You might have missed the news that my 2015 book How Dante Can Save Your Life was published last week in paperback. The book ends in December 2014, with my father and I having a heart-to-heart conversation in the hospital, as he was waiting to be checked out. It seemed like it was going to be the big conversation I had wanted, the final reconciliation, and we came thisclose … and didn’t make it. But amazingly enough, I was okay with that, because of what I had learned from reading The Divine Comedy — or, to be more precise, because of the journey of spiritual discovery and penitence God led me on through Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
How Dante came out in the spring of 2015. Below is a version of the epilogue I would have added had I had the opportunity. Some of it appeared in a different form two years ago on this blog.
That spring, Daddy and I were getting along much better, though sadly, his physical decline accelerated. He was 80, and knew he didn’t have much time left. We all did.
One Thursday morning, he called and asked me if I would take him to Jackson, the next town, over to his barber for a haircut. I told him I would, and picked him up after lunch. As we headed back home, we got to the bridge over Thompson Creek, and he said, “You know, I figure I’m about to round the last bend.”
“Yeah, seems like it,” I said.
I asked him if there was anybody he would like me to contact on his behalf, and set up a conversation.
“No, can’t think of anybody,” he said.
“Is there anybody you would like to ask forgiveness of?” I said.
“Nope. I’ve never done anybody wrong.”
I remember exactly where we were when he said that: passing an old cemetery, and about to turn onto Audubon Lane. He said that with such guilelessness. Daddy honestly couldn’t imagine that he had every been unjust or hurtful to a soul. He was a righteous man who was certain of his righteousness.
“Daddy, look, I have to tell you something,” I said. “You’re a Christian, right.”
“All of us are sinners. The Lord says we have to forgive, and ask for forgiveness. There have been a lot of people you’ve hurt in life. You haven’t always been good to Mama. And between you and me, we’ve had some conflict. You didn’t always do right by me.”
He calmly explained why in those conflicts, he had been right, and done the only thing a just man could have done. I could feel my guts tensing up. But then I felt bad for bringing it up. Hadn’t we left all that back at the hospital in December?
I apologized for raising the issue again, and told him that we were past that, not to worry about it. I pulled into his driveway, got his walker out of the trunk, and helped him inside.
The next morning, I went over early to fix his weekly pillbox. By that time, he was on 15 different medications. The dosages were far too complicated for either my mother or him to keep up with, so the job fell to me. That morning — it was Good Friday — I found Daddy in his usual place, sitting on his front porch in a rocking chair, reading the newspaper and drinking his coffee. He smiled at me, wished me good morning, and dragged his walker to the side so I could lean in and kiss his cheek.
I told him that I didn’t have time to stay that morning, that I had a lot of work to do. I was going to slip in and refill his pillbox, then head on back to my house. It took about ten minutes to get the pills sorted. I dashed out the door, then leaned in to kiss him goodbye as he sat in his chair.
As I drew back after kissing his cheek, he grabbed my forearm and drew me in close. His chin was quivering. The old man looked frightened. His eyes filled with tears, and he began to stammer.
“I … I … I … I had a long talk with the Lord last night,” he began. “I talked to him about, about my transgressions against you. I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.”
There I stood, stunned. All my adult life, I had been waiting to hear something like that. My father, that mountain of a man, could not condescend to address his son directly and ask forgiveness. It just wasn’t in him to do. But make no mistake, that’s exactly what he was doing. It took a lot of courage for him to say what he had just said to me. With a man like my father, that was as good as it was ever going to get. But it was sincere.
I leaned back in, put my hand into the back of his thinning hair, pulled his head close, kissed him on the forehead, and told him, “Thank you. I love you.”
Then I walked away, got into my car, and drove off. I was afraid to look back at him, because I did not want to see him crying. I knew that’s exactly what he was doing.
As I drove home, I could not believe what had just happened. Daddy apologized. That wasn’t supposed to happen, ever. But it had. The previous three years, since I had been home, had been among the most painful of my life, because they compelled me to confront the profound brokenness in our family — a family in which we all loved each other, but could not live in harmony. The shocking family secret disclosed to me at the end of the Little Way of Ruthie Leming narrative — that for over 20 years, my father and my sister had been nursing a deep grudge against me for moving away, and had conditioned my sister’s children to reject me — sent me into an emotional, spiritual, and physical tailspin. Coming out of that dark, dark wood required a pilgrimage, including through the dark places of my own heart — a journey on which I was accompanied by my priest, my therapist, but which was led by Dante Alighieri.
