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Betsy Kneepkens: Learning from a second Dad how to live without bitterness

Adversary balloons are flying in space, and a horrific war is happening. Violence using weapons has dramatically increased since COVID began. People without appropriate shelter plague every large city in this country. The rate of loneliness has been the highest since recording began, and the number of suicides has increased in nearly every age category for both males and females. The inflation rates are high, the supply chain is broken, and there are not enough people willing to work, so businesses have staff shortages. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

My father-in-law is experiencing the end stages of life. 

Whenever I describe my relationship with my father-in-law, I get uncomfortable when I say he has been like a father to me. He has never been nearly my father. From the moment he met me, I was his daughter, and not once in the past 40 years has he treated me as anything other than his seventh child. He is a grounded individual where life was faith, family, fun, and faith again. 

Most young people would think my father-in-law’s upbringing was brutal, tragic at times, and unimaginable in many ways. Born the 11th child, he lost two siblings from the Spanish flu and two brothers to World War II. They lived in a two-bedroom home. Some children slept in the hallway, and they had no indoor plumbing, using an outhouse and a push pump (some young ones wouldn’t even know what a pump is) for water. The family had a small kitchen and tiny living room and eventually got a radio for entertainment. He was raised in Kimberly, Wisconsin, with cruel winters, while his father was a janitor for a paper company. 

My father-in-law was an Eagle Scout, had a paper route, delivered groceries, and walked into town to pick up milk, just one of his many chores. He was a straight-A student and boasted he was an altar boy until he was 50. Aware he was at the top of his class, a teacher recommended he complete a college ROTC application early in his senior year. He barely knew what a college was, and not entirely sure what ROTC was, he received a full tuition scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He cleaned the Catholic Newman Hall for his room and board. With no money, he hitchhiked his way back and forth from Madison to Kimberly each weekend. He has always been proud of his service to his country and the Navy. More importantly, he was sure to wear at least one piece of Badger and Packer apparel weekly, if not daily at times. 

My father-in-law shares stories of his childhood but never considered his upbringing difficult, tragic, or unimaginable. He married his high school sweetheart on the weekend of his college graduation and commissioning into the Navy. He was overseas for two years and met his first son when he was a year old. He was a faithful husband, a loving father, and a terrific grandpa. 

He was that guy who would buy 30 of the same winter coats in the spring sale because he knew there were at least 30 fellow community members in need next winter. My father-in-law would never get annoyed by the person in the grocery line that couldn’t pay for his groceries. Instead, he would slip a larger bill to the cashier and tell her to tell the person in need the matter was taken care of. 

However, he got annoyed when he sat on committees and councils responsible for helping those in need and they did not do their jobs. If these charitable organizations were stingy or unwilling to give to the disadvantaged, he let them have it. We would hear him complain over and over again, “If we have it, give it. If they are hungry, they can return to the food shelf as often as needed.” He did not care what the policies were or who was in charge. If there was hunger, he found a way to feed them. He loved being Catholic, but when his Catholic friends or organizations forgot their obligation to serve the poor and marginalized, he had no tolerance for that. 

My kids’ grandpa never found a fault in his grandkids and managed to share his pride with everyone he met, often telling the same story about them repeatedly. He managed to make every family member feel like they were his favorite. He made time for each one of us, and toward the end they all made time for him. 

Life passes so quickly that from the time I started writing this article until now, my beloved father-in-law passed into eternal life. As one of my husband’s brothers said, “There was a special grace about Dad.” He managed to touch each person he encountered, and then you knew you reigned in his heart from that moment forward. My father-in-law was a good man, and he died a happy death. Appropriately, his final morsel, the Eucharist, remained central to his life. He held the recipe for a life well lived. 

You can read or watch about anything, and a macro view of our world does seem distressing. The outlook is extremely difficult, tragic, and unimaginable in many ways. We must remember that we don’t have to be defined by the overwhelming, nasty, and unfair. 

My father-in-law was dealt all of that but chose to live without bitterness, hopeful and generous. We can choose to live with the special grace God gave us. I have learned from my second Dad that it is possible. I saw how that grace makes life better. We might all have to bring the goodness God has intended to change our world perspective. 

And so, my parting words to him are, “Dad, you were a good and holy servant. Eternal rest grant unto you, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon you. May your soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.” 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.