Pat on the head

Friday, August 28, 2015 - Updated: 7:00 am

When I was a young boy, my parents made the choice that I would go to a Catholic school. I was grateful for it then. I am even more grateful for it now.

Our family home was about five miles outside of the town of Ambridge. St. Stanislaus School, the parish school where I had my elementary education, was two blocks from the home of my Slovak grandparents. I would go to their home for lunch every day — 12 years straight — during both my elementary school and high school years. My grandmother, whom I affectionately called “Porchy,” and my grandfather, whom I called “Dzedo,” were more than happy to welcome me each day.

It was not unusual that during lunch my grandfather would stand with both of his hands on the back of the chair where I was sitting and eventually would pat me on the head. As he did so, he would simply say: “Davis, have you had enough to eat?” (As an immigrant to the United States, my grandfather never completely mastered the English language and so would call me “Davis” instead of David.)

Over all of these years, any pat on the head reminded me of that ritual of my Slovak grandfather. Until Aug. 9!

Honest conversation

As I shared with you in my last article for the Pittsburgh Catholic, my dad was hospitalized July 28 following a heart attack, with additional complications of congestive heart failure. The doctors were able to note that he had significant blockage in his right and left main arteries. After much back-and-forth deliberations among his team of cardiologists, the decision was made to go forward to do a heart catheterization.

Following that procedure, the main cardiologist who tended to my father described it as “wildly successful,” at least from the medical standpoint. Those of you who know anything about medicine know that a heart catheterization involves the injection of dye into the body’s systems. For a person in a weakened state, as was my father, there could be the risk of kidney failure. My dad and I knew that risk and decided to take it with the actual catheterization.

A day after the procedure, my dad’s kidneys began to fail. The doctors tried every measure to get them working again, but to no avail. In the early morning of Aug. 9, the doctors told me that there was nothing more that they could do for my dad.

The dilemma: How much could I, should I, tell my dad?

I began to think about, reflect upon and pray about that decision. I looked at myself in the mirror and thought — if I were in that bed and my dad were sitting beside me, I would want to know the whole truth.

And so my dad and I had one of those very honest conversations that becomes a treasure forever. I shared with him that all hope was slipping away. I told him that it appeared that God wanted him to come to heaven. I asked him if he was afraid. He responded, “No.” I asked him if he was angry. Once again, he responded in the negative.

For the next hour or so, I was able to thank him for so many things that had marked the landscape of our father-son relationship over the course of my almost 66 years of life. Because of his weakened state, he did not have enough breath in him to be able to get his words out. I had to watch his lips and try to discern carefully what he was trying to say. While he was sharply conscious to the end, he was not able really to speak — at least with his lips. But I knew what was in his heart.

He fell asleep. I sat next to his bed, contemplating the doctor’s news of the day. He woke up about an hour later. His words: “I’m sad.” When asking him the source of his sadness, he said: “I’m sad because I will be leaving you.” I shared the same sadness with him. But I also tried to reassure him that he would be joined again with my dear mom, his parents, his sisters who have died, and other good friends and relatives.

Once again, he dozed off, or at least I thought. I put my head on his chest and began to cry gently. In the midst of those tears, he reached up and gave me a pat on the head, so gentle, so soft, so reassuring, to let me know that, from his perspective, and clearly from the perspective of God, things would be all right. As a matter of fact, more than all right.

Too busy to notice

My dad died in the very early hours of Wednesday, Aug. 12. I stayed by his side almost constantly for the better part of two weeks until he took his last breath. He was conscious until the very end. He knew I was there. He knew Jesus was there. We both knew each other’s love for each other was there.

The pat on the head that I received from my dad was more than a much-needed reassurance near the hour of his death. It was not only a sign of his love for me at that moment. It was an icon of his love for me since the day I was born.

Thinking back on that very tender moment in my life and in my dad’s, I have been thinking about the times in my life when I was too busy to notice other “pats on the head” that my dad gave me. And I wondered if there were some of those moments in my dad’s life where he missed the “pats on the head” that I sought to give him.

I share this tender story with all of you not to be melodramatic, nor even to focus attention on a very personal moment in my life, but to suggest that we in our own lives need to pay attention to, be receptive of and recognize clearly the “pats on the head” that others choose to give us.

Because when all is said and done, those “pats” are a gift from God, from other people through whom God chooses to let us know of his love.

You know as well as I do that your days and mine are filled with a great deal of noise, more than enough distractions and plenty of things to keep us preoccupied.

The advent of our iPhones and iPads keeps us glued to our screens and, sadly oftentimes, disconnects us from those signs of love that God wants to give us. And through those people in our lives who want to let us know their love by “a pat on the head,” figuratively or literally.

While I am thrilled that my mom and dad are together again, I have yet to really process this loss in my life as an only child. Time will afford me that chance.

But one thing I know for sure is that both “pats on the head” — the one that I received frequently from my dear Dzedo back in my childhood days and the one that I received from my dad shortly before his death — have awakened in me an appreciation for those “pauses” in my life where I need to both receive and give “pats” on the head.

My hope and prayer is that you, every single one of you, can and will do the same.

In the spirit of that beautiful gesture, please join me in giving my dad one more “pat” on the head:

“Eternal rest grant unto dear Stanley, O Lord.

And may perpetual light shine upon him.

May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.”

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