My father, Ralph Husted, died at home in the darkness before dawn on August 7, in the middle of a thunderstorm. People often die at night, for some reason. They seem to obey their summons—or, rather, their invitation—when the household is likely to be asleep, when the nodding heads keeping watch in the shadowy stillness are failing at their post.
The night my dad died, we were all together, providentially, and were all present at his bedside when he took leave, ebbing away so quietly that we stood transfixed by the almost imperceptible, yet absolute difference between the living and the dead. How is it that this husband, father, and grandfather can in one instant so barely but so definitely be and yet in the next instant not be? Can he really be, as the residual warmth of flesh drains rapidly away, so irretrievably not here? It is obvious, however, to those who watch that this person, this soul who was ours and not ours, has flown, departed, been called, snatched, summoned, invited, carried to somewhere. At 5:06 a.m., he was preparing to depart, but he was here; at 5:07, he was irreversibly, irrevocably gone, not out of existence but out of sight to somewhere beyond our ken.
The incarnation, by which a human soul is enfleshed in a body, is equally as startling and mysterious when it transforms at the end of life as when it is conceived at the beginning. The incarnation was Dad’s beloved dogma and first principle. As the gospel reading for his funeral Mass—a liturgy he planned himself—he requested the prologue to John. Although the prologue is not the usual gospel for a funeral, it was perfect for Dad, for whom the Word made flesh and dwelling among us was the compelling mystery.
There were no eulogies at Dad’s funeral. He insisted there should be none—and for good reason. By any-one’s standard, Dad had lived a successful, full, virtuous life, both in the public and private spheres. He lived according to a classical and biblical code of honor, doing justice and carrying out his duty in all the ways it was owed. He loved his wife, children, and grandchildren above everything; he was our moral authority and our friend. Not only was he the rock and the patriarch of our family, but he also was our most influential and inspirational teacher. Neither my brother nor I, nor our spouses, nor our children would be thinking or doing what we think and do today were it not for Dad. His impact on our education and character was immense and incalculable.
And so there were reasons aplenty for eulogies. Yet the band of grandchildren and great-grandchildren who had milled around Grandpa Ralph’s bedside during the week before he died kept his wishes. His grandsons were pallbearers and readers of Scripture; his granddaughters read prayer petitions and shepherded the great-grand-children in bearing the offertory gifts—but no one gave eulogies.
Dad would have approved of this restraint. He considered death as a universal, natural conclusion to one life and a glorious entrance into another. No matter how good a life a man has lived, it is small and imperfectly lived when compared with the high place God has ordained for him in the plan of creation. No matter what a man has accomplished in his life, neither he nor the rest of us can grasp, except in the most primitive way, what he has meant to the unfolding of God’s plan.
Furthermore, the enormity of death, when God Himself reaches into human existence and ultimately lifts the person from his suffering, his imperfections and sins, his constraints of time and place and particularity, so far eclipses our attempts to eulogize the deceased that our words become childish babble. The liturgy alone rises high enough to commend the dead to heaven. Christ Himself, in the sacrifice of the Mass, carries the deceased to the Father. Therefore, Dad thought, we rely on the word of Scripture and the Eucharist to bury the dead.
At the same time, there is a natural human yearning of those left to sort out how the dead have fit into the Lord’s plan—the order of creation Dad called it. Shortly before my parents moved to our house, nearly two years ago, they joined the Catholic Church. It was clear that Dad, especially, wanted to take this step before he died. He was a truth- seeker above all else; he faced the truth and embraced it. Having little time and patience for shallowness, he spent a lifetime living close to the root of things. He had a gift for locating the essence of Sophocles or Dante, of a political question, a flock of geese, or a grandchild. After years of reading his way into the Church through Scripture, history, and the great books, he announced his intention to become a Catholic. Never was he more truly himself than when he recognized the truth and, rather than merely wishing for it, seized the moment of grace and acted on it. He later told my mother that joining the Church was the best thing they ever did.
In the week before my father died, the household slept fitfully. My mother and brother and I roamed the house those nights, watching, waiting, talking, praying. On the last night, we sat late by Dad’s bed, praying the psalms. In the dim light, we read from his favorite Jerusalem Bible translation, speaking rather loudly, hoping that in his comatose state he might still hear. The hour we had feared and expected for so long was nearly at hand, and here we were, after all this time of suffering with him in his emphysema, at the end and the beginning. Mercifully, St. Joseph was at work; Dad was far beyond suffering, off in his grace-filled communion with the angels who were calling him.
My brother, whose filial tenderness in Dad’s illness reached, in my estimation, biblical proportions, mused that he wished we had more time to talk to Dad. Yes, I agreed, and yet, I suggested, everything had been said over our lifetime. What subject had not been covered at one time or another—family, God, faith, freedom, education, philosophy, farming, history, guns, babies, work, country? The conversations that Dad began with us will continue as we talk to the children who follow us.
Before the night was over, Dad was gone—called away, as my husband said, by the angels who came in a crashing thunderstorm to take Grandpa Ralph home. It was a proper leave-taking and homecoming for our father, who never shrank from truth or duty or his place with the Lord.
As we always knew he would, he went ahead of the rest of us, so that he might take care of us in death as he did in life. In dying, he brought an already close family even closer.
I always thought that when Dad died, I would be immobilized with grief. I do indeed miss him. I have received, however, a treasure I did not expect—his presence. Perhaps because he was so strongly present in life, Dad is strongly present now, so much that I can almost hear him talking. Even more, he seems part of a continuum of family who have gone before, who are here now, and who will be conceived—all in the plan of God. Life here or life beyond, it is all one life, without seam or separation. Dad took care of us here; he takes care of us still.