Father was alone in the house now. He visited mother every day and she would occasionally have a lucid moment. He would bring her apples or small candies and try to remind her of the early days of their marriage, walking at night to see the local baseball team play, going on family picnics, spending summer days at a cottage on a northern lake. Sometimes she would smile or laugh in recognition, but the memories were leaving her one by one.
When in the area I would attend the indult Tridentine Mass celebrated by a devout older priest in the area. Father Norbert Wilger though in his early 80s still runs St Mary’s Parish as well as the parish school in Altoona, Wisconsin. He worked hard to receive permission to celebrate the indult Mass and has been now been doing so for years. He also has a deep devotion to Our Lady of Fatima. He very kindly suggested that given my mother’s perilous condition, she should be conditionally re-baptized and given conditional last rites. My father agreed to this and the good priest saw to it. Mother was conscious at the time and did not offer any resistance or display any reluctance. When the good priest had finished, I took her hand and made the sign of the cross with her, as she herself was now in a wheel chair and could no longer move her limbs. She willingly allowed me to make the mark of faith on her bent and dwindling body. I wept with hope and began to suspect that my trust in God had been weak indeed.
My brother and I moved father into a small apartment in a complex for the elderly. He had a solid meal every day and people around to watch over him, but he complained of being profoundly lonely. He was now at the age of 84 living alone for the first time in his life. The highlight of his day remained the visit to mother, even though she could no longer speak and did no longer recognize him. Still, he visited her faithfully. He also continued to recite faithfully the Fatima prayer every night before going to bed, for himself and for my mother. And I offered up their sufferings and sorrows on their behalf and asked God to have mercy on them and allow them good deaths.
Father Wilger regularly visited my father. He would sit and talk with him, often about the war, or about old times in the city. He would say a prayer with him, but mainly, the good priest performed great acts of Christian charity by simply remembering and visiting at a time when my poor old father felt alone and abandoned. My father would often say, “Who would have ever thought it would end like this?” The Four Last Things have no place in the protestant worldview and when Death and Judgment and Heaven and Hell loom on the horizon, they arrive as unexpected and terrifying intruders.
Last year on the Feast of St. John, shortly after Christmas, I was staying with father when he asked me if I thought Father Wilger would give him “that blessing” which mother had received. I responded, “Well, Dad, you still have your wits about you. You could get a lot more. Would you like to see Father Wilger?” When he agreed, I raced to the phone and learned with delight that the priest was free right then. I picked him up at the parish church, brought him to my father and went to the little sunroom in the building to wait, praying the rosary with tears of gratitude and, God forgive me, disbelief. My father at the age of 85 was received into the Roman Catholic Church, was conditionally re-baptized and made his first confession. On the next morning, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, Father Wilger brought my father his first Holy Communion.
Father Wilger continued to bring Communion regularly. In early March, just after Ash Wednesday, he brought my father communion. My father received it reverently and they prayed together. The next day, an old friend came to visit father and they chatted for some time. He then settled into his favorite armchair, drank a beer and fell asleep, never to awaken again in time. He made a good death. He was a good man and a great father.
Mother never really knew that father had died. We told her and she said with tears, “Poor dad,” but “dad” had long ago become confused with her own father, dead for 70 years. And then that bit of news passed away with all the other memories. When I would visit her, I would bless her with holy water and with a fragment of the True Cross, the finest gift I have ever been given. I received it from a devout nun with a special devotion to Fatima who instructed me to bless both my parents with it and I had obediently followed her instructions for the past two years. My prayers for my mother continued.
In October of this year, I lectured in Tuy Spain and Fatima for good Father Gruner. To visit those two historic sites was a great honor. After one conference I saw some blessed brown scapulars on the table and a voice in my head told me to take one and get it onto my mother. When that voice speaks, I listen. Upon my return, I sent it to my brother who lives outside of Minneapolis. He took it to the nursing home in late October and my mother at the age of 82 was clothed in the brown scapular. On the Vigil of All Saints Day, she passed quietly in her sleep. I have great hope that God will be merciful to her. She was a kind, generous, loving woman and a great mother.
Many of you reading these words prayed for my parents over many years, for I would often publicly request your assistance. There is no way in which I can thank you. Perhaps this small chronicle of prayers being answered will be thanks enough. In this season of hope, with the joy of the Savior’s birth coming upon us again, we should remember those devout chosen ones who prayed for centuries for the coming of the Messiah. Do remember, all of you praying to God for events that seem so far away and so unlikely, God hears those prayers, just as He heard the prayers over those centuries and responded on a cold night in an obscure stable in a small town in Bethlehem. My prayers over 27 years were answered by events in a small apartment and a room in a nursing home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, obscure spaces and small gestures of which the world took no note, little suspecting again their eternal significance or that God, through a devout old priest, had again visited his people. Persistence in prayer, even for centuries or for 27 years, is no time at all in the light of eternity. God will answer those requests in His good time. So pray and pray and pray, devoutly and with confidence, for God hears those who love Him and obey Him and God is good.