We arrived in Rome on the evening of February 10, 2015. I had spoken to my parents moments before we had boarded our plane on the prior afternoon. My 84-year-old father, Harold “Pat” Beckwith , did not sound well. His voice, ordinarily poised and robust, crackled through the phone, as he seemed to struggle with every word he uttered.
My mother, ever the optimist, assured me that I should not worry. She said that she was confident that he would be okay. In my heart, I did not believe her, but I wanted to. She went on to insist that she had everything under control and that Frankie (my wife) and I should enjoy ourselves in Rome, where we were to live for three months while I was on research leave from Baylor University.
The flight from Texas to London and then to the Eternal City was the most difficult journey of my life. The thought that something was terribly wrong with my father, and that I was traveling in the opposite direction and away from that trouble, was nearly unbearable.
In December 2013 he had been diagnosed with cancer. In the first six months of 2014 he underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Subsequent monitoring had shown that the tumor had shrunk and did not seem to be growing. Because of his age, and the location of the tumor, surgery to remove it was too risky.
When my father first told us that he had cancer, I made it a point to pray for him each morning and each evening from that day forward. Although I wanted to do so by asking for the assistance of one of the great saints of the Church, who that saint would be was not obvious. After a little research, I discovered that St. Anthony of Padua was the patron saint of cancer victims. So, St. Anthony it was. I uttered the same prayer to St. Anthony twice a day, and had not told anyone what I was doing, not even my wife.
My brother, James, contacted us two days after we had arrived in Rome. He told us that my parents had been to my father’s oncologist, who informed him that he had no more than four to six weeks to live. Not only was the cancer back, but he had contracted leukemia as well. Upon hearing how many weeks he had remaining, my father, ever the comedian, replied, “Doc, can you give me two?”
After Frankie and I had talked with my parents via Facetime, we knew we had to return to the United States as soon as possible. So, on February 16 we flew from Rome to Las Vegas, Nevada, where we had grown up and my parents still resided. From the airport, we drove immediately to their home.
My father was sitting at the dinner table, surrounded by family. Having already lost the ability to speak clearly, he nodded in my direction as I bent down to kiss him. He knew we had traveled all the way from Rome just for him.
After he had been moved to his hospice bed—which was set up in my parents’ living room—I placed in his right hand the rosary beads I had received at the Vatican when I met Pope Francis on Father’s Day, June 16, 2013 . I leaned over and said into my Dad’s right ear, “The Pope gave me these; I want you to have them.”
For the next two nights, my mother, my sister-in-law Kimberly, and her son, Dylan, took turns staying watch next to my father. My mother rarely left the room, sleeping as much as she could on a couch to the right of the chair beside the bed.
At around 2 am on February 18—Ash Wednesday—it was my turn to occupy the chair. I prayed the divine mercy as well as the sorrowful mysteries. For the latter, I used the version suggested by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops . Between the prayers were Scripture verses, perfectly suited for the task at hand. The last four were particularly powerful:
Wait for the Lord, take courage;
be stouthearted, wait for the Lord! Psalm 27:14
Hail Mary …
But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them. Wisdom 3:1
Hail Mary …
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction. Wisdom 3:2
Hail Mary …
But they are in peace. Wisdom 3:3b
An hour after I had completed the rosary, at 5:49 am—on the first day of Lent—I witnessed my father take his last breath.
On the Saturday that followed, when my mother was going through his belongings, she handed me what looked like a tiny booklet, no more than two inches in height. She said that my father had carried it in his pocket for many years, though in the past 14 months he seemed more insistent that he always have it on his person. I never knew this about my Dad, and my mother confessed that she had never looked closely at the item and thus was not sure what it was. As she handed it to me, I noticed that on the front it read, “St. Anthony of Padua, Pray for Us.” On the inside was a medal and relic of St. Anthony, along with this prayer, “St. Anthony, help me experience peace of mind and heart in my present needs. Free me from needless worry and burdensome fears. Grant me unfailing trust and an awareness of God’s loving mercy. Amen.”
If this had not happened to me, I would not have believed it. But it did happen, and I will never fail to see it as a gift of God by way of my father.