We just got all packed up for our annual camping trip to Big Sur and I probably should be taking a shower and going to bed but this post has been nagging at me all week. I know the last thing I wrote about was pee, but I've got to flip the switch a little bit. And I'll be gone for a week (lucky you) so you can sit with this all you like. If you like.
When we first moved to this little town we knew just one family. But it wasn't long before we met another family. And it wasn't much longer before that other family became a bit like a second family, to us. But the thing about the Stehly's was that they were already big enough. Mr and Mrs Stehly were both from large families. They moved to Fillmore and bought a ranch and started to work the land. While they worked the land, they worked their vocation. And that ended up meaning 11 children by the time they were through. But that didn't stop Mr and Mrs Stehly from wanting us around, too. They wanted everyone around.
Their ranch became a little piece of heaven for us. We would always default to the ranch when friends came to town. It was the only way we knew how to show off our new home. If you came to visit us here, we probably took you there. We would hike way up in the hills past the pomegranates or up through the lemons to watch the bees working. When baby goats were around, we would walk them through the grassy paths and chase them from the avocado trees. We would wander through Mr Stehly's expansive gardens with grocery bags in our hands, collecting what we wanted, as much as we wanted. Beets, carrots, tomatoes, corn. You could show up any day of the week and find him bent over in that garden. A couple of times I brought him cookies or muffins as a sort of offering in exchange for how very much they gave to us. And he would always stop right where he was to eat with that kind of joy that turns people back into children. And that was the true magic of that place. It was them. 11 grown children, plenty of grandchildren, enough people. But we could drive up that road at any time and pile out of our van with any amount of new faces and Mr and Mrs Stehly and whoever else was home would still meet us with a wide grin, and a "Where have you been?" and a grocery bag for picking.
We would often sit in front of them at mass and without fail, no matter how crazy and disruptive and tantrum-filled the past hour had been, Mr and Mrs Stehly would find us afterwards to tell us how great our kids had been. They'd tell us how they couldn't believe how happy the kids were, how happy they made them, and they didn't know how we did it. But of course they knew how we did it. They did it times 100. They always deflected the focus off of their many accomplishments and turned it back to us. Every time. They really loved us. They really loved so many.
We were at the ranch in July for an afternoon and I noticed the garden was more bare than it had ever been. And it seemed fitting evidence for what they'd all been saying. He had been very sick for years, slowly moving towards his last days, little by little. Mr Stehly was dying. I don't think I ever believed it fully until I saw that dirt so bare.
He died two weeks ago. And all this backstory of how lovely he was is important. It's important because we were able to experience the weeks and days leading up to his death, and it was just as beautiful.
For the past few months it had been clear that he was coming towards the end, and the last month or so showed massive changes in his condition. In one of our last visits, he laid in the living room while his eldest son (a priest) celebrated Mass for us right at the foot of his father's bed, surrounded by family. In the visit after that he wasn't able to get out of that bed, and by the next visit he wasn't quite able to talk. Our final visit ended up being just 3 days before he died. We didn't even expect him to be awake at all, but when I sat down next to his bed with Peter in my arms he opened his eyes a teensy bit and said "Peter!" in the softest, happiest way. The same way he said his name every time he saw him, the same way he said Johnny's name when he was just a baby.
And in that moment it struck me what a gift we had received, to be taken in by this family. Not only allowed to participate in their life for all these years, but to participate in the death of their beloved father, husband, brother. To see such a peaceful death, to know the hope Mr Stehly clung to as he died, the hope his wife and children clung to as he died, and to share it with our children.
I had never watched any of my grandparents die, and I realize that not many people do. It seems so often the elderly disappear into a medical wilderness where they never come back. But this was a different way. We watched Mr Stehly's body get weaker and more tired, and we were able to touch his frail, soft hands and kiss his face. We learned how to tread softly as we entered the room where he lay, how to gauge who was at his bedside in that moment, and how we needed to respond to them. We learned how to stop to visit with Mrs Stehly and how to grasp towards an awareness of what she was losing.
Then the simple, wooden casket under the altar of our little, familiar parish. We watched Mrs Stelhy and her children and grandchildren mourn their profound loss but, also, celebrate a deep, quiet joy- in the life he lived so beautifully, in the death he died so beautifully. His sun-beaten straw hat rested on that pine box, with freshly picked oranges all around. The funeral Mass celebrated by his own son, concelebrated by countless other brother-priests. Countless.
What a gift to see it all.
Those rosary beads wrapped around his fingers, that soft, happy way, that Peter! all those surprise bags of tomatoes on the porch, the fresh orange juice for Christmas, those grown up children sleeping on the floor around him as he died. Those 60 years of marriage. Heroic life, heroic death. Gift-giving the whole way through.