There is something unsettling, or maybe just de-centering, when you live through a Christmas marked by the illness of someone you love. Christmas looks, feels, sounds, tastes different. Anxiety overwhelms eager anticipation, and relief overshadows excitement. Plans and traditions shift; planning at all is difficult, because each day feels unsteady. When it’s over, you are grateful that another one is survived.
Three weeks before Christmas, I learned that my father would need a triple bypass, and it would be needed immediately according to his cardiologist. My father has been dealing with heart problems for over fifteen years, and in that time he has had multiple stints and angioplasties. When he went in for his cardiac cath that morning, we expected another one of those, and instead of a minor procedure, we learned he would need open heart surgery.
As heart surgeries go, I knew in an intellectual sense that a bypass is a common one. My father’s father and brother both have gone through and survived these surgeries. In the aftermath of the news, I ran through the list of people I knew and came up with countless other examples: a friend’s mother, grandparents, spouses, etc. This surgery, though serious, was not a death sentence. And yet, I was anxious, scared — at the core of my chaotic emotions was only one thought: “I’m not ready to lose my Dad.”
Lord, have mercy. Lord, don’t take my father from me.
In Scripture, speaking of God as merciful means also seeing God as judge, ruler, patriarch. Last April, in the papal bull when Pope Francis declared the upcoming Year of Mercy, he wrote: “the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which he reveals his love as of that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is a “visceral” love. It gushes forth from the depths naturally, full of tenderness and compassion, indulgence and mercy (6).”
The motto for this Year of Mercy is “Merciful like the Father.” I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with father-language for God, but the metaphor has nonetheless resonated with me over the past few weeks. God as father has been meant to describe God as power, authority, and love all at once — even if fatherhood and power should not be considered coterminous with each other in everyday life. In that sense, God’s mercy has been seen as a “weakness,” but one which God embraces out of love for us. God’s weakness becomes greater than human strength, as it goes in 1 Corinthians. God’s omnipotence does not crowd out weakness and vulnerability, it embraces it.
My father’s surgery meant coming to terms with his human weakness, to his bodily vulnerability. It is a hard lesson we children learn, to see the weakness of fathers and mothers. This lesson is inevitable, can come at any time and is repeated in different shapes and forms. We become parents to those who parented us; we offer them the “visceral” love they offered to us. This is especially appropriate at the turning of the new year, when our iconography shows the old man of the previous year being shuffled out by the babe of the new. My father is a merciful man, but the time had come for him to receive, not give.
In the preparations and blogging that have anticipated this Year of Mercy, much has been made of Jim Keenan’s definition for the virtue: “to enter the chaos of another.” Illness takes this definition and makes it visceral, embedded in all the senses. Illness is chaos made corporeal. Through the weeks spent with my family while my father began recovery, I felt surrounded by the corporal works of mercy, as performer and recipient alike.
Illness is embodied in unpredictable ways. Though I could have told you the process of the surgery, the risks and the vulnerabilities, what took me by surprise was the aftermath, the embodied reality of my father post-surgery: pale, attached to a dozen tubes, breathing in sync with the hum of machines, wrapped in a white blanket with cushions of air on all sides to keep him from rolling or stirring in the anesthesia-induced sleep.
White is the liturgical color most associated with mercy, but it is red — the red of the Passion, of martyrdom and the Spirit — that stands out in the hours after my father finished surgery. The red of the heart-shaped pillow he was to clutch to brace his chest when he coughed (or laughed): signed by his surgeon, “best of health,” with a few markings indicating the arteries they replaced. The red of my father’s blood dripping through his chest tube, rhythmically filling a biohazard container, drops of it clinging to the sides of the clear plastic. Red the color of the pen the nurse wrote with, the woman who would accompany my father through his night in the Cardiac ICU, checking his vitals, clearing his fluids, adjusting his blankets, administering medicine, and answering the phone when my mother called for updates. “We’re at her mercy,” I thought, as we said a brief goodbye to my father’s sleeping figure, knowing we were completely dependent on her care for him.
We were allowed only short, limited visits that first 24 hours — we had to place our trust in a series of strangers who would feed him, hydrate him, keep him covered and warm. Even after my father was moved from the ICU, my mother, sisters, and I were limited in how we could serve him. My father had to call for assistance for most mundane tasks, and we weren’t allowed to help. He couldn’t move from his bed to his chair without a nurse’s aide — and on one visit with my sister, the nurse my father called to help him get to the bathroom gently shooed us out, in order to preserve what vestiges of my father’s modesty were left after days spent in an open-backed hospital gown.
I watched these moments of mercy performed for my father, and found that my own works were called elsewhere. Called to be present with my mother, anxious to the point of distraction in the hours before my father’s surgery. Called to receive the presence of others in their prayers, in emails and calls and texts from the small handful of people I had told about the surgery. I had to learn to accept that often it is the ones offering works of mercy who also have need of them.
Slowly, the tubes were removed, his appetite returned, he walked again, he returned home. Now the needs changed; now mercy was making sure all the dishes were cleared and the dishwasher run after his first dinner home. Mercy was my sister’s fiance helping my father with his compression socks. Mercy was the two large pots of chili delivered by family friends. Mercy was making my father laugh so hard he needed his pillow to brace his chest incision. Mercy was, eventually, giving up on the argument over whether my father should be an EM at Christmas Eve mass (worried, I didn’t want him to overstrain himself; he ignored me, and was fine).
“Love,” writes Pope Francis, “…can never be just an abstraction. By its very nature, it indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviours that are shown in daily living (9).” My father’s recovery moves forward incrementally as the year closes out and a new one begins. The turning of the year, for my family and many others, is a time mixed with sadness and hope. we grieve those we have lost prior, we are grateful for those we have with us still.
Griefs may never leave, joys and hopes will change shape. This year, I carry hope and the grace of my father’s recovery even as I miss members of our family who have passed on. But mostly, I carry the mark of mercy received, and mercy I hope to pass on in embodied, visceral acts of love.