Not lost, but found

Published 10:50 pm Friday, June 19, 2015

This is my third Father’s Day without my dad, Lionel.

There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t think of him. I make many of my daily decisions and some of my most challenging life judgments by the character he exhibited and the values he taught all nine of his kids.

Lionel wasn’t big on celebrating “the B-day.” He wanted us to spend whatever time we had on his special day with family enjoying ourselves — and yes, drinking cold beer, cooking delicious Cajun or Creole meals and attending Mass.

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My dad used his birthday, June 13 (which always occurred near Father’s Day), to remind us to pray to Saint Anthony, his beloved patron saint who was born in Lisbon, Portugal. The feast of St. Anthony is celebrated on my dad’s birthday, and in their honor, I recently traveled to Portugal.

St. Anthony had a short life. He died of an incurable illness at age 35. But in those few years, his life as a teacher of monks and as a powerful speaker made a profound impact on others — including those of the Catholic Church.

St. Anthony was attracted to the Franciscan order where he was mentored by St. Francis of Assisi — Pope Francis’s favorite saint. Francis saw in Anthony a kindred spirit, one who believed with him that action based on scripture should be of paramount importance, not an obsession with theology itself.

St. Anthony became the patron saint of lost people, lost things and even lost spiritual goods. His miracles, involving what is lost — and found — led to his sainthood. Centuries later, this influence continued in Lionel’s life.

My father was spiritual. If he invited you into his life, you had his daily prayers forever after. Lionel imbued his children with his faith and his love of the Catholic Church. I’m completing this tribute to him by design in Portugal, where the nation is celebrating the Feast of St. Anthony. I can’t think of a better way to honor him.

Many of my siblings worship now in other Christian denominