[The following column was printed in The Forum newspaper, on Dec. 28, 2013. Reprinted with permission.]
Living Faith: Unopened present a reminder of gifts to come
By Roxane B. Salonen
Last year around this time, I was visiting with my father in the hospital for what would be the last time. He’d been newly hospitalized and was struggling with things that used to be simple, like swallowing, eating and breathing.
The conversation was difficult. In order to be present to him, I had to empty myself of all expectations and try to meet him where he was. But since there was no point of reference for any of this – the setting, the circumstances – it felt to me like groping in the dark.
Eventually, we found a way to share some light-hearted moments together, but inside I was a mess. I didn’t know he was dying; only that he was unwell and out of sorts.
Our time came to an abrupt end when he started coughing and, unable to catch his breath, began literally shooing me out the door. “Just go, go!” he said, waving me away.
“OK. I will. I love you, Dad.”
“Love you too, Rock.”
It was a painful parting and the last time I’d see him with his eyes open.
Just outside his door, I paused in the hall, crouching over to quietly let go of a rush of pent-up tears. What was happening to Dad?
We spent our Christmas in another state, but Mom offered daily reports, including how she’d brought a Christmas present to my father but he refused to open it.
Maybe he just didn’t see the hospital and Christmas as fitting together. Surely, he’d open it once he got home, I thought.
But Dad never came home. He made it a few weeks past Christmas, but just after midnight, on Jan. 11, my father’s body succumbed. After several days of labored breathing in a drug-induced state, he was gone.
When my sister, mother and I walked into Mom’s eerily quiet apartment, I couldn’t help but notice the little Christmas tree glowing in the darkness and something glittery at its base. It was a single gift, the one my father had pushed away, still wrapped.
The sight of it felt like a jab to the heart. It seemed so cruel knowing Dad would never open the gift Mom had so lovingly prepared. And yet I couldn’t help but wonder if Dad had been the wiser.
He’d expressed fears over dying in those final weeks, so I know it had been on his mind. And while I don’t think he was clamoring to leave this earth, could his soul have known and begun to let go?
This was confirmed the day of his funeral when the priest who’d heard my father’s final confession shared with my sister and me in an exceptionally tender and gracious moment that Dad was aware he may be dying, and not only that, he was prepared.
Processing all of this over time, I’ve been able to see something I couldn’t have then. By not opening his Christmas gift, Dad wasn’t saying “no” to life but “yes” to another, better life.
On some level, I believe Dad understood that no earthly gift – even a handsome, new shirt he would have loved during his most vibrant living times – could satisfy the yearnings of his heart to open the ultimate present.
It is one that cannot be wrapped or unwrapped, but only offered at the end of a life lived in an earnest search for the only thing that can truly satisfy – God’s total and complete unconditional love.
Dad didn’t want me to see him suffer. He knew he had business to tend to, and he had to do it alone, though not without spiritual assistance.
His final gift to my sister and me as his soul passed were his tears; tears to tell us he loved us, but just as much or more, he loved what was before him, and it was, indeed, worth waiting and even suffering for.