I’m writing this from the Hillman Cancer Center where I’m participating in another clinical drug test. The first three weeks of the test call for 24- hour monitoring once the infusion is finished. Prior to that, it’s usually four or five hours of blood work, EKGs, more blood work, anti-nausea medicine via an IV, then the hour-long infusion, followed by anti-anxiety medication. So basically, I sit here for 30+ hours—which gives me a long time to feel sorry myself.
The first week I was sitting in the chair, recalling memories of my father from childhood, and crying a bit. What you have to know about my dad is that in his prime, he was the strongest man on Erie’s eastside and quite an athlete. When he was attending seminary, there was a poem about his football prowess that appeared in the yearbook titled, “Kownacki Scores a Touchdown.” The first few stanzas depict him catching the kicked ball on his goal and dodging and zigzagging down the field until:
From either side the tacklers came,
They flew, indeed, not ran.
Like cats they sprang, and it was cruel
To see them grab their man.
Three on his back, two at his feet—
All wondered how it could be,
He still moved on like Sampson strong
And scored a touchdown—gee!
--Al Marusa (Girard Seminary Literary Magazine)
Yeah, it would take an army to get him down and even then, he might emerge victorious. My dad was a tall muscular man with massive arms. I mention the arms because I grew up hearing stories about how he carried me night after night as a newborn, singing to me, while I cried. I guess I was a restless baby and my mother, who suffered from severe asthma, almost died after childbirth and was unable to lift or carry or walk me…or my three other brothers who followed. I don’t consciously remember being carried as a newborn, but I do remember being wrapped in those strong arms as I grew older and he told my brothers and me a daily bedtime story, how we played escape the dungeon and tried our best to force a release from the arms that tightly embraced us…and on and on. You get the picture, the image I carry of my dad—wrapped in his arms I always felt safe, protected, secure, and deeply loved.
I was my dad’s caretaker during his rendezvous with cancer and grew to love him even more, if that be possible . When he died, my brother Joe said, “Mary Lou why don’t you go back to playing golf. Dad would love it? (My dad was a golf fanatic.) I didn’t need coaxing; I really missed participating in sports after 45 years of total abstinence. “Yes,” I answered immediately. Joe went out and got me a set of golf clubs and I headed out to a nine-hole executive course outside the city. Though I had played golf until I entered the convent at 17, I was pretty miserable player at 64. Then, a miracle. On my third time out, I got a hole-in-one. I said to my playing partner, Mary, “That’s my dad’s doing. No way on earth I should get a hole-in-one. It’s his way of thanking me for caring for him.”
When I went to the next hole and set my tee, I looked up and coming out of the woods and standing on a small hill facing me was a huge buck. “Oh, my God,” I said to Mary, “that’s my dad telling me I’m right. He gave me that hole-in-one and he wants me to know that he’s still with me.” (I figured my dad would reappear as a massive, noble animal, not as a butterfly or a robin or as a flower.)
That incident happened 16 years ago, and it was never repeated it though I would brag to some of my friends, “My dad appeared to me as a huge buck.”
So here I am in the hospital trying to make peace with terminal cancer, thinking of my dad, soft tears falling down my face, feeling alone and vulnerable, all the while paging through an issue of The Sun magazine. I come to the final page and there on the inside of the back cover is a striking photograph of a huge buck coming out of the woods and staring at me. It was a replica of what I saw 16 years ago. I can’t explain the visceral effect it had on me. My tears stopped and I sat with that photo a long time, reminding myself that I am safe, protected, secure, and deeply loved. “Dad, you’re here,” I said. And he is.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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