996, for a few hundred more tiny meals, and for starting a bunch of household projects which he would not live to finish. By Easter 2005 he had lost all appetite and couldn’t join the rest of us for supper. We convinced ourselves that this was just the after-effect of surgery and tried to find him food that he could keep down, but all through the spring we watched him fade away. By summer it was clear to everyone but him. He spent his last Father’s Day at the old Astoria General Hospital in Queens, the same hospital where I was born.

They say that a father’s example is decisive in most men’s lives—and this is nowhere more true than in the spiritual life. A devout mother can usually pass along her faith to daughters intact, whether or not her husband is a believer. But for some deep psychic reason, most boys need to see their mothers' faith affirmed and practiced by their fathers, or they will lose it. I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in my own family. My sisters married non-believers—and their own daughters still go to church but not their sons, who mimic their fathers’ wry skepticism and chuckle as “the girls” trot off to Mass.

I was blessed with a father who set a different example. Whenever he would wake me up with the sun on a weekend morning, I knew it was for one of two reasons: to go fishing or to the Holy Name Society Mass on the second Sunday of every month. This was an all-male affair for which the grocers, barbers, and other men in our working-class neighborhood dressed up in suits to honor the Mystery that drove them to their knees. We’d usually end the Mass by belting out this hymn:

"Faith of our fathers, holy faith,

We will be true to thee till death."

Then we’d troop down to the church basement to eat cheese Danishes, and drink coffee with milk but no sugar (I still think of it as "Holy Name Society coffee"), and organize our good works for the parish. My favorite task was the Christmas crèche. Together we’d hammer and saw and strew pine boughs, putting together the crib that would hold the Holy Family through the Advent and Christmas seasons. Of course, the baby Jesus was never placed in the crèche until Christmas Eve—and my father explained to me why: "It teaches us how to wait."

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John Zmirak
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