The main things I came to understand were these.
First, I had made an idol of Family and Place, embodied most of all in the person of my father, and without knowing what I was doing, had given my father the place of God in my imagination. This is why I could never escape the sense that God may love me, but He does not approve of me, and that if only I worked harder, I could win that approval. In truth, this was how my father saw me. Becoming aware of this, disentangling God and my father within myself, and repenting of the idol worship, was the first crucial step in my healing.
Second, I had to face down my anger over the situation. My family wasn’t going to change. It seemed like every day or two, there was something else to rub my nose in the fact that I wasn’t good enough, and didn’t belong. It was unjust, and it was painful. But Dante, and my priest, told me that I could not let my anger over this prevail. As my priest put it, love is more important than justice. Besides, God wills us to love those who mistreat us. As my priest put it, if Jesus Christ, on the Cross, asked his Father to forgive those who did this to him, because he loved them just that much, what right do we have to withhold our love from those who cannot return it, or who return it in an impaired, distorted form. Piccarda, a saint in Dante’s Paradiso, explains to the pilgrim Dante that his notion of justice does not make sense in heaven. She says simply, “In His will is our peace.”
If I was going to dwell within the will of God, I had to somehow work through my brokenhearted anger and love my father. This was not going to be easy. It was going to be like climbing the sheer face of a mountain. But what else could I do?
I did it — imperfectly, God knows, but I did it. And slowly, healing came. The healing was not only immediate, of my stress-caused chronic fatigue, but more profoundly, I found the burdens I had been carrying around all my life from my complicated childhood in Daddy’s house lifted.I thought I was going to be carrying that weight all of my life, but now it was gone. Who could have imagined that? Certainly not me. Driving home that Good Friday morning, the truth came to me: that if I had known all the suffering that lay ahead for me back home, I never would have returned after Ruthie died. But if I had not done that, if I had not obeyed what my wife and I felt was a call from God to do this, I never would have been healed of this wound that I had been carrying all my life.
I never would have been there on the front porch to hear my father say, in his imperfect way, that he was sorry.
What had just happened on his front porch was my father putting a key into shackles — a key only he possessed — unlocking them, and casting off the invisible iron ball that I dragged around with me everywhere I went, and had done for most of my life.
I was free. And so, in a way, was my father.
As I said earlier, Daddy’s falling-apart physically accelerated that spring. The decay of his body was, for him, a terrible cross. He became housebound. In early summer, he entered a home hospice program. He spent the summer of 2015 waiting to die, measuring out his days in the pilgrimage from his bedroom to his chair in the living room, to his rocking chair on the front porch, and back again.
For my dad, every day he could not go outside and do something was a humiliation. About two weeks before he died, I heard him telling some visitors that he hoped to build his strength back up so he could get out of the house and onto his Mule, a small farm truck, and ride to his back acreage to check on his pine trees. In his final days, he told me once, from his hospital bed, that he needed to exercise his arms so he could regain strength in them. I thought: Are you kidding? He wasn’t.
Daddy was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, but he distrusted contemplation. He was a man of action. Indeed, his entire sense of self depended on his ability to do things. Ray Dreher housebound and bedridden was not Ray Dreher at all, not in his mind. His greatest suffering, I think, was his loss of identity. This is something that was hard for me to understand, until I thought how different I would be if I lost my ability to read and write. It is impossible to conceive of myself in that mode of living. Would it be living at all? When I thought of my dad’s physical decline in that way, it made sense to me, and made me more compassionate. The idea of spending my old age in my armchair with a book in my lap sounds like paradise, but to him, it was a kind of hell.
Daddy felt useless, and in a different culture, this would have tempted him to euthanasia. Nearly everything that gave his life meaning had been taken from him. He could not stand to be dependent on anybody, for anything, but in the last period of his life, he could not do anything on his own. Why did he not kill himself? Perhaps it was out of Christian conviction, but I think it’s closer to the truth to say that he thought it would be the coward’s way out. Better to bear it till the end. And that he did. Several times over the last week of his life, I stood at the foot of his bed, reciting Psalm 90, and stopping over these lines:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
He was eighty, and indeed the final decade of his life was toil and travail. Yet he endured, as a good Stoic would. What he could not see — maybe because Southern culture is traditionally more Stoic than Christian — is that he was not useless to the rest of us. His utility was in giving us a chance to serve him.
Father Matthew, my priest, liked to say that living in community causes us to rub the rough edges off of each other. This is true. Daddy was not easy to care for, even though he was not a complainer. He could be demanding, and gruff; my mom bore the brunt of this. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful, not at all, but that it grieved him to have to depend on the charity of others. Maybe, though, the Lord used this to free his soul from its pride. I know he used it to free me to some extent from mine.
One day, in August, I received a call from him. Would I come over and help lift him off the couch and into his wheelchair so he could get back to bed? He had finally become too weak to stand at all, and my mother couldn’t lift him on her own. I sped over to their house, about a mile away. Mama and I wrestled to get Daddy into the wheelchair, and finally succeeded. The pain of humiliation on his face was searing. In the right order of things — and my father was a Bayou Confucian, who believed in right order — he was the one helping others. For Ray Dreher, to be dependent on anybody else was like the tearing of the veil in the Temple — the violent disruption of the cosmos.
Yet there he was, defeated by time. Mama and I helped him to settle in the hospital bed that the hospice folks had set up in his bedroom. He would not get out of that bed again, until the undertaker carried him to the hearse.
I moved in that morning with my dad. This was the end, we all knew. My mother was too exhausted to continue in her role as caregiver. I asked her to move into the guest room, and to let me take the bed she and my father had slept in for most of their marriage. It was next to his hospital bed, so I could be there to attend him.
I count it one of the great privileges of my life to have been able to live with Daddy on his last eight days on earth, and to sleep right beside him, helping him with all his needs, and giving my mom a break. (I should note here that his devoted friend John Bickham was heroic in his service to my dad and mom, doing far more than I did, or could have done.) As it turns out, the greatest gift my father gave me in life was the opportunity to help him when he was helpless, to suffer with him, to pray with him, to give him the medicines that helped him, to moisten his mouth when he could no longer swallow, and to pour myself out for him as I was seeing others, especially John Bickham, do.
If anyone thinks of the sick, the elderly, or the infirm as useless — or if they think of themselves as useless — send them to me. They are gifts to the rest of us to make us more compassionate, and more Christ-like, therefore more human. It was hard to look upon the wreckage of my once-handsome, once-strong father’s body as he lay dying this past week, but it was also a lesson in humanity, and a lesson in divinity. And it was a lesson that my action-hero daddy taught me about the value of not simply thinking about things, but acting on those thoughts.
I thought more than once over the past week, sitting at my dad’s bedside, about the example of Pope St. John Paul II, who bore his own physical suffering bravely and publicly. In his 1984 letter on the meaning of suffering, he said that suffering is a mystery, the answer to which is … love. This is the meaning of the Cross. As the Pope wrote:
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world….Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.
Hospice provided Daddy with morphine to ease his pain and suffering. My job — and John Bickham’s job — was to administer it to him regularly. His mind was clear for a couple of days, but he began to recede into the mist, sleeping a lot, and seeming not quite to return to us when he would wake up. I read to him, prayed with him, prayed over him, talked with him, rubbed lotion into his dry, pencil-thin legs, and did everything I could to let him know that he was loved, and he was not alone. We never had a single “meaningful” conversation that week — but then, we didn’t have to. The communication was wordless.
We telephoned my sister’s daughter Claire at boarding school to tell her it was time to come home to say goodbye to Paw. I was nervous about her coming home. Claire had kept her distance from me out of devotion to her mother’s warning that Uncle Rod, who had gone to the city and gotten above himself, was not to be trusted. She is a sweet, kind girl, but she is most like her mother in her sense of loyalty. For my sister, my leaving home was above all a sign of disloyalty to the family. For Clair, to disobey Mama’s directive would have been to be disloyal to her memory.
But Claire is a devout Evangelical Christian. We both took the faith seriously. Why wasn’t that enough to bridge the chasm between us? Maybe it was. That night, from my chair next to Daddy’s bed, I heard Claire come into my mother’s kitchen at the other end of the house. I decided to do something bold. I went into the kitchen and asked Claire if she wanted to come join me at Paw’s bedside and pray for him.
Her face brightened into a big smile. “I was hoping you would ask.”
And so we did, until he drifted off to sleep. We sat there in the dark of his room, illuminated only by his bedside lamp, not knowing what to say to each other. Then, remembering my lesson from Dante — that no spiritual progress comes without humility — I summoned up the courage to put my hand on her right forearm and to speak.
“Claire,” I said, “I know things have been difficult between us since I came back. I want to ask your forgiveness for all that I have done to hurt you, and to make this hard on you.”
She drew back and gasped. Then the words rushed out: “We don’t hate you! We don’t!”
My niece, then 16, told me what had happened. Her mother, Ruthie, had done everything she could to shield her daughters from the reality of her suffering. Though she was deteriorating in front of their eyes, she would not talk about it, or let them dwell on it. To think about death and dying would be in some sense to weaken her resolve. Her approach to suffering was: ignore it, and push on through. On the day Ruthie died, when a family friend went to the school to fetch Claire and her sister Rebekah, they were genuinely shocked by the news.
“How is that possible?” I asked. “She was skin and bones there at the end. How could you ignore it?”
“We only saw what we wanted to see,” Claire told me. “That’s how Mama wanted it, and that’s how it was.”
After we buried Ruthie, said Claire, everybody who surrounded the girls went out of their way to distract them from their grief and suffering. They thought they were doing the right thing. But what happened, Claire told me, was that nobody allowed them to mourn. The girls felt thrust into a position of getting on with life, of acting as if nothing catastrophic had happened. No point in talking about it, in discussing Mama. Just keep moving forward.
“We didn’t know what to do except to fall back on the things we were raised with,” Claire said. “That meant thinking of Uncle Rod as the bad guy. I am sorry for that.”
So there it was: those girls had been deprived by their mother and our broader family of the contemplation of suffering and death, as a misguided way to protect them. And when death finally came, they were not prepared, and those who surrounded them also believed that caring for them meant keeping them happy — and happiness meant the effective denial of death.
I forgave Claire. She forgave me. We embraced. Right there by Paw’s deathbed, we embraced. New life emerged from our gathering to pray over the dying patriarch.
Days later, the moment was at hand. We gathered all the family members who were near, and as many of the neighbors as could be there. Daddy had not been conscious for a couple of days. His bedroom filled with the people who had loved him for most of his life. They had come to see him off.
At the end, his breathing became fast and labored, and he writhed, as if trying shake off his flesh. Mama took his right hand, and I clasped his left. As Daddy drew his final agonized breaths, I looked into his face. It was the only thing I saw, and in it, I saw the face of Christ. More importantly, I saw him, not as the man of whom I was in awe, the man whom I sometimes hated, the man with whose difficult legacy I wrestled in my heart for decades, but him as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and poor creature who needed my love as surely as I needed his. Death humbles us all. That hand of his that held me as a helpless baby, I held myself when his soul left his helpless body. There is perfect harmony in this, a harmony rightly divided and bound together by love — the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.
My final words to my father were, “Thank you, old man, for everything.” They may be the truest words I ever spoke to him.
We all said the Lord’s Prayer together over his body, then sang “I’ll Fly Away.” Someone went to call the funeral home. The word went out to the community that Mr. Ray had passed. People started coming by to pay their respects, as they do.
He died just after four in the afternoon. Mourners didn’t leave my mom’s house until after ten. I made it back to my own place at 10:30, utterly exhausted. It was the first time I had been home in eight days. I sat down at my kitchen table, alone with my thoughts, marveling at the sense of calm I felt. I had just watched my father die, and lived through the day that all my life I have dreaded above all others. The thought of the world without my father in it was intolerable to me, and terrifying. I don’t know why, but it was. It was as if I would be annihilated without his presence to ground me, and all of us. Fear of his death was something close to a terror for me.
And yet, here we were. Daddy was gone. And I had no thought other than gratitude for his life, and gratitude that he was no longer in pain. The future did not appear frightening at all, nor did the present. All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well, as Julian of Norwich wrote. I felt this powerfully.
How was this possible? By what means did this gift come to me?
Then it hit me: “In His will is our peace.” The words of Piccarda. Dante had led the way for me to dwell in the Lord’s will, not my own. And in that was harmony, was the peace that passes all understanding.
In His will is our peace. Believe it. Live it. Suffer for it. There is no other way through this life of exile, to the far shore of home. This is the higher justice, and it is Love itself.
Read the entire book. If you are observing Lent, How Dante is the book for you in this penitential season.