It was the early evening of the first day of the new year, 2007, and my son and I had just gotten home from visiting my dad, who was in a respite care unit at a local hospital enduring the final stages of his battle with lung cancer. Additionally, he’d suffered a stroke that morning, limiting his movement and robbing him of his ability to speak clearly.
I felt like one of the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea, being tossed around by the waves, desperately trying to row to the other side with the wind against us. In my mind, I went back to the past year in which we’d rowed our way through the sea of biopsies, scans, doctor appointments, chemo treatments, procedures, holidays, and a few trips to visit extended family. But the wind had picked up speed these past few weeks: the cancer had stopped responding to treatment, blood clots had formed in his lungs, and his doctor told me of the kind of death he would most likely suffer, adding: “I wouldn’t wish this kind of death on my worst enemy.” And now this—a stroke, robbing him of what little ability he had left.
Just a few years earlier, we’d lost Mom to this same disease and I admit to wondering this day—"God, where are you now?”
I didn’t have to wait long for his answer.
Shortly after arriving home from the hospital, the phone rang. It was a nurse at the hospital saying that Dad was suffering from chest pains, and that it would be best if we came back to the hospital right away.
Although Dad was a very faith-filled man who taught us kids to love the Lord and see Jesus in other people, he wasn’t Catholic. It was my dearest desire that Dad experience the grace of the sacraments of the Church before he died. Our priest, Fr. Tim, had asked me several weeks earlier if Dad wanted to join the Catholic faith but when I asked Dad, he was a little hesitant, saying, “I don’t think so right now, thanks.”
I once heard Mother Angelica of EWTN fame speak on how if you’re really praying hard for something, you should bring it with you when you receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Consequently, for the past several weeks, every time I received the Eucharist—taking the Body of Jesus into my hands—I offered him up to God in exchange for Dad to have the desire to join the Catholic faith.
On the way to the hospital that evening, we called our priest, Fr. Tim. Would he come and give Dad a blessing or pray over him? He agreed, asking once again, “Do you think he’d like to become Catholic?” Heavy-hearted, I replied, “I don’t know. I don’t think he’s changed his mind.”
The doctor met us in the lobby of the hospital and explained how serious Dad’s health was and that he had requested no unnecessary treatment due to his advanced cancer. She seemed to be preparing us for the worst. My husband and my two brothers and I entered Dad’s room. He was in pain but so glad to see us. We gathered around his bed; I held his hand and told him Fr. Tim was coming. In my mind, I imagined Fr. Tim offering Dad the very sacraments that I had been praying for him to receive. But would Dad be open to them?
Suddenly, I had this overwhelming urge—a physical sensation welling up in my body—that I had to ask Dad just one more time if he wanted to become Catholic, but I was hesitant. I didn’t want Dad doing it for love of me—I wanted him to do it for himself. And I’d just asked him a few weeks before. Could this sudden, overwhelming urge be God nudging me? Was he working to answer the very prayer I’d brought before him each time I’d received the Eucharist for weeks now? Dare I hope?
I pulled my brothers out of the room and discussed this “feeling” I had and my reluctance to ask Dad. My oldest brother, who wasn’t practicing any religion at the time, said simply, “I’ll go ask him.”
And that’s when Jesus climbed into the boat with us.
My brother came out of the room a few minutes later saying, “Yep, he does!”
Stunned, I asked, “Are you sure you understood him? He’s had a stroke, you know. He can’t speak well…” to which my brother replied, “I told him to squeeze my hand if he wanted to become Catholic and he squeezed it three times!” Oh, the joy that filled my heart! Jesus was powerfully answering the prayer I’d so hesitantly brought before Him in the Eucharist.
The priest came, and Dad was received into the Church, confirmed and anointed. He made a Spiritual Communion because his illness prevented him from receiving the Blessed Sacrament. I sat by Dad’s side holding his hand through it all, hardly able to comprehend the holiness of the moment. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together one last time.
The storm’s winds that had been blowing so fiercely died down, and Dad rested peacefully through the night.
But, like the disciples, there was a part of me that still doubted. Was Dad resting comfortably because of the grace of the sacraments or the newly-installed morphine pump (the machine that administered the drug that relieved pain and gave the sensation of being able to breathe)?
Several times that long night, I got out of the recliner and walked over to Dad’s side to adjust the oxygen mask, knowing how hard it was for Dad to breathe without it and wanting to make him as comfortable as possible. During one of my bedside vigils, the nurse came into the room lit only by the glow of a light in the side of the wall and stood next to me, gently and quietly taking Dad’s vital signs. She and I both commented how peacefully he was resting.
“That morphine must be doing the trick,” I whispered. Startled, she glanced over at me and said,
“He hasn’t used that pump all night.”
What? How was that possible? He was in so much pain and struggling so hard to breathe before the priest came. What had changed?
Jesus had shown up. His grace was present in the sacraments that gave Dad the peace he needed. And that’s when I, like the disciples in the boat in the storm-tossed sea, was completely astounded.
Dad passed away a few hours later: calmly, peacefully, and prayerfully.
God had answered my prayer brought before him in the Eucharist at the perfect time and in the perfect way. And I realized: God doesn’t come too early, and he doesn’t come too late. He comes just when we need him the most.
Barb Schmitz is a parishioner at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Brooks, MN.