Posted in Life Lessons, Uncategorized

If He Could Smile…

Since I got sick, there are certain questions I get asked over and over. However, the one that takes the cake (gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free of course) is easy:  “Katie, I just don’t get it, how do you stay so positive about all of this?” And the answer to that one is even easier. I grew up with someone who taught me, not by words but by example, that humor and laughter are the best weapons with which to face any obstacle or battle.
My dad was an amazing man. He was kind. He was funny. He had a laugh that could liven up any room. He was smart. He loved to sing. I’m also 98% certain he was tone deaf.  There were few things he loved more in life than Burger King Whoppers and Diet Pepsi. He had the charm of a salesman (which he was) but the moral compass and selflessness of a saint (which he also was). He was the strongest person I’ve ever known. By the time I entered his life, he had already defeated a brain tumor. He still suffered from migraine headaches and every so often his facial muscles would get confused and he’d take on what I innocently dubbed his “Popeye face” for a few minutes.
As I watched him through my six and seven-year-old eyes, I learned many things. I learned that you put 110% into your job all week but that Saturdays are for sleeping in, family time, and community service.  I learned that Sunday mornings are spent in church and every other Sunday afternoon you hang out with the old ladies while volunteering at church BINGO. I learned that you are not entitled to anything in life; rather when you are fortunate enough to receive something, you give thanks and you pay it forward. I learned that you always apologize when you make a mistake…and sometimes even when you don’t think you did.  I learned that you always calculate unit cost for the best bargain at the grocery store and you never leave without counting your change for accuracy. I learned that you never stop telling people you love them and that nothing could change that…even if they roll their eyes at you because they’ve heard it nearly every night for 8 years.
When I was 9, a lot of things changed. My dad got sick. So sick that he was soon transferred to a hospital in New York City, 2 hours away from our home in the Poconos. My grandparents moved in on a rotating basis during the week…but weekends were still reserved for family time. Only now family time consisted of fighting over who got to push Dad around the hospital halls in his wheelchair followed by Scrabble matches in a waiting room overlooking the Hudson River. Through it all, however, some things remained the same. My dad was still kind. His smile could still light up a room. And he still cracked jokes to anyone who would listen.
Over the next few years, he endured a variety of procedures, appointments, tests, and medications that make my last 3 years look like a walk in the park. As I watched his illness progress through my eleven and twelve-year-old eyes, I continued to learn from him. I learned that you may have to start your day with a shot-glass full of pills. Literally. (And since our house rarely had alcohol in it, it was years before I realized what most people actually use those little glasses for)… but that just means you liven it up with sports-themed glasses. I learned that you might be forced to give up your job and your driver’s license…but that just means you learn to navigate the less-than-stellar Pocono public transportation system.  I learned that life doesn’t always turn out the way you plan…but that doesn’t give you a reason to be angry. I learned that you squeeze the most joy, love, and laughter out of each day that you possibly can….and you bottle it up to sustain you when the darker days come along. I learned that there are two things that can keep you going, even in the darkest of days: family and faith.
My dad wasn’t very outspoken about his faith but it was always evident how important it was to him. He helped start a weekly soup kitchen at our parish. He took off from work on Good Friday every year so he could take us to the Walking Way of the Cross in our town. Nearly every Friday was spent at our parish Lenten dinners and every Good Friday night was spent volunteering…carrying hundreds of lilies off trucks to transform the church in time for the Easter Vigil.
A few years into his illness, my dad ordered a picture from a religious catalog (I know, this was way back in the days before internet). I remember the picture arriving and he framed it and placed it on a shelf right next to where he rested his hat, glasses, and class ring each night. It was a picture of Jesus, but one I had never seen before. In it, Christ was laughing. I still remember watching my dad take it out of the envelope and, noticing my inquisitive face, he explained to me that this was always his favorite picture of Christ. Because in all the books, movies, TV specials, etc. everyone thinks of Jesus as this serious guy and he loved that this picture reminded him that Jesus had a sense of humor. Even in the midst of healing the sick, dealing with the Pharisees, teaching his Apostles, etc., Jesus was human and thus, he smiled. He laughed. And as my dad so eloquently put it, “Katie, if Jesus can smile through all that, then so can I”. Every so often in life, you come across those rare moments in which you just know you’re making a memory that will never leave you…and our conversation that day was one of those moments for me which is forever etched in my memory. After he died, I kept that picture. It has traveled with me to every classroom in which I’ve taught. During my days in DC, I looked at it often and heard his words echoing in my mind. I even shared them with my ACE roommates for community prayer one night…because goodness knows, those were some dark days there.

Throughout my health struggles, my dad has never been far from my mind. Watching him face his own challenges with such courage, humor, and grace unknowingly set the stage for me. Compared to the challenges he confronted, avoiding a few (OK it’s more than a few) food groups hardly seems like something worth stressing over. He’s been my silent strength, my quiet inspiration, and my reminder to laugh during all of this.
This week he’s been on my mind more than usual. First, because when I heard the news report about the death of Harold Ramis yesterday, I was shocked to hear the name of the autoimmune disease which attributed to his death. It’s the same one my dad had…one that you rarely hear mentioned at all, let alone on the mainstream news stations. Second, because it was 14 years ago this week when he and I had to say our final good-byes.

This time of year is always hard for our family but this one is especially poignant for me. See, I was 14 years old that year, which means that this year, as we celebrate the anniversary of his heavenly homecoming, I reach the halfway point: 14 years and 7 weeks with him in my life, followed by 14 years and 7 weeks without him. I’ll admit there is a small piece of my heart that wishes I could just stop time before Friday morning arrives. That way I’ll never have to confront the reality of living in a world without my dad longer than I did with him by my side. But I also know that isn’t what he’d want. He’d want me to laugh and sing (even if it’s horribly off-key) and spread a little sunshine on his behalf. So come Thursday, I’ll celebrate the way I always do. I’ll drink a Diet Pepsi in his honor. I’ll eat a giant hamburger. Granted I can’t have the bun or American cheese this year, but I know he’ll understand. I’ll skip the canoli dessert…at least until I come up with my own allergen-safe version of those. I will live. I will laugh. And most importantly, I will love.

So in answer to the #3 most frequently asked question: how do I stay so positive? That’s an easy one. Because I learned from the best. And because he was right: if Jesus can smile in the midst of lepers, thieves, tax collectors, doubting Apostles, and scheming Pharisees, then I can surely smile…even in a world without gluten, dairy, soy, or corn.  🙂

8 thoughts on “If He Could Smile…

  1. That was simply beautiful. So well written. I showed my dad and he teared up. I've seen him cry maybe twice in my life. You have a gift Katie and I'm sure he and Aunt Pat are looking down over all of you, full of pride. Love Diane (another Burke with celiac!)


  2. Beautiful Katie. Made me cry and yet also smile at the memories of your Dad, my cousin. Love, Kevin Burke.


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