Saturday, September 27, 2014

Mr Stehly

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.


32 comments:

  1. This is such a beautiful way to honor his soul and his family. Thank you for sharing him with us.

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  2. Oh Blythe, this was beautiful. What an honor to know him.

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  3. I just watched my grandfather complete his own earthly journey this past week and this piece broke my heart, both for its beauty and for what could have been in our family. While I did get to see him at his bedside and hold his frail hand in mine, there was hardly any relationship between us, or between him and many of his other grandchildren, and I mourn for what could have been.

    I so desire that our little family grow in imitation of a more generous and intact love like what you experienced with this family. So thank you for sharing it.

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    1. Oh Jenny, I'm so sorry. I feel like I sort of feel similarly, having experienced my own grandparents deaths. This family has totally become my inspiration for how to be truly generous, all the way through. I hope to be like them.

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  4. I'm crying. Thank you for sharing. They sound like a beautiful family

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  5. Hi! I have just recently started following your blog (I am one of your fellow Blessed is She writers.) What a beautiful post. I have also been thinking about how we don't really see the end of life. I myself have never witnessed it. And I'm afraid I won't know what to do or say or how to handle it when I do eventually witness it. But I don't want to shrink from it; it's important to celebrate life, at it's beginning and all the way through to it's decline. What a great experience for you and your family to learn how to be with someone as they reach the end of their life. He sounds like a beautiful soul.

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    1. Hi Ana! Yeah, I agree. It made me realize that being closer to it actually dispelled that fear a bit for me. I feel very lucky.

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  6. Oh my, this is so beautiful Blythe. May God grant us all the courage and generosity to face death with grace. I honestly think that dying is one of the things in life that can teach us so much about faith and what's important just like you wrote here, but we do everything we can to avoid it. I used to work with seniors and I am still inspired by those I met who suffered greatly, but suffered so gracefully. They really were examples of love. God Bless Mr Stehly!

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    1. Oh how inspiring to have done that. xoxo

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  7. Blythe, this is so incredibly beautiful. I'm sure Mr. Stehly was one of a kind, but he sounds so much like my dad (who has 11 kids, one of whom is a priest, a bunch of grand kids, lives on what we call a ranch, etc) that I can't help but weep. My dad isn't even remotely ill as far as I know, but I'm sure given the choice, what you're describing is pretty much exactly how he'd like to go. My prayers will be with the Stehly family these next days.

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    1. So hard to even imagine, Michaela. I hope I didnt make you sad!!

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  8. Medical wilderness. Exactly!!!! I want to live like him. I want to be that full of God's love. Thank you for eloquently sharing this. Hugs in your own mourning.

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  9. Blythe, thank you. I lost my sweet, dear grandmother this past summer. She was like a second mother to me, and although I always felt we had such a special bond (and we did), I realized when I became an adult that she had the wonderful gift of making everyone feel the most special. She truly showed our family how to love one another. Although she was never religious in the practicing sense, one of her last actions was briefly waking and asking for a Bible. She clutched it and held it over her heart for the next 2 days until she died. It was beautiful. Her death has brought me closer to God, and missing her all the time reminds me to emulate her actions. My desire to go to heaven (after a good long life!) has so increases because I can't wait to see her again. In some way, I think maybe this is one way God calls us closer or him and increases our desire to be home in heaven with Him. your story and witness are so beautiful and touching.

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    1. Wow, this is so lovely. Thank you for sharing it!! I like to imagine all the ways God can touch us as we near death. I bet we will be amazed at how near He is when we are there. God bless you!

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  10. What a gorgeous tribute. I'll keep Mr. Stehly and those of you who mourn him in my prayers.

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  11. Such a beautiful tribute to we had sound like a wonderful man.
    I'm sad when I see how much disconnect there is in families these days, I only how and pray to be the kind of parent my children want to stay near.

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  12. This is so beautiful, Blythe. Thank you for sharing him with all of us. <3

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  13. Blythe, what a gift you've given us in this post! I know you were so blessed to know him and I'm sure he said the same of you and yours! I'm so sorry for your loss but am thankful that you had something that made saying goodbye so hard. Praying for you. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Thank you Britt! He was really, deeply loved. Inspiring!

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  14. My eyes are all swollen. I miss him so much.

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  15. I wonder if the son is Fr Jim Stehly? I knew him from St Mary magdalens. Such a wonderful priest.
    I'm so sorry for your loss. Mr Stehly sounds like the very best of men and a privilege to have known. What an example of friendship, family and faith.

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  16. I am so sorry for your loss and I wish I could help you in your mourning.
    I am so impressed with the man you have described. To have been responsible for that kind of marriage, family, farm, life - what a MAN, what a witness, what a blessing, what a role model!
    May he rest in peace.

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  17. What a wonderful man and a very deserving tribute.

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  18. Hi Blythe, Patti told me about your blog...she was right...you captured mom and dad. I will have to figure out a way to print this and share it with my aunts, uncles and sibs. Your family, immediate and extended, gave dad a lot of joy. Love you all, marie

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  19. Darn you, Blythe! I got up before God did this morning, settled into an isolated booth as the local Starbucks opened, and began caffeinating and responding to e-mails and organizing my life for the week. Marie forwarded your blog-post about Dad to all of us, and I made the mistake of reading it right away. I sobbed and honked and snorted my way through the whole thing. A couple of people came up to see if I was OK, if there was anything they could do. People are awfully kind. Anyway... I managed to compose myself sufficiently to make my get-away.

    Thanks so much for your post, which wonderfully captures so much of Dad's great goodness and love and strength. Thanks ever so much more for all the joy that you and yours bring to Mother and Dad (still!) and our family! We love you lots!

    I'm pretty tired of living in a world that doesn't include Dad in it in all those ways that we'd come to count on. But I'm really REALLY looking forward to The Great Reunion!

    Peace in the meantime.

    fr. jim

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  20. Hi!
    In the event you haven't thought of it...

    A great (better on many levels, I think, because Goodwill dumps a lot of stuff on third world countries and people "donate" lots of broken stuff, stained/ruined stuff etc. so that doesn't seem too nice...) than Goodwill is Catholic Social Services. You may consider calling your local Diocese for information on their needs. CSS is serving the poor and refugee populations that could badly use your unwanted clothes, household goods, and furniture...and where we live they will come and pick it up (from your house) and in many cases take it directly from your house to families in need. Just a thought! :)





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  21. This was beautiful! I love your blog but never comment. Your love for this man and his love for his friends and family made me need to respond to you today. Thank you for sharing your life and faith with us. It's inspiring to me (mother of three little boys... so far!). Please keep it up!

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  22. Thank you for writing this! What a beautiful tribute and beautiful life.

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  23. Thank you for that. Just beautifully written. He was my husband's great uncle and I have never gotten to know that side of the family as well, except to know Uncle Jim was (and is) beloved.

    Sidenote: I was at his rosary with my little gang and was pretty sure that was you, but chickened out introducing myself... I could think of no non-awkward way to do it.

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