My Chicago Home

My Chicago Home
How can we best live as modern, active contemplatives where prairie meets city?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Greet Each Day with a Smile -- In Memoriam, Joseph Francis Robin

My Dad, with older brother Alfred, in their
neighborhood near the Chicago Union Stockyards.
"Let's move!"

My Dad always joked these were his first words as an infant. He was raised "Back o' the Yards" -- the Chicago Union Stockyards. Imagine the smell on a steamy day wafting from thousands of lowing cattle into those little bungalows. It's easy to grasp Dad's wishes. 

Dreaming big led Dad many directions. He enjoyed life-long learning, settling in our overstuffed chair with a tower of books and a cat on his lap. He loved to stump his seven kids at the dinner table with physics and math questions, quizzed us on composers as music played, and always asked each child, "What did you learn today?"

I’ve been revisiting memories, jotting notes for the priest celebrating my father’s funeral Mass this weekend. My memories of Joseph Francis Robin, Sr., are bulging with good humor, because Dad approached life with a smile. Literally. A Mechanical Engineer and traveling salesman for machine parts, he wore a smiley face button under his lapel, and flashed it on all occasions. It was torture to my teenage angst, that he felt everyone should greet each day with a smile.

Born 1919, my father, Joseph
Francis Robin, learned from his
parents to live first for his Faith.

I shared my notes for the funeral Mass in a podcast for Deacon Tom and Dee's SQPN-affiliated Catholic Vitamins Show "I -- for Imagination." My experience of helping to pray my father through his final days was beyond my imagining in terms of beauty and power, all brought to my family through the greatest gift Dad offered us beyond our lives…the gift of His Catholic faith.
I posted little tidbits and memories of family life on my Finer Fields blogspot a couple years ago, in a post called Fifty-Nine Things Mom and Dad Did Right, because they did so many things well, by God's grace. But for now, I'll share a few bits from Dad's last lucid conversation with me, on July 10.

"Dad, should I write this down?" I asked. 

"Yes, these words are a part of you," he said. 
I grabbed my computer and took notes.

Dad encouraged me in my life as a writer, saying it was the right thing to do. I love his vision of a writer’s life:

"Oh, would that be something! Sitting there at a banister or on a brick wall and looking out at the world, and it's doing the thing you wanted to do. This is wonderful, Honey."

Then he reflected on the gift of family, asking, "How can a father be more satisfied than with a fulfilling life?"
 He talked about how people "bang their heads together trying to find answers, but it's right before them all the's all about family." He spoke of how God's plan unfolds through families. He encouraged me to write about our family saying, "It's a good story!"
A new building is dedicated at Mount Carmel's
High School in Chicago. My Dad won an all-

expenses-paid merit scholarship 
to attend this all-boys school. 
For a moment, he seemed to slip into a different time, and I believe he thought he was talking to Mom when he said, "It's a nice, nice home...and there’s room for us all, and we have the things to do that we like to do. It’s great, Baby, great."

Near the end of the conversation, Dad stopped and listened to a song a piano student was playing in the other room for Mom. To me it just sounded like the middle of a song, but he said, "You can tell they’re getting near the end." He smiled comfortably and said, "I don’t mind that a bit."

The last notes I took were when Dad said with great enthusiasm and joy: "Boy what a way to end the story, for us all to be in heaven…wouldn’t it be terrific?"

"Boy what a way to end the story, for us all to be in heaven…wouldn’t it be terrific?"
In Dad's life, God was first, his loving wife next, and then his children. Dad was an incredibly diligent worker. He would say later that Sister Mary Kostka from his childhood helped instill this quality. She gathered Dad and other bright children on Saturdays and drilled them in grammar, math, etc, to prepare them for High School. Dad won the only full-ride merit scholarship in a Chicago-wide competition for that year, for Mount Carmel High School in Chicago. 

Up at 4:30 AM, he worked out for an hour and more, tromping up and down the stairs for exercise. He stood at only around 5'5", but his strong frame could do exercises from the army well into middle age. I remember him doing a lateral balance on one arm, well into his 50's, and he was known for his bone-crunching handshakes.

At night, he always brought his paperwork to the couch to put in more time after dinner, before ending the night with poetry and a romp with kids and the cats. He chose to forego raises and promotions that required extensive travel, so he could spend more time with family.

Today, I visited Mom, and a piano student's mother was there with a big smile but tears in her eyes, talking about how Dad was a special friend. She kept exclaiming, "I loved your Dad!" She recalled his wit and how she enjoyed visiting with him whenever her children came to take a lesson. She said that after nine years, she looked upon Dad like another father. She also talked about how much he loved Mom and the family, and how they loved to talk about family together.

My friend Fr. Varghese Kalapurakudy from India called Dad "Dad Joseph" and "Dad Joe" and they also enjoyed multiple visits together while Fr. Varghese visited the U.S. this May. Fr. Varghese was raised "Untouchable," the poorest of the poor in India. My father told me it was "very nice" I had such a missionary friend and he got a big kick out of the cultural differences we encountered. When I told Fr. Varghese my father loved to hear his stories, the priest was touched that my Dad would overlook his caste, poverty and ethnicity, and offer acceptance and friendship. Dad and Mom were encouraging to Fr. Varghese's outreach to five scattered outposts in Andhra Pradesh, India. They helped buy Catholic New Testaments for "Untouchable" monsoon victims in their Telegu language. 

On his consulate forms to apply for his Visiting Visa to America, Fr. Varghese listed visiting my sick Dad as one of his main reasons for coming to America. The missionary headed to the hospital to visit my parents right after dropping off his luggage at our house, and honored Mom and Dad in the traditional Indian way, placing shawls around their shoulders and giving them hand-drawn pictures and greetings from poor children in India. 

I was so blessed to be at Mom's and Dad's home July 16, from 2 AM on, spending the night in prayer by my Dad's bedside. My brother John and I were singing the third decade of a Divine Mercy Chaplet with my Mom and Dad when he died peacefully at 11:20 AM.

Bright sunlight illuminated Dad's face for a long moment. The aid saw it on Dad's arm because Dad's face was blocked from her, but she exclaimed with me right after about how the sun had just appeared in the room for the first time that morning. Mom's eyes were closed as she held Dad's hand, and John was on the other side of the bed. But I saw the sunlight grow very intense upon Dad's face for a long moment. As the light faded, Mom suddenly said, "he's gone." The light on Dad's face was so striking and unusual in timing, I felt awed by the sight. 

Leading up to this moment, Dad had struggled, unable to communicate, through the night. In the morning, he was more rested. He grew intent and clear-eyed when Mom and I prayed a Scriptural Rosary at his bedside around 4:30 AM and sang Immaculate Mary and Here I Am, Lord. I sang Our God is an Awesome God  and even showed Fr. Varghese pictures to Dad one last time. Dad focused intently on a page, and then moved his eyes to look at the next page. 

After struggling with increased respirations and other discomforts all evening, Dad died peacefully at the end. His eyes grew alert as we pressed into the Chaplet, and then he seemed to just ease away. I had an unexpected reaction. I felt that someone had just given me a euphoria injection. I comforted Mom, but she needed very much some time alone with her Beloved. I took myself outside and praised God in the driveway. I felt I had just witnessed a miraculous passage. I learned many hours later, that my father, the Mount Carmel boy, who had his scapular on and a Rosary by his side, had died on the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. 

But the biggest miracle was Dad's wonderful, long-lived life, and unshakeable faith.