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Roxane Salonen, Published January 11 2013

A holiday diversion: my father’s illness

Every so often, a family experiences a curveball during the holidays. This year, it was our turn.

I’d received an email from my mother the night before Thanksgiving with details of the forthcoming spread. I could almost smell the ham baking, see the marshmallows on the yams bubbling over, and hear the squeals from the kids as dollops of whipped cream met pie slices.

How quickly things can change.

“Rox, are you up for cooking the meal this year?” It was my mother’s voice on the phone, knocking me out with the reality that this would be a Plan B sort of holiday.

She was calling from the emergency room, where she’d brought my father after summoning an ambulance. He’d been trembling all evening and, we learned, had developed a serious case of pneumonia.

Making a mental note of her instructions, I hastily finished packing the van and, with half the family in tow, made a beeline for I-94 headed to Bismarck. The rest would follow later.

The ham dinner happened, thanks to my mother’s efficiency – which she later would attribute to a nudge of the Holy Spirit. But an air of anxiousness pervaded the visit.

Someone had to be with grandma, someone had to be with dad and someone had to watch the kids, which left little time for post-meal napping and merry memory-making.

When my turn came for a hospital visit, I reluctantly walked into the cramped room where my father lay wrapped in a wrinkled hospital gown, tubes streaming from his nose and arms.

Dad has always been a proud man who appreciates – no, insists upon – being in control. It seemed all wrong to see him in a state of complete submissiveness.

My mind flashed back to times when I was about 3 feet shorter than Dad and he’d reach out to hold my small hand on one of our walks. Inevitably, he’d challenge me to a race, and no matter how hard my little legs pushed, he’d come out the victor.

Now that I’m grown and a mother of five, I’m glad he didn’t let me win. I’m grateful for the chance to have learned determination.

But what could I learn from seeing him in such a vulnerable state?

While holding it together on the outside, my insides felt like the bottom might fall out at any moment. I sucked it up and offered my best small talk.

Then I looked up and saw, on the hospital wall of St. Alexius, a crucifix. Simple in form, it bore a wooden cross with the letters INRI above it and a thin, golden Jesus, arms outstretched, head down.

I knew then that I wouldn’t have to hold things up on my own.

The cross also reminded me that suffering and being human go together. No matter how proud, capable or self-sufficient we are, at some point we’ll become weak. The response of others to us then might largely depend on what we gave while we were able.

Sitting on the edge of a nearby chair, I leaned in close and took my father’s hand, as he’d done mine so many times, and just held it, allowing both of us to feel the presence of one another, inadequate as it was.

Finally, sensing my time was up, I kissed my father’s cheek and signed a cross on his forehead as I do my children every morning. I walked out the door and, once out of sight, wept.

Sometimes all we can give is a little of ourselves and trust that it’s enough.

Thanks, Dad, for letting me hold your hand this time around.

Roxane’s father, Robert Beauclair, died Friday morning in Bismarck with Roxane and her sister, Camille, holding his hand.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum. Roxane Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.