Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Catholic Education

St. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

"Brothers and sisters: I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God."

-Philippians 1:4-11

In mid-November, the last time that my dad hugged me, he told me that he was proud of me. These simple words and that simple embrace will stay with me forever. At the time, I had no idea it would be the final time I'd embrace him. I had no idea it would be the last time that I would hear his voice in person.

Our father’s death was sudden. It was unexpected. It was heartbreaking.

But, his passing is not without hope. My dad was a good man - one of the good guys. In a sentence, he always did the right thing. It may not have been easy. He may have at times outwardly complained about it or griped in the middle of it and after it, but he would do it. He was a man of conviction. His faith in Christ Jesus and his love for his Catholic Church was always apparent; over the past few days these characteristics of my dad have radiated ever more brightly. My dad was a good man. We are all confident he is enjoying eternal life.  

As my mom, my siblings and I have reflected on this immense loss in our life, and mourned the days with my dad that will never be, we have all expressed how much we’dlike for one more day with him, one more hour, one more minute. We have also explored the impact that dad has had on our lives. In the end, we arrived at three "ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS" that our dad imparted to each of us. In the world of education, the term “ENDURING UNDERSTANDING” is used to describe the broad brush strokes and overarching themes that contribute to lasting and meaningful wisdom. I offer the following three as a small portion of the legacy of Robert Zelenka:  

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING 1: Working hard is a key component to finding success in anything that you do.

My dad was one of the hardest working men I have ever known. He was an ideal employee. I never remember my dad taking a sick day (my dad never really got sick anyways). He was loyal to his bosses and would go the extra mile to fulfill their desires. He was good at what he did - blessed with the gift of gab, my dad was a natural salesman. As a pharmaceutical salesman, he worked hard at developing relationships with doctors that he would visit, restaurants who would cater his product pitches, and anyone with whom he came in contact. He worked hard at his job, but even harder with this family. I don't think that my dad missed a single game in which I played, or my brother Joe played or a concert in which my sister Mary performed. He had an incredible determination - waiting for hours on end for a football practice to end, driving through the night to attend games or make family visits, or sing itsy bitsy spider for 37 straight times at the request of one of his 7 grandchildren. 

I can't say for certain that my dad never told me that working hard was recipe for success in any area of life. He may have explicitly offered that guidance. His life, though, was a shining example of the fruits of hard work.

Working hard is a key component to finding success in anything that you do.

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING 2: Your family should always come before yourself.

It says so much about my dad that my daughter Elizabeth, at age 2, was so excited to come to Ohio because of a chance to visit Nana and Papa (pronounced Pa-pa! in what my mom and dad considered to be the cutest French accent). She absolutely adored her Papa. All of Dad’s grandchildren adored him. The adoration was mutual. 

My Dad was never big on displays of emotion, but he was never short on big displays of love. He was an impossible person for whom to buy gifts because he never wanted anything for himself. His heart's desire was to give gifts. I cannot think of a time growing up that I ever wanted for anything. We were never lavished with our every want, but my Dad always provided for his family. He put my brother and I through Catholic high school. He footed the bill for mine and my sister's collegiate educations - taking out second mortgages, keeping cars until they were both owned and unmovable, sacrificing what I can only assume were countless personal desires so that Mom, Mary, Joe and I would want for nothing. He would arrive at my house during my adult life with gifts for me, my wife and his grandchildren. He would pick up the bill at dinner. According to stories that have surfaced over the past few days as my Mom, Joe, Mary and I have mourned and commemorated our Dad, he would get home from work, quickly change clothes and clean up and then spend the rest of the evening attending to his children as we were growing up. His commitment to his grandchildren as I have already mentioned was even more intense.

He was an amazing dad. He was the world's greatest Grandfather. He was a loyal son, a dedicated brother, a present uncle, and an exemplar God-father. Most importantly, however, he loved my Mother for 40 years with a fierce, protective love. 40 years. There isn't much, let alone marriages, in our current world that lasts as long. On the night before he passed into eternal life he accompanied my Mother to a fabric store so that she could purchase supplies to make something for one of their children or grandchildren. What makes this feat, which was probably repeated hundreds of times throughout the course of their 40 years together, even more amazing is the pride in which he took over my Mom's creations. It was as if he had a hand in whatever Mom was producing.

We ate meals together as a family. We prayed together as a family. We went to Mass together as a family. When my sister, brother and I were old enough we started to celebrate holidays together as a nuclear family. We weren't and aren't perfect; but the love in our family is beautiful. It is one of my Dad's greatest gifts to me, my family, my brother and his family, my sister and hers and our mother. Just like my Father before me, I hope to be an even greater son, brother, husband, father, uncle and whatever else life has in store for me than my Dad was. I have incredibly huge shoes to fill.

Your family should always come before yourself.

ENDURING UNDERSTANDING 3: It doesn't benefit me if I gain the whole world but lose my soul - I must be a man of faith in order to honor my family and find success.

My Dad was not wealthy by earthly standards. By those same standards he was probably, at best, moderately successful. He was a beautifully imperfect and flawed man. Yet, my Father was holy. His heart may not have always been aligned with his actions, but as I've said before, he strived to always do the right thing. He prayed. He prayed with his family. He went to confession. He attended Mass and took his family with him. He was involved with his parish in so many various capacities. He prayed the Rosary. He fought to follow the teachings of both Christ and the Catholic Church. He was holy.

In return, he was blessed with a beautiful wife, three amazing children and seven joy-filled grandchildren. He got to spend quality time with all of us in the weeks leading up to this past weekend. He celebrated 40 years of marriage to my Mother. He came to Florida to meet his youngest grandchild. He visited Joe and his family during Thanksgiving. Mary and her family celebrated Dad's 67th birthday with him in his home. On the night before he passed into eternal life he not only went to a fabric store, he both went to Mass and enjoyed a steak dinner with his wife. He passed away, suddenly and unexpectedly, in his sleep. Peacefully. Joyously. Holy.

Our Dad was a man of great faith and as a result he honored his family and found true success.  

67 years ago, God started a good work in my Father that continued up until the very moment that he entered into eternal life. That good work continues on, though, in me, my siblings, my mother, our families and all who have been touched by the life of Robert Zelenka.

I will forever cherish those sweet words uttered by my Dad the last time we embraced: "I'm so proud of you."

I bet they were the first ones God said as he welcomed my Dad back home.

We love you, Dad, and we miss you. 

And we are so proud of you. 

In loving memory of my Father, Robert Michael Zelenka
December 1, 1945 - December 8, 2012