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Archive for April 7th, 2011

Between the annual income-tax burden, the beginning and middle of Great Lent (as opposed to the lesser fasts observed by the Orthodox Church), and the final illness of my stepfather, life has been unimaginably hectic.  I didn’t do this much running around when I had teenagers in the house.

So, having gone into a decline on the last Monday of March, only to “rally” in time for his 96th birthday on April 1 — by “rally” I mean that he returned from near-death to a more stable state of vegetation — my stepfather slipped away last night, April 6, before anybody really realized what had happened.  My sister said that he was in exactly the same state as he had been since last Friday, just breathing but not in any sense alive…his breathing slowed…he took one last breath — and was gone.

The hole in my life is a revelation to me, since, after all, the man was my stepfather.  I didn’t even feel this empty when my mother died.  But then, Dad was a unique human being; I’ve never known anybody with as much innate talent as he had, who actually, seriously, thought of himself as Nothing Special.  Of everybody in his family, he was the greatest of them all:  supported everyone after the death of his own father, patched DC-3s together over and over and over during World War II, even flying them on occasions when the flight crew was wounded; ran into a burning plane, again and again, to rescue every man aboard, for which he was awarded the Bronze Star (and never spoke about it till the end of his life, when he was interviewed by my niece’s boyfriend for a school project).  And he married my widowed mother, at a time when a single woman with a child was suspected of being Loose, since anybody could say she was a widow.

He dropped out of high school when he was 16, and spent his life creating tools and the dies for them — nowadays, boys get two-year associate degrees in tool-and-die making, and call themselves mechanical engineers.  He could make anything and fix anything, and while it wasn’t much to look at — it worked.  And the fix was usually permanent.  He spoke two languages fluently, Polish (his first language) and English, which he only learned upon entering public school in second grade — and he learned it at the expense of his idiot teachers calling him “stupid” because his English was so broken, so all his life, he thought of himself as “stupid.”  And by the way, his English  was so fluent that while you knew right away he was working class, you would never have guessed he hadn’t uttered a word of it till he was seven years old.  This is what shaped my life; these are the shoes his children have to try to fill.  Forget it.  That’s a truly hopeless task.

The last 2 ½ years of his life were spent in a nursing home, courtesy of falling and breaking a hip.  The surgery to repair it messed with his mind, and although he had physical therapy, he became afraid of walking, so that he lived in a wheelchair and had to put up with the indignity of other people taking care of his bodily needs.  Typically, he saw it as something he just had to bear, so he never complained about it.  I don’t know if I could be that humble if something similar happened to me.

And that brings me to the point of this post.  In the Orthodox Christian tradition, we are taught that humility is the key to open the gates of heaven.  Yes, baptism is a part of it, but it’s not the key; it’s the beginning of your life in Christ.  How you live is just as important as being baptized, since how you live shapes how you die; in other words, you can take the gift of Baptism and use it, or you can take it and throw it away.  If you throw a gift away, what good is it?  But if you use it, eventually it brings you to humility.

Dad was, hands down, the most humble man I’ve ever known, in the sense that he never tried to be what he was not, he knew his faults and accepted them, and downplayed his virtues, which were many.  He let his works speak for him, offering advice when it was asked for or necessary, not holding it against us when we refused to follow up on it.  He didn’t try to be A Dad; he just was, in his acceptance of what we were as we navigated the usual changes of life.

In notifying family and friends of his passing, I made the statement, “If humility is the key that opens the gates of heaven — Dad owns it.”  I’d love to have seen the look on his face when those gates swung wide to welcome him home, judgment-free.  In accordance with Orthodox tradition, I’ll pray for his soul; but in my own heart, I’ll also be asking for his prayers for us.  May his memory be eternal!

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