Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Sir Walter Scott

Damian P. Fedoryka, my wife’s father, passed from this life early in the morning July 26, 2022. His life, and his death, can teach me how to think about life, and death. Especially, that it is always about gift.

Bedridden, weakening, and progressively unable to eat or drink, the light in his eyes remained until the moment his soul bore that light forth. Among the countless lengthy conversations I was blessed to share with him, one close to the end stands out. Fortunately, I grabbed a pen and paper. He began with a quotation from memory:
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Curious, I asked him what brought this to mind. He didn’t hesitate.

“Here I am seventy-five years later realizing what native land means,” he said, prone in bed. I thought perhaps he thought here of his heavenly homeland—to which indeed his thoughts often turned. But I discovered there was something quite earthly in his sights. Of course, the clue was the number of years he had said, as his age is eighty-one.

He continued. “The land that bore me and gave me life; it is pregnant with life; it bids us recognize the gift of life… Modern men have generally lost that relationship, no longer feel that life…from an organic connection to a home-land.”

As I tried to appreciate his thoughts, I asked him to share memories of his native Ukraine—what was clearly on his mind. (As background, in 1945 his mother, he at age 4, his little sister and infant brother had fled from their home village. The Bolsheviks were coming. He could always still picture the road his family took, by foot, heading west. The infant Lelko—diminutive for Leo—would die of dysentery before they made it to the displaced-persons camp in Germany.)

He shared with me two images and two smells: his father hunting trout with bare hands, and picking wild strawberries; and the aroma of hay, and of horse manure. These aromas, he explained, were intertwined with daily life and especially with feast days, such as Easter and St. Nicholas Day.

He peppered his recounting of these things with pithy statements of sage insight. A philosopher by vocation and profession, Damian’s last stage of life was a striking instance of wisdom ripening with age. Habitually interested in all the deepest questions, especially the human struggle to live well, he remarked, “The celebration of time is in birth, aging, and death.”

The more I reflect on these words, the more striking I find them. Birth, aging, and death: these are realities that call for celebration. In a sense, simply doing them well is a celebration. But why are they celebrations, or what is being celebrated?

This is where we must read between the lines; or rather, look into the eyes and consider what gives a man hope and even good cheer as his body literally breaks down.

It is all gift. That is what and why we celebrate. Birth and a few short years in a land that would ever be his native land: not only the place but the source of his birth; his mother, his father, his grandparents, friends, and fellow villagers; the whole way of life, planting and harvesting, raising and slaughtering, singing and dancing, dressing and playing; and worshipping. All these were given to him; all these gave him life. They likewise gave him a wife, though years later in America. And so his children too. Even in some of the most tumultuous and terrifying days ever known in human history, of all this he could whisper with reverence, “my own, my native land.”

And he rejoiced with gratitude—indeed a gratitude that could seem incommensurate, given the disappointments, the tragedy, the heart break he had known, and finally, his relentlessly approaching death. That is, his joyful gratitude could seem incommensurate unless one glimpses something that came into ever clearer focus for him. All those around him could feel it. The philosophy of the gift—that which he strived his whole adult life to grasp—was being enacted before our eyes.

Behind, and indeed given with the gift, is the Giver. Always.

And the gift, received, nurtured, and returned, blossoms into a bond, a love affair the likes of which could never have been conceived. Except by the Giver, the ultimate lover, Who wants to craft human life into an incomparable masterpiece. If we will but receive the gift.

Our relationship to an earthly native land has real significance, though it pass away or for many of us it lack such ‘organic’ richness. Surely, this is why Damian’s thoughts turned to it near the end. A man wants to go home. Our native land, and also our native household, are a home. They introduce us to the very possibility of being ‘at home.’

But the greatest significance of these homes is not this worldly but other-worldly. Or rather, their this-worldly significance derives precisely from their connection to the next world, and how they can prepare us for it. If nothing else, by giving us a taste, and a longing. Native land prepares for promised land—a land into which we can be born and so becomes ‘native’ to us.

Damian, it has been a signal privilege in my life to call you Tato (father), like your ‘native’ children. I thank you and I thank God. For helping us to see more clearly; for receiving the gift, and living a life that celebrates what is most worthy of celebration; and for dying a death that will stand as a reminder of the native land, our own shared native land, in which we hope to celebrate with you forever.

“For at last you will find the rest she (wisdom) gives, and she will be changed into joy for you.” Sirach 6:28

Image: Painting  of Damian P. Fedoryka as a young man by Bohdan Kondra, his father-in-law.

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