Dad's Enduring Lesson

I was digging through dusty boxes seven years ago when I first stumbled on it: the unpublished book that my father wrote in fits and starts throughout my childhood.

In plainspoken prose with plentiful quotes from Scripture and the church fathers, Dad’s manuscript argued a simple yet powerful truth: God is full of surprises, and his greatest gifts are often those we are most reluctant to receive. Growth comes when we embrace his inconvenient invitations to movement and change.

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It was a truth Dad knew well. His life had been marked by upheavals, career changes and cross-country moves. An adventurous spirit and desire to follow God’s will without reserve had led him to trade a higher-profile secular job for lower-paying work for the church, to speak out repeatedly against injustice regardless of consequences and to sacrifice spending time and money on his own pursuits in order to lavish those resources on his family.

The most passionate of Dad’s sacrificed pursuits was his writing. He would have made a career of it, were it not for those stacks of bills that always crowded his desk, threatening to collapse onto his neglected typewriter.

What time Dad did find to write came in the morning’s wee hours, before he headed to work as a disability-rights advocate and, later, Catholic family life director. I remember tiptoeing out of bed as a little girl and finding him in his office, a jumbo coffee mug on his right and an open Bible on his left. If Dad minded my interruptions, he never let on. He would grin, open his arms and wave me to his lap. After I scrambled up, we would talk about my dreams and about God. He would remind me that we find our joy by following God’s will, even when it leads in unexpected directions.

It was a lesson I eventually learned for myself. I did so first as a college student who switched majors three times before finding my niche, then as a hard news reporter for secular dailies who wound up writing opinion columns and books on religion, and later as a print journalist who took unexpected detours into graduate studies in philosophy, presidential speechwriting, and, now, work as a TV news anchor.

That God is full of surprises is something I have experienced most profoundly in my personal life. As a preoccupied college student whose spiritual life once consisted of little more than tardy appearances at Marquette University’s 30-minute “drive-through” Sunday Mass, I didn’t expect that my journalism career someday would be defined so publicly by my Catholic faith. Or that after years of infertility, my husband and I would find ourselves managing the joyful chaos of life with three children ages 3 and under. Or that the seemingly invincible father who taught me to embrace life’s surprises would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in his mid-60s, just as his retirement dreams of full-time writing were coming into view.

Dad battled that brutal, brain-wasting disease for 12 years. Near the end, while helping my mother sort his belongings after his move to a nursing home, I discovered Dad’s manuscript. I devoured it within hours, tears blurring my vision as I marveled that this book that never found its intended audience had found me just when I needed it. And I realized that its message of trust amid disorienting change was one Dad was living more fully in dementia than ever before. “I’m in God’s hands,” he would say, blue eyes twinkling, whenever I asked how he was. “We’re all in God’s hands.”

Dad died in 2008. By 2012, my growing family had forced me to move Dad’s letters and writings to my basement. That’s where I found his manuscript once again a few weeks ago, while preparing for a cross-country move of my own.

My husband and I were headed for new jobs in a new state. We were answering what we believed to be God’s call. It was exactly the sort of bold venture that would have made Dad proud—and that made the cautious planner in me nervous.

That’s when I began thumbing through Dad’s manuscript, grinning as I savored my father’s voice reminding his audience—me—that God never calls us to more than we can handle. No matter how much upheaval he allows, Dad wrote, Jesus always sees us through.

That truth defined Dad’s life, right to his death. I feel blessed that he shared it with me—in words written as well as spoken, and lived above all.

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