A Finished Book and a Broken Heart
Last November, my friend Tessa Bielecki and I were delighted with the new edition of Holy Daring, Tessa’s exuberant book about St. Teresa of Avila, with a new foreword by our friend, new monastic Adam Bucko. And December 2016 began with joy and a sense of accomplishment: we published Desert Voices: The Edge Effect, which gathers writings from the first ten years of the Desert Foundation. We were eager to share excerpts with you on this site throughout December and into the New Year. But on December 11 I received a call from a staff worker at my father’s assisted living residence. She wanted me to know that Dad had suffered a very serious choking episode and was taken to the ER at his local hospital in Green Valley, Arizona. Two weeks later, he died.
Tessa and I had planned for months to be with Dad for Christmas. Suddenly, we weren’t sure he would survive till then. We canceled visits with friends and family in Arizona and headed straight to Tucson to find Dad in the ICU at St. Mary’s Hospital. It is impossible to describe the distress of seeing this beloved man—usually so full of good cheer and mischief—with his face masked, struggling to breathe, even with oxygen streaming into his lungs.
Two days later, our friend Cynthia from Dad’s residence visited. She told Tessa and me that Dad could go “home” and receive hospice care. It felt like leaving Dad in the ICU was torturing him, but taking him back to his familiar room and friends also meant surrendering to his imminent death. No reports from doctors brought hope, so, at 92, Dad returned home to die.
Tessa fell ill with bronchitis, but our old friend David Levin, who now lives in Arizona, came to the rescue, cooking for us and being the perfect friend.
Dad perked up beautifully when he got home. The twinkle returned to his eyes as friends stopped in to see him. I was thrilled to show him Desert Voices, with Mom’s painting on the cover. I had a sense it may be one of the last things he would see on this earth. The book includes reflections on my mother’s death, and now we were facing Dad’s, facing a new vastness in the inner desert of loss.
At the beginning of his homily at Midnight Mass for Christmas in Green Valley, the priest received a young couple dressed as Mary and Joseph and their two-week-old child. The parents processed up to the altar and gently transferred the infant into the priest’s arms. I’m guessing Fr. Maldonado comes from a big family and has lots of nieces and nephews whom he often holds: he was completely relaxed with the child, and it was mutual. Throughout the homily the child slept. It was a balm to my soul to see this new life celebrated as my father’s life waned. I remember Dad saying more than once that he’d love to stick around, but there’s only so much space on this planet, so he would have to move on at some point to make space for the next generations.
Dad was unresponsive on Christmas and he quietly died the following evening. In our last encounter on Christmas Eve, he whispered that he knew I wished I could do more for him. I leaned closer to hear his whisper, and he said, “I’m a happy camper.”
Years ago Dad asked my brother Mike to read Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” at Dad’s funeral. Through tears, Mike did it on December 30, 2016. It is the only poem I remember Dad quoting from time to time. When my friend Theano Lamb heard about it, she wrote: “The Happy Camper has crossed the bar.” What a lovely, poetic way to sum up my father’s legacy.
I wanted to share this with all of you because he was a beautiful man whose generous life of community service, kindness, respect, laughter, faith, and unassuming depth is worth celebrating, and also to let you know why we have been away from our web site for so long.
We look forward to a new beginning in 2017, although it may be an especially difficult year for all of us involved in seeking deeper understanding, respect, and mutual support between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Let us pray that each of us will have the courage to undergo the conversion, metanoia, that will take us more deeply into our own traditions and open us further to the beauty and wisdom of the others.