Fourteen years ago, I was pregnant with William Valentine. I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that I was in a body, and it was pregnant. Things happened to me, to my body, that seemed extrinsic to my person, so much so that for most of those forty weeks, I felt as though the doctor’s office was having the baby, and I was a mere observer. But, when the time came to deliver the baby, I realized it was my body that was trying to make passage for another’s. The particularities of myself and the baby’s self seemed to fade away into something more vital and primordial in the process of the transmission of life. After a safe delivery, I felt a deep and curious gratitude that was beyond the gratitude I had for my child or for our health. This strange gratitude was born of the passage I had been so fortunate to experience, that is, this novel yet ancient, essential yet unparalleled dimension of human being-ness. I had given live birth, and I was grateful to know what that was like. In that experience, I was more connected to my human brothers and sisters than I had ever been before, including to this new baby, who I knew in my deepest self was more fundamentally a brother human than even he was my own child. I knew that in this transmission, I had helped a fellow traveler, and that transmitting life was simple even while it was giant in scope. The experience was and would always be about walking with each other, from the cradle to the grave, in our vulnerability, in our fragility, in our humility, and in that walk, to find our strength, our dignity, and our luminescence, as persons, as creatures that think and speak and love. To have been a party to another’s coming to be, this was an occasion of the greatest gratitude I had known.
In accompanying my father in this final stage of his life during these challenging and difficult months as he journeyed toward his death, I felt that same vital and primordial passage of being that I had in giving birth. While it was not my body that this time labored and worked, I was party to his experience. I witnessed his courage and another kind of transmission of life. For, I saw a man go from self-concern to other-concern; from hope of getting well to hope to of making things better for others; I witnessed a man move from verbal complaint to silent focus; and I heard his relocation of worry for himself to concern for me because he knew I was hurting as I was watching him, mostly powerless to do anything but sit next to him. I saw a man graduate from a regular man to an elder and then to naked spirt in God’s care, and I was honored to be one of his midwives on that journey. In his final hours, he became full of grace, and he fulfilled the trajectory of becoming the father and man he always intended to be. It was an honor to behold, and I am grateful.
And now, I have another honor. For, I cannot imagine how many persons in these human centuries have lost parents and not been afforded the opportunity to speak publicly about their beloved departed. I cannot imagine how many have shuffled off this mortal coil with no witness and no fanfare. It is as such a genuine honor to stand where my progenitor stood, to acknowledge him in this beautiful chapel, accompanied by friends, musicians, ministers, and caregivers, to speak words of remembrance of him, and to thank him.
My father, Paul Andrew Kertes, was born on the 10th of March, 1939 in Canton, Ohio to Hungarian immigrants, Margaret Batiz and Andras Kertesz. He had one brother, four years his junior, Ronald Joseph Kertes, known as Rene. Paul grew up in Canton, where his parents operated a small convenience store, from which his mother brought home for him once a red bike and a wrist watch. Paul forever after loved bikes and watches, making those his standard holiday gifts whenever possible. Paul went to school in Canton, graduating from McKinley High School. Well beyond his school years, he continued to enjoy the perennial rivalry between McKinley and Massillon, taking Elissa and me, who were all too unenthusiastic, to ball games all during our youth. Throughout his life, Paul would recount tales of his childhood, including misadventures swimming in the lake, hijinks with his brother, and the delightful ministrations of his artist mother, who used her talents to particular effect on matters pertaining to broken toys, communicating with Santa Claus, and corralling her sons into good behaviors. My father loved his mother very deeply, often describing her as particularly kind to him. Having lost her when she was only fifty-two years of age, he never failed to speak sweetly of her memory, to honor it by enacting elements of her cultural heritage that she had passed down to him, or to lament her passing. I never knew my grandma Margaret, but I have a lock of her hair. It is indistinguishable from my own.
Paul met my mother, Patricia, when he was twenty-one, she being sixteen at the time. They had known of each other since my mom was nine years old, as she was a third grade classmate of his brother Ronny. Paul and Patricia courted throughout Patricia’s school years, and they eventually married in November of 1964. While they eventually separated in a formal way, they never did in reality. They remained friends through all the years, co-parents and grandparents, fulfilling a lifelong pact to see each other to the end of things. Patricia lovingly sat at his bedside, holding his hand, as he passed away. Hers was the last voice he heard.
Paul earned an associate degree in engineering and began his working career at an engineering firm in East Sparta, Ohio. He would in time become me a draftsman with Republic Steel in Canton until the plant was closed in the early nineteen-eighties. After a stint with the Otto Meyer Corporation, he took a position with the Flexible Corporation in Columbus, Ohio, which made public transport busses. A little known fact about my father’s professional life, he was instrumental in the design of the mechanical feature that allows busses to kneel for wheel-chair bound passengers. Paul’s working career as a blueprint draftsman was cut short by the changing industry, which increasingly relied on computer assisted design technologies. His work was a casualty of the times, and it would be untrue to his life to fail to mention how difficult this was for him, as he was obligated to search out new positions repeatedly during the latter third of his career. Despite the challenges, Paul never accepted unemployment, and though he would move no fewer than ten times, he successfully retired from his career at the age of sixty-two.
Paul was a worker, diligent, punctual, efficient, methodical, and fastidiously careful. But, he did not live to work. Paul worked to live, and he really did enjoy his life. Paul loved good meals, cherry wood furniture crafted in the Queen Anne style, Bavarian porcelain, Hungarian cooking, birthday celebrations, and yearly vacations for which he worked overtime with an unwavering dedication. He adored taking trips to Disney World, Williamsburg, Virginia, Busch Gardens, and the beaches of North Carolina. He even trained for these trips, preparing Elissa and me when we were young by taking us on early morning walks to strengthen our legs. He made annual pilgrimages with us to the Ohio State Fair, the Amish Village of Sugar Creek, Ohio, and the Anheuser-Busch Brewery. Paul loved the circus, movies, birthdays, martini lunches, breakfast at Bob Evans, shopping with me for running shoes, photography, slide shows, all major and minor holidays, and above them all, Paul loved Christmas.
Paul loved everything about Christmas. He loved the songs; he loved the presents; he loved ribbon-tied packages; he loved talking with the saleswomen over the buying of make-up and perfume gifts; he loved buying the gift you really wanted and searching out the ones you never heard of before; he gave depilatory and wrinkle cream products as enthusiastically as classic-styled adidas; he loved Christmas goose and cabbages. Christmas stories were his favorite variety, and superlative among such stories was perhaps the most poignant story of Christmas hope of them all, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Dad loved this story, and I believe he loved it for two reasons that say more about who my father was than any other details I could offer about his life in these brief words of remembrance. First, it was a good story, and Paul was an excellent raconteur. Paul’s story telling was legendary. He made us laugh with his overwrought descriptions, his irreverent attitudes, his clumsy accents, and his predictable repetitions. My sister and I used to beg him to tell us again of his trip to California and to regale us with memories of his neighborhood playmates. Paul loved a good story, and he was eager to enter into others’ tales with a total suspension of belief, time, and place. He cried easily during films and songs, seasonally watched and re-watched the greats almost as if on a liturgical calendar, and he let his imagination lead him to empathize with characters. Stories were for my dad a point of entry into real life.
But, the second and more important reason why Dad loved a Christmas Carol was that he identified deeply with the character, Ebenezer Scrooge, who though a wealthy businessman, was a pauper in tremendous need of touch, love, and relationship. Paul was no wealthy businessman, but he did experience depths of alienation which took most of his life to overcome. I knew my father well enough to know that there were parts of him that I did not know at all, parts where he grieved, parts where he felt unforgiven, parts where he was untouchable, remote from other people, yet yearning to find home. What made Ebenezer Scrooge, indeed all of Christmas so meaningful to my dad, was that there remained in this story, this single story, that is, the story of Christmas as told through the wrenching yet often comedic journey of Mr. Scrooge, a core of hope and light that could not be and cannot be extinguished. For, as Dickens rightly observed, there is a generosity in Christmas that bridges all the rest of the year with a new hope, an urgency of forgiveness, and a desire for reconciliation that can only be addressed by the love and care we give and receive from others. Mr. Scrooge had no enemies besides his own self-imprisonment, and when he awakes from his long years of alienation, he springs to life as a new born baby, as naked and vulnerable and unwritten as even the baby Jesus at his birth. It is in perceiving by the gifts of the Holy Spirit that life is finally about merely being present to other travelers that Mr. Scrooge finds his own life, allows others to love him, and experiences redemption. Dad loved this story because he felt that in it no man was lost and all men could be restored, regardless of their errors, to the hope and innocence of babies. It was a path he sought himself, for himself, in himself, and which, I believe, he found in his final hours.
Fourteen years ago, I delivered a baby and felt gratitude. These past months, I have felt again that gratitude unparalleled as I, together with my sons and my mother, his closest family members, journeyed with my father through the end of his life. I believe that together we discovered that death is not opposite of life but the counterpart to birth. It is at once as mysterious and foreign as it is obvious and native to our existence, and in the experience of both birthing into being and birthing into passing, there are gifts of grace and wonders of new understanding and opportunities for deepening our common humanness if we can allow ourselves to be attentive and welcoming to the lessons of each.
I want to conclude with this image. My youngest son Nathan, sat beside his grandfather, my dad, our brother Paul, hours before he passed. He was crying, and I said gently, “It is time to say goodbye.” I offered to speak on Nate’s behalf, but he gestured for me to be quiet. In the great wisdom and simplicity of a child, Nate said all that needed to be said: “I love you. I will miss you. And, thank you for everything.”
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.