My father, Thomas Patrick Carroll, Sr., was always a man of hope. Thanks to his natural Irish optimism, Dad spent much of his career in motion, moving my mother, brother, and me to half-a-dozen states where better opportunities beckoned and Gods call seemed to lead.
Seen through Dads eyes, every new city was bursting with adventures. Even our problems were pregnant with promise. Whether consoling my weepy six-year-old teammates after our first t-ball loss, coaxing me through an awkward transition to junior high school, or supporting me when I decided to break up with a college sweetheart, Dad always reminded me that hope and suffering were intertwined, and hope had the last word. Remember, he would tell me, quoting St. Pauls letter to the Romans, everything works together for good for those who love God.
I believed because I knew that Dad believed. His faith in Gods providence shaped every decision he made, from his choice to leave the higher pay and prestige of an executive job and direct diocesan family life programs for the Church, to his peaceful resolve about putting his familys needs ahead of his own desires day after day, year after year.
Dads trust in God was the fruit of prayer. I learned this as a girl, when I would rise before dawn and find Dad in his office, reading his breviary or praying in silence. Spotting me in the doorway, he would grin and wave me inside. I would scurry toward him, hop on his lap with a mangled baby doll in tow, and pour out my hopes and dreams, nightmares and worries. He would listen, then tell me about the Heavenly Father I could trust to care for all my needs.
As the years passed, my problems changed but Dads advice never did. It was always grounded in hope, a hope anchored not in happy circumstances but in the promise that God never abandons us. Consumed by the chaotic occupations of collegiate life, I would find eloquent letters from Dad in my dormitory mailbox that urged me to make time for prayer, discern Gods will in my decisions, and tap into the rich wisdom of Scripture each day. Gods revelation is found there, he wrote during my sophomore year, when I was wrestling with a choice of majors. [It is] tailored to your personal needs, questions, and hopes.
At the time I read those words, I was too preoccupied to fully digest Dads advice. But his words would return to me just a few years later, as I watched him struggle through the most difficult journey of his life. It was in the crucible of dementia that I came to see what Dads hope was made of; it was there that I learned why he had refused to hope in anything less than the promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
Dads Alzheimers diagnosis came on a bleak January day in 1996. In the years that followed, I watched him lose himself piece by piece: his career, his freedom, his memories, and his mind.
Yet Dads hope remained steadfast. Walking into my parents home, I would find him praying his rosary and reading his breviary or childrens books about the saints because he could no longer comprehend the Carmelite treatises on mystical prayer that he once loved. He would clap his hands upon seeing me, clutch me in a bear hug, then lean forward to confide what he had pondered that day. I have something too important to tell you, he would say. We can trust God. Were in good shape.
The suffering Dad endured ¯ from the first terrifying days of his diagnosis, when he knew what lay before him, to the last day of his life, when he struggled for the strength to kiss my Mom on the cheek ¯ has challenged my easy ideas about hope. Hope based on a sunny disposition or happy circumstances cannot stand in the face of Alzheimers, and Dads intellect and optimism could not protect him from its ravages.
The only hope of his that could withstand this disease is the authentic Christian hope that sustained my father all his life, the hope that he once tried to teach me through words but ultimately taught by example. It is the hope described in the eighth chapter of Romans that Dad loved so much: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us . . . . For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.
With endurance my father waited ¯ through the early frustration of memory loss, through the later fog of confusion, through the final humiliation of total dependence. His hope grew more luminous with each passing year, refined by suffering and undimmed by dementia. It radiated outward to friends, caregivers, and fellow patients.
Even at the end of his life, my father spread hope. In his nursing home, Dad provoked smiles with his courtly bows and tips of an imaginary hat to the elderly nuns who stared blankly from their wheelchairs. Great to see you, hed say, as he sauntered the halls. Youre the best. Led into a room full of dementia patients, he would find his way to the corner where the most distressed one among them was muttering incoherently. Plopping down next to her, he would whisper, Were all in Gods hands and sing Danny Boy until she grew quiet and calm. I like to take care of people, he would tell me, when he could remember what he had just done.
My fathers dementia plagued him nearly all of my adult life, yet I cannot imagine any father giving his daughter more love or joy than Dad gave me. His boundless trust in God, fierce love for his family, and undying devotion to my mother who poured out her life to care for him, transformed my view of God and the world.
Dad taught me that there truly is a love stronger than death, stronger even than dementia. It is the love I saw in his eyes after he would receive Jesus in the Eucharist, when he did not know I was watching. I would follow Dads gaze to the massive crucifix that hung above the altar in his nursing home chapel. Dad would fix his eyes on it, slowly raising his right hand and pointing to the figure of Jesus. Then he would point back to himself, keeping his eyes locked on Jesus and nodding as if to say: Yes, I still believe.
That was my fathers thanksgiving, the hope to which he clung. It is the one thing necessary upon which he staked his entire life. And now that Dad has returned to the embrace of the Heavenly Father about whom he taught me so much, I know that it will never be taken from him.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.