What does a father do all day long? Especially when he can no longer walk, or talk, or even take care of his own bodily needs.

The massive stroke that hit the left hemisphere of my dad’s brain in May of 2014, shortly ­after my parents’ 68th wedding anniversary on May 4, almost killed him. Fewer than 15 percent survive such a trauma. He lay unconscious for the better part of the month and only gradually regained some movement on his right side. His capacity to speak never returned, except for a few barely intelligible words, never more than two or three at a time.  

No one knows for sure what caused it. Calling it by its medical nomenclature — left brain infarct syndrome-aphasia and right hemiparesis — offered little consolation, especially knowing he was right dominant like most of us and lost pretty much all of the motility he had taken good care of through diet, exercise and a life of clean living.

A World War II vet and a paratrooper in the 13th Airborne at Camp Marshall, N.C., he and his two brothers, had known the ravages of war, Joe having served in the South Pacific and my dad and his brother, Frank, in France. At the age of 94 and in “tolerably good” shape as dad often said, having recuperated from an aortic valve replacement four years earlier, speculation about a possible clot thrown from the other valve which had not been in the best shape was never conclusive.

Having been active his entire life, retirement was just an excuse to do the things he always wanted to do more of when providing for his family no longer required a day job. His autumn years were sharply focused on the promotion and support of Catholic education, in particular the parish school of St. Stephen’s in Warwick, N.Y., the small town in Orange County. My parents had moved there in 1989 from Ridgewood, N.Y., where our family of five siblings — and not a few cats over the years — had been raised.

After the War my dad and his brothers had worked in the family business — the Ecclesiastical Art Co. — an offshoot of Benziger Brothers, which my grandfather had founded in order to specialize, of all things, in bishops’ appointments. “The shop,” as we all called it, was quite an operation. Everybody pitched in. I remember seeing patterns of bishop’s miters on my grandmother’s dining room table and freshly sprayed loaves of gold and silver (formerly white) Wonder Bread, which were part of the ceremonial gifts presented to newly ordained bishops.

My dad had the artisan’s skill and imagination, having designed and crafted pyxes, pectoral crosses and various liturgical accessories. Never of the “nine to five” mentality, no sooner had he and my mother settled into the post-war era with two siblings and me already born, baptized and well on their way to school, when he decided, with my mother’s encouragement, to enter Brooklyn Law School, taking his classes at night until he passed the New York State Bar in 1956.

These were tough years. It did not deter the generosity of my parents in growing our family. Another brother was born in 1955 and a sister in 1957. We never missed a celebration of Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving, even if my mom spent a couple of those events over the years in maternity.
My parents took us to Mass every Sunday, even if they had to divide up the responsibility, as we were at different ages and there was only one bathroom in a house of seven. Coordination was always a challenge. But I remember my dad telling us how he prayed for us every day. He would always pray for our mother, sometimes offering up the work of the morning or afternoon for her. He also prayed for each of us in some way.

It only began to dawn on me recently, actually just a few days ago as we are approaching the sixth anniversary of his death, that we had brought up the subject of prayer on our visits to my father in his disabled state. Sometimes that was at home, sometimes in the care facilities where we had taken him from time to time as he experienced setbacks over the nine months that he remained with us.

On one visit, I had come with my clerical attire on, but had forgotten to put on the pectoral cross. I remember he pointed out the absence of the chain and gave me a quizzical look as if to say, “Is everything okay?” He was always a keen observer and moments like this told us that, although he could not speak, he remained acutely aware of what was going on. During one visit we were discussing our prayer for him and with him. Often we would recite a decade of the Rosary. I don’t know who broached the topic, but he distinctly said one time, “I pray!”

This was spontaneous and comforting to hear. I did not realize at the time what I have now come to believe. He was telling us that he prayed for us! I know that because that is what he always did. His attention was always focused on his family and what was happening in our lives. Why would this life-long pattern change? 

My dad refused to allow his severe disability to change his lifestyle. He had lived for his family, sacrificed for us and prayed for all his life. We always knew that. It was, in fact, the first thing my parents had checked out when they first met. That was in Oklahoma City.

It was 1942. My mom, Elaine Magdal from Dubuque, was studying dietetics, rooming with her classmate, Gen, from Wisconsin. It was a rainy Sunday night. She did not want to go out but Gen insisted they should go to the USO. My dad, who was in officer’s candidate school at the time, stationed at Fort Sill, was there with some of his cohorts I presume. My father first noticed my mom — from the back. He must have spotted her flowing auburn hair but, as he tells, he decided to have a look at her face before asking for a dance. The rest is the history that eventually brought me and my siblings into the world. But it might not have happened.

You see, during that dance, my parents laid an indispensable foundation for their life together. Before the dance was over and contact information exchanged, each had to know of the other, are you Catholic? They also learned where they were from, who their parents were, and all of the things they were hoping to do, but nothing was more important than their faith. That alone told them more about each other than their family wealth, ethnic history or even education.

One more thing. My father tells that on leaving that first dance he felt in his heart a commitment that he would never stray from: this is a woman to whom no harm should ever come. I have no doubt that a day never passed from that moment in which he did not pray for my mother.

Decades later, after my mother’s death in 2018, we discovered love letters that my parents had written during their four-year courtship, much of which elapsed on different continents, my father having been stationed in Europe. My mother, on her deathbed, had signaled to my sister attending to her to a top shelf in the closet of her bedroom. “Letters,” she beckoned. Not till after she passed did my sister’s curiosity lead her to a plastic bag where, as it turns out, my mom had stashed the treasure of every letter my parents had written. That’s just another reason I know how much they loved one another and why, to this day, I take my father’s word on its face: “I pray …”

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