As I sat beside my father-in-law’s bedside, holding his hand while he lay with labored breathing, my head rested on the blanket and I quietly prayed. He would rouse a little and then settle back down for a moment, never fully sleeping but never truly awake either. It hurt to see him this way. The man I had known and loved for 26 years was always full of life! If he wasn’t smiling or laughing he was grumpy and moody and let you know it. We’d give him trouble for his grumpiness but we all loved it just as much as his smiles. But now, he was lying in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room, the cold metal reflecting the glow of the small lamp in the corner of the room, dying. He couldn’t sleep and yet he couldn’t stay awake either; his breathing irregular and his body uncomfortable. Pained looks would contort his face and occasionally a small tear would appear at the corner of his eye. He flitted between worlds- one foot stuck here with us, the other already in heaven.
It was heart-wrenching to see him like this. I cried softly and asked God to please let him come home; please take away his suffering. I prayed hard as I sat beside him, stroking his hand. I begged God to allow me to take on his suffering; that maybe if I could take it from him he would be free to leave and would be safe in Jesus’ loving embrace. He suddenly opened his eyes, leaned forward and said to me in a strained whisper, “Take it and be happy.” My heart raced and my eyes were wide. I asked him what he wanted me to take. He didn’t answer.
He collapsed back into his pillow and sighed. His eyes closed and he fell asleep. These would be the last real words he said to me. He fidgeted some later through the night, but for the most part he slept. The next day he would leave us. He died holding both my mother-in-law’s hand and mine. It was the both devastating and beautiful at the same time.
In the months that have passed since his death, I have pondered his last words to me, “Take it and be happy.” I know I asked for his sufferings but I’m not sure if that is all he meant. I gladly accept them and feel honored to shoulder them, but I feel deep in my heart that he meant more than just that. But what could he mean?
I look at our life together as parent and child. No, he was not my father but he treated me as a daughter. I know he loved me dearly and wanted only the best for me. Over the years he gave so much of himself to our family. He took care of us in the way he knew how… fixing things around our house, taking us on vacations, calling out of the blue when he was at a store to see if we needed a 10 foot ladder or an air compressor he found on sale even though it meant he would have to drag it 800 miles to us the next time he visited, sending forwarded emails he thought would make us smile, and by calling us every Sunday without fail to check on us. Yes, he loved us and made no qualms about showing us through actions and words. We never hung up the phone without a “Be careful!” and an “I love you!”
When I think of his last words to me I think of all these things… all these special ways he showed his love for us. As our father he loved us unconditionally. He never once refused to help us when we went to him with our heads hung low in despair. He didn’t turn us away or make us beg with shame. He cried for us, rejoiced with us, and was proud of us. He loved our children with all his heart and they loved their Poppy even more. He personified God as a loving father and friend. We knew we could trust him and rely on him. We knew he loved us more than anything in the world.
“Take it and be happy”… could he have meant for me to not only take his suffering from him as I had prayed to do, but to take the memories we shared, the memories he kept safe in his heart, and to be happy with them? When we take on someone’s suffering as our own we take a piece of their heart too. By asking for his sufferings was God willing to give me his happiness and joy too? Did my father-in-law know that I would need the happiness to handle the pain over such a tremendous loss?
I look at the cross and think about how Christ gave everything for us. He offers Himself to us in a way that is unimaginable. It is an act of complete and unconditional love. He took our sufferings and made them His own. He knew that taking on our sufferings would free us. He knew that through His suffering we would gain heaven and eternal happiness. It pains me to look at the cross and see what a heavy price He paid for my sins. He offered Himself in my place and said of His sacrifice, “Take it and be happy.”
It has been five months since my father-in-law died and this Father’s day was a stark reminder of his absence. I wanted to pick up the phone to call him and tell him how much he means to me. I wanted to tease him for his grumpiness and laugh at his corny jokes. Most of all I just wanted to say “I love you” one more time and hear those words repeated back to me. I know he is not gone forever. I know we will meet once again and I know that within our beautiful faith we believe in the communion of saints… we are all still connected through faith and love. He still sees us and hears us. He knows we love him and miss him. He knows we are so happy he is out of pain and in the arms of the Lord.
“Take it and be happy” he told me… Poppy, I take your suffering; I take your memories; I take your kindness and care; I take your heart and I take your love. I take them and I am happy. I love you so much.
Michelle Fritz is a daughter of God, a cradle Catholic, a Georgia peach, a devoted wife of almost 30 years to amazing husband Mike, and an eclectic homeschooling mother to eleven living children. She has experienced the loss of 16 babies in her call to be open to life, but knows that God is always loving and always gracious. She and her husband know that they have an army of Saints already in heaven!
In addition to her vocation as wife, mom, and homeschool teacher she also holds a Masters in Theology and has recently taken on the role of Youth Minister for both the middle school and high school groups at her parish.