At the time, my father lay dying from cancer. Though raised in a culturally Catholic home, he had been away from the Church for many years. He had a number of axes to grind with the Church and, it seemed, with God. Despite his stubborn resistance to the Faith, my mother never gave up on him. She truly believed that her prayers and dedication would bear fruit in his life and that he would return to God's grace. She truly was a warrior for his soul, and fought for him until the end.
My mother was born into a Catholic family, but it wasn't until later in life that she experienced a deep conversion of heart. Shortly after I was born, Mom received a visit from Fr. Lawrence who had come with an invitation to live "the devout life." Sensing the "Hound of Heaven" calling her, she responded by living a life of intense Catholic devotion. That invitation and her "fiat" undoubtedly changed the course of our family's history—not only for my siblings and me, but for our children's children as well. Mom taught me catechism and handed on a great love of the Faith.
Unfortunately, my father hated the change he saw in her. After a series of very serious family issues, my mother's pastor counseled her to separate from my father in the best interest of the children—my brother, sister, and me. Although it was extremely difficult for her, she obeyed. For the next thirty-two years, my parents lived 250 miles apart, but remained on friendly speaking terms. They eventually divorced and got an annulment, leaving them both free to marry, though neither ever did. Mom felt a profound obligation to Dad. She may have known, as God did, that they would eventually become close friends. I now believe that God kept them both single because this would orchestrate the future circumstances of my father's return to the Church.
Every day Mom went to Mass and we prayed the Rosary together. Mom and I would pray for Dad constantly, that his heart would be opened to God. As a child I remember one time waiting for him to leave so we could hide brown and green scapulars in his mattress, hoping their proximity to his heart would melt the hardness there.
Mom reminded me of an army general pondering the next strategic move, always looking for chinks in Dad's armor. She employed hidden 'weapons'—hit-and-run tactics (share the Gospel in small doses, but change the subject before arousing anger), going up the chain of command (invoking saints and Our Lady), and Chinese water torture (unceasing prayer). She was in it for the long haul and Dad knew he had a formidable "opponent." He respected her.
This went on for decades—Mom trying to bring Dad back to the Church while Dad resisted. I sometimes got discouraged, but Mom would say, "I know Our Lord will see to it that he saves his soul." Then Dad got liver cancer. He lived alone and had to have a temporary colostomy after his first surgery. He was in bad shape. She drove five hours and stayed with him for two weeks to care for his personal needs, including all of his hygiene needs. She took care of him round the clock. She was careful to go to the earliest Mass while he slept so she would be back to care for him.
He often said that he would have died had it not been for my mother. I saw his eyes light up when he spoke to her. Whereas before he seemed equally glad to see me, afterwards I could see his love for her. It was beautiful. He couldn't really understand why she was so good to him. I explained that it was the love of Christ within her that he experienced. "She touches you with the hands of Jesus," I told him. "No one can love like that on her own."
As Christmas of 1999 approached, we figured it would be his last. We wanted him with us, but Dad said he was too tired to come for Christmas. We were prepared to drive down and get him, but he called and asked if he could come a few days early. He drove five hours and was so spent that he didn't have enough energy to get out of the car. The angels must have been guiding him as he drove.
Dad would shake his head in amazement that Mom took care of him after he had refused to return to the family. He was overwhelmed at the kindness and care he received. He knew that Mom technically had no legal or moral obligation to him, yet she showered spiritual and corporal works of mercy on him. There was nothing she could have done for him that she didn't do.
To put this all in perspective, my dad had let us grow up without a father. This had placed a tremendous burden on Mom to raise us virtually alone, and he had never apologized. By the world's standards, he owed us big time, and Mom owed him nothing. He had mistreated my brother and sister, but through the sacrificial example of Mom, they were there, loving him. Phil was there, washing him, changing his diapers. My sister, Julie, came and helped when she could.
I knew Dad had softened somewhat over the years concerning God. He even sprinkled a "God bless you" in his conversations sometimes. But still, Dad didn't have long to live, and it looked like this one was going to come down to the wire.
At Mom's prompting, I asked my pastor in early January to speak to Dad about confession. Fr. Jim said he would only come when my Dad agreed to confess. I was overcome with grief at the thought of Dad in hell, and poured out my concerns to my good friend, Sue. She said that her family and her brother's family would begin St. Faustina's Divine Mercy Novena for my Dad right away. (During an apparition to St. Faustina Kowalska, Jesus dictated a set of prayers now known as the Divine Mercy Chaplet. He promised to shower His abundant mercy upon those who recite it reverently.) I was relieved, and our family started the novena as well. On the third day of the novena—after forty years without going to confession—Dad agreed to confess!
Fr. Jim came to visit Dad. In my mind's eye, I imagined a huge reservoir of graces being held back by a huge dam. These were the graces amassed by my mother's faithful prayers, day after day, year after year, without wavering. I added my inconsistent and small contributions, made smaller by my lack of faith at ever seeing him change. Suddenly, the dam burst open as Jesus poured out torrents of His tender and infinite Mercy.
Emotionally spent, I heard the bedroom door open, and Fr. Jim came out smiling and waving us in. Mom had been in the living room, faithfully praying. We went in to see Dad, and he was transformed! He had a glow about his face, and he spoke with the innocence of a child. A fruit of the Holy Spirit is peace, and it was this peace we saw radiating from my father. After receiving last rites, Dad slept for four solid hours, the longest he'd slept since he'd come to stay with us.
For the first time in my life, my father had truly become my brother in Christ! His soul was at peace. Dad received His Lord in Holy Communion several times before he died. Mom would prepare him by reading prayers beforehand, and Dad would respond with an "Amen" or a simple grunt, all he could muster towards the end of his life.
The day before he died, Mom saw Dad (who had become increasingly less responsive) sit straight up in bed and look upward with wide-open eyes. He smiled and tried to raise his arm up toward the ceiling. Afterwards, he fell back into his comatose state. Mom thinks it might have been his Mother, Mary, his Lady of Czestochowa, who came to prepare him. Three weeks after my father's confession, I was urgently summoned to his bedside. It was January 24th, the feast of St. Francis de Sales. I joined my mother at Dad's side, and together we prayed, sang, cried, and rejoiced. As we shared in his last moments on earth, I did something I hadn't done since I was a little girl—I pulled out my father's hairbrush and began brushing his hair. I reflected on all the time I had missed with my father. Yet I rejoiced in the opportunity at spending eternity with him. I realized that both my mothers—the Blessed Mother and my own flesh-and-blood Mother—had remained faithful to him until the end.