My father died on September 16, after a long journey through the many stages of Alzheimer’s disease. His final decline started on a Thursday evening and ended on the following Tuesday morning. During that time, I read to him from the works of Robert W. Service and St. Faustina, who are as odd a couple as you will ever find, even at a deathbed.
Robert W. Service wrote poems about prospectors in the Arctic. Dad always enjoyed tales of manly adventure; his favorite short story, which he read to all of us at one point or another, was Leiningen Versus the Ants. The image of the ants throwing themselves into the gasoline moat, sacrificing themselves to form a bridge for the others, has stuck with me ever since.
Likewise, Service’s two poems The Cremation of Sam McGee and The Shooting of Dan McGrew are also part of my permanent mental canon. Dad would adopt an aw-shucks attitude when he talked about Service, remarking that he wasn’t fashionable because his poems rhymed. They do stick in your head, though, thanks to a galloping anapestic meter that takes over your brain, and Dad could recite big chunks of both poems from memory. When he got stuck on a line, he would take down his red and yellow paperback anthology and look it up. We had several editions of Robert Service’s poetry, including a deluxe illustrated version of The Shooting of Dan McGrew, but this paperback is the one I associate with Dad.
As for St. Faustina, Dad discovered her when she was still just a Blessed, and he was very taken by her message. Just as Dad was the more indulgent parent in our family, Faustina was all about the Divine Mercy, so they were soul-mates of a sort. He had a special wooden rosary on which he said the chaplet of St. Faustina, which is a quicker version of the rosary that substitutes single verses for the Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
There is actually a store in South Bend that specializes in Faustinaiana, and Dad liked to go there to stock up on pamphlets. I took him there shortly after my mother died. I thought the place was kind of droll—they had posted e-mails of the Blessed Virgin’s latest messages from Medugorje—but the guy behind the counter was friendly and listened with apparent interest as Dad told him all about how he met and married my mother.
A few months later, Dad had a subdural hematoma and needed emergency brain surgery. After that episode he lost his long-term memory and never really got it back. I tried saying a rosary with him a few times, figuring that the familiar, repetitive prayers might touch a chord, but it didn’t work. He just looked puzzled, as he did when the priest came to give him Communion. So I gave it up.
As he was dying, though, I dug out the St. Faustina book and found his wooden rosary. I closed the curtain around his bed and said the chaplet with him. The prayers were unfamiliar to me, and I stumbled a bit at first, but eventually I got into the rhythm. Repeating the same short verses over and over again was calming and consoling for me, although I don’t know if they reached Dad or not. Over the course of the next few days, my sisters and brother and I said the chaplet with him several more times, singly and together. We said it one last time with him shortly before he died, and we buried him with his wooden rosary twined around his fingers.