“It was the day before my tenth July Fourth when I struck one of the matches I had purloined from the box in the kitchen over the sink and held it near the string fuse of the red skyrocket just as I had seen my daddy do so many times. The skyrocket was attached to a stick about two feet long and we had put the stick down in a glass milk bottle to support the launch. The milk bottle sat in a patch of weeds in my backyard and the skyrocket was pointed straight up in the air. It was just about noontime. The fuse caught and began to sizzle, and I backed away. About the time the fuse reached the package of powdered propellants, the milk bottle began to lean over in the direction of the family room at the rear of the house…”
That was the beginning of one of my Dad’s many stories. Richard Rawe was a great writer of short stories, plays, and poetic verse. Well into his 80’s he could remember, and write about, tales and adventures from grade school. In his youth he was an altar boy, and prided himself on knowing all of the Latin responses at the Tridentine Mass. My Dad lived until his 86th year. He died after a long battle with pulmonary fibrosis, a gradual scarring and stiffening of the lung tissue that makes it hard to breath. He was the most brilliant person I have ever known, having rocked the IQ charts at MIT in the mid 1950’s where he was admitted on a full engineering scholarship. He went on to become one of the founders of the science of fracture mechanics, and in the 1960’s helped determine why NASA’s rockets sometimes failed and blew up. His writings of short stories of his youth, privately published in 2013 in the book “Tales From the Yellow Brick House”, are cherished by his family and friends.
My two sisters and I had the privilege of accompanying him through the last chapter of his own story here on earth. As a team throughout his final weeks, we were each able to bring gifts and talents we’d been given by God, as well as the training we received from our Dad, to help him in his final hours. It’s was a very special time.
My Dad left the Catholic church in the 1970’s after the inspirations of Vatican II were misappropriated and his beloved Latin Mass all but disappeared. Despite a lot of prayers and pressure from this writer over the last five years of his life, he never again became a Mass-going Catholic. It was, however, a great blessing – and quite miraculous to those close to him – that in the last two months of his life he once again willingly accepted the sacraments of the Catholic Church and the grace of God.
As a Catholic Christian, I have hope that when I die, if I have been faithful to God and His Commandments, I will, by the grace of God, attain heaven. Even though I have faith, however, I cannot be infallably certain that my soul will be “saved”. I might be faithful to God today, but if I “sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins but a fearful prospect of judgement and a flaming fire” (Hebrews 10:26-27). I still need to work out my “salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Moreover, I have no capacity to know the heart of another when it comes to faith, but I can have hope.
I had been praying for my Dad’s conversion back to God and Mother Church, and it had been frustrating. I took him to a Latin Mass hoping to see some glimmer of an old fire, only to be advised afterwards that it was a “nice, nostalgic experience”. He was a scientist and had so many intellectual reasons for questioning the existence of God and the supernatural. I could only hope for an eventual conversion. St. Monica prayed for her son, Augustine, for 30 years until he finally converted to Christianity. Augustine eventually became one of the Church’s greatest bishops, theologians, and saints.
About a week before my Dad’s condition took a turn for the worse, I offered to have a priest come to his house to give him the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Up until that time, I had tried to talk to my Dad at every opportunity about God, faith, and eternity, but those efforts had born little fruit. Then to my surprise, at the offer of inviting a priest to the house, Dad replied, “Sure, why not!” I immediately called the local parish, and a few days later Father arrived for the anointing.
A week later his Pulmonologist admitted our Dad to the hospital due to an extremely low oxygen count, and we knew that the final chapter was approaching. One of the mottos I like is “be bold, be Catholic”, and so while he was in the hospital I ventured out on another limb and asked if he’d like to receive Holy Communion. He was eligible to receive the Eucharist again since one of the special graces of the Anointing of the Sick is the forgiveness of sins. I was overjoyed by the “sure, let’s do it” reply.
When we brought him home in hospice, the hospice provider sent a protestant minister to see him. We were yet again surprised that our Dad wanted instead to see a Catholic priest. I arranged another appointment, and this time the priest heard my Dad’s Confession and brought the sacrament of the Eucharist one final time. With that, our Dad had received the Viaticum, the last Sacrament of the Christian:
“Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called “the sacraments of Christian initiation,” so too it can be said that Pennance, the Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage”. (CCC 1525)
The week my Father died was extraordinary. I was intending to see him on Tuesday of that week, but my sister – his 24-7 caregiver during hospice – told me that it had been a bad night. She said that he didn’t want to see anyone, and that the end might be drawing near. We had done some praying with my Dad – the rosary and the like – but I desperately wanted to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at his bedside where we’d be praying for our sins and the sins of the whole world. I asked Jesus to please give us the time we needed.
The next day I went to the house and prayed the Chaplet with my sister, as our Dad was in and out of sleep and consciousness, and then we were visited by an angel. My Dad had the same housekeeper for 25 years. As it turned out, she’s Catholic. That day she came to clean the house, but decided to pray instead. So for three hours that afternoon, our Dad was enveloped, covered, and sheltered with prayer – rosaries, Divine Mercy Chaplets, and others – all in Spanish. I’m a prayerful man, but I’ve never experienced anything like that afternoon. It was a great gift, and the answer to my prayer.
The next night I received the call from my sisters that Dad had slipped the surly bonds of the earth. I was saddened and anxious, but thankful that God had granted my prayer. We had the time we needed to help him die well. As St. Augustine taught – for he who dies well, all is well! We gathered together and felt an extraordinary peace all through the next day. That peace was unexpected but welcome. It was a gift from God; we were, and still are, thankful.
At the funeral Mass, Father asked, “Who had been praying for your Dad?” Father had seen a tremendous transformation in him from the time of the Anointing of the Sick to his later confession. Was the transformation in our Father miraculous? For his children who never lost hope – it was. We have been so blessed by Jesus and His Divine Mercy.
That was the end of my Dad’s life here on this earth, but what I know is that his passing isn’t the final chapter. The story’s not over! His soul lives on and is now experiencing another beginning, although we won’t get to know how that tale goes until we are there ourselves. Until I take my final breath, I will pray for him as well as others who have died. Our short, mortal, and finite lives on this earth are but a prologue to the story of our existence into eternity. I like how CS Lewis put it:
“All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
So long, for now, Dad.