“And a Little Child Shall Lead Them.”

Any regular reader of SMC will know that, for me, my dad was a force of nature.  Many years of therapy and spiritual direction have allowed me enough healing to share this reflection with you, on this, the fourteenth anniversary of his death. 

Heads up.  My dad died by suicide.  Anyone who doesn’t need to delve into that topic may want to take this Sunday away from SMC, and catch back up with us next week.  Thanks for reading. 

At the Official Wake

As my knees nestled into the padding of the crushed velvet prie-dieu, alongside my dad’s coffin, I was surprised to discover my inner-mortician evaluating the taxidermitological decisions of Mott & Henning’s Funeral Home artists.  All-in-all, dad’s countenance was reasonably recognizable under the death-denying layers of paint and lipstick.  A week earlier, I had studied that same face… back when life coursed through corpuscles and capillaries coloring it a suntanned, age-spotted bronze.During that excruciating visit, it was clear that something was different.  Something was wrong.  All of dad’s words were spoken through pursed, contorted lips, the way children’s faces look when they’re whispering a clandestine, sideways comment in a classroom.  Later that week, in a matter-of-fact suicide note, dad explained that he had suffered the fifth in a line of consecutive mini-strokes.  It seemed that this, along with an annotated cumulative list of other ailments, had compelled him to conclude his nearly eighty-year-old life before a potential accelerated decline would rob him of the capacity to exit on his own terms. 

Kneeling there, in the sanctuary of a rural Catholic Church, it occurred to me that I had already attended a private wake for dad several days earlier at the actual site of his departure.  My real visitation, my own personal viewing, had occurred on the morning after he made his getaway.  As I pulled into the parking lot outside his office, I was surprised to find dad’s flat-bedded van unattended, with suicide note still taped to the window.  An attraction that felt like something more than mere curiosity pulled me toward the spot where dad spent his final moments on Earth.  I approached the vehicle surprised by a curious lack of foreboding.  Of all the dramatic scenery inside that van, the one object that caught, first my eye, and then my imagination, was my dad’s walking cane still resting where he’d left it.  That familiar stick of wood somehow functioned as a lever that operated a trap door between the worlds.  One look at it, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in the same spot, twenty-six hours earlier accompanying my dad in his final moments.

Sitting Vigil with My Dad

Here at this nexus between the worlds, I felt that in some way, I was present with my dad at his death—as a witness, or maybe even a companion.  Dad was well known for sitting vigil at the bedsides of many friends and relatives as they lay dying.  Some part of me understood that impulse and wanted to be there for him.  On a cold, gray, rainy May morning, that parking lot transformed into a makeshift chapel.  I felt an impulse to close my eyes.  Next to that van, I found my hands slowly opening, palms up…maybe to receive something…maybe to give something away…maybe to hold hands with my old man?   I silently prayed with dad, wishing him safe travels.  My lips formed the words of a permission to take leave of this place.  After two minutes, or ten minutes of silence, I opened my eyes, and found myself back in the appropriate time-zone.  I proceeded to the front door of his office to join my brothers and sisters in making sense of the next steps of this unfamiliar journey of funeral planning, and disposal of the material artifacts of a man’s life.

Back at the Official Wake

In the rural church of Athens, Illinois (pronounced with a Central Illinois long “A,”), about three hours into dad’s wake, my six-year-old daughter, Lizzie, and her older first grade cousin, Luke, came with a request.  Grateful for any reason to leave that never-ending line for a break, I followed them to my dad’s open coffin.  There they displayed two small fist-fulls of plucked wildflowers.  “Can we put these in there with grandpa?”

And so, for the remainder of the visitation that proud old veteran, that savvy businessman, the one who prided himself on being “a man’s man,” bid his final farewells to colleagues and comrades with a child’s wildflowers pressed into his wrinkled, spent hands.  No pyramid’s treasures, no frankincense, no myrrh, no cathedral’s choir ever bore a soul to Abraham’s bosom more nobly than this freshly plucked bouquet of Solomon’s splendor. 

The Funeral

That marathon wake resolved into a marathon funeral.  During one of the many lulls that a Catholic funeral Mass provides, I imagined dad looking for something to give Saint Peter that would serve to loosen the hinges of those formidable gates just long enough to slip into the milling crowd on the other side.  I imagined my dad trying each useless key that used to open up doors for him back here on Earth:  accomplishments, professions of good intentions, another explanation of his side of the story, cleverness, manipulations…all useless.  And I could see The Gatekeeper, Saint Peter’s face growing progressively more worried, and finally alarmed.  And just as he was ready to turn and walk sadly away, something catches his eye, and The Rock of Ages’s face softens, and dad’s frenetic, bumbling words fall harmlessly away from the Fisherman’s ears, as he looks down and sees what my dad holds.   Clutched unconsciously in dad’s nervous fists are Lizzie and Luke’s wad of withered flowers.  I imagined dad’s eyes following Peter’s gaze down to his own trembling hands, and I can see those eyes welling up with tears as he realizes that here, in his hand he is holding the one true key that opens heaven’s gates.   More valuable than fortunes won and lost, more impressive than any item listed on his resume-style obituary…are these riches, unearned, valuable beyond measure…and the hinges squeeked a single musical note as the gates swung open.  “Welcome home dad.”  “Welcome home grandpa.”

“And a little child shall lead them.”  (Isaiah 11:6)


What struck you in this article?  Where does it take you in your own life?

My dad’s death coincides this year with Mother’s Day.  Have you had to come to terms with a “father wound,” or “mother wound” inside your own heart?   

If so, what has helped you come to terms with these?  Is there something more that would benefit you at this time in your life?

Have you had the experience where your work on an emotional wound has yielded benefits to you, those you love, and the world?

Would you be willing to tell a signature story of your mom or dad that is important to you?

One Reply to ““And a Little Child Shall Lead Them.””

  1. Tom, your words are always SO powerful and meaningful!
    You have made my day!
    Thank you!
    May God continue to bless you and your family!

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