I felt the love of God click in an elevator on the way up to the 12th floor of Deaconess Hospital in October 2006. My father had been admitted on the first day of October, and I had spent almost every day there since. It was an ordinary elevator, nothing special. It smelled the hospital version of weird: a mix of ammonia, bleach, and burnt coffee.
All of my four siblings lived out of state or on the West side, but they made the effort to come to visit my dad, pop in and out, and try to be helpful. Sometimes they were. Sometimes not so much. My spiritual director said that out-of-town relatives who fly in to “help” are like well-intentioned seagulls. They can be really loud and messy and they shit everywhere and then they leave. This is an accurate description of my family in those weeks before my dad died.
Every afternoon, I would go to the hospital to give my mother a break. And in the elevator on the way up, I would give myself a pep talk. But, on the way down in the evening, I could wait until the elevator was empty. Once the doors closed, I would sob until I couldn’t breathe, hoping no one else would get on and feel compelled to talk to me. I had no words to pray, so I just used the name of Jesus as a breath prayer, in and out, in and out. I certainly felt the love of God there but it is not the coolest example of God showing up in this story.
It is important that you now know I grew up Catholic. My mom was a devout Catholic who had married a non-Catholic, which was a pretty gutsy thing for a devout Catholic to do in 1946. This is not to say that she didn’t want desperately for him to convert. So as he lay in the oncology ward, my mom was continuing the crusade with all of the required prayers and intercessions.
I walked into my dad’s room that afternoon and was surprised to see that my mom was not sitting next to his bed. I never did figure out where she went, but she stayed gone just long enough for me to have a very interesting conversation with my dad.
“ Hey Dad, how was your afternoon? Have you been able to sleep at all?”
“ Oh yeah, I took a nap.”
“ Good, good. Has (insert seagull) been by to see you yet?”
“ No, not today.” Pause. “ But I did have a visit with the young man.”
“ Oh, the chaplain?”
“ No, the young man was here. We had a nice talk.”
I stopped asking questions and just assumed that he was talking about one of the doctors or other care providers. But he had one more thing to say.
“You know, Jesus.”
Um, excuse me? Jesus stopped by? On his way to a wedding or something? Well, that’s not what I expected to hear. But my father took the lull in the conversation as his cue to fall asleep.
“Dad? Dad! What? Jesus?”
“ I think I’m going to get confirmed and all the other things you do.”
“In the church? Are you sure?”
“Oh, yeah. What are the other things now?”
“Um- confession, first communion, getting confirmed…”. I was having trouble processing what was going on. My parents had been married for 60 years, and my mother hoped all that time for him to convert, and then she missed it. My dad fell more deeply asleep, and as it happened, we didn’t get another chance to talk about it.
The next thing I knew, I was standing around my dad’s hospital bed, with my mom and my brother (because if you convert to Catholicism, you must have a sponsor of the same gender.) My brother, a confirmed escapee from the church, looked very uncomfortable but we do things next to hospital beds that we would never otherwise do. Before I knew it, we were saying the Lord’s Prayer, and my mother was beside herself, crying and laughing simultaneously.
For years, my father had said no to being Catholic, and now, he was casually stepping fully into the church. As I got into that familiar elevator that evening, I understood that this was the love of God showing up, not for my dad (although he could have had a visitation and hung out with Jesus, I am not ruling it out.) This one was for my mom. She truly believed that being Catholic was the only road to heaven. My father was getting ready to die and so wanted to use the language she knew by heart to say goodbye. He wanted her to hear him say our father and glory be and hail Mary full of grace.
In that room and then in that elevator, God’s love without boundaries clicked for me. In what looked like a baffling reversal, my dad joined my mom in a deep and abiding faith. It was a holy moment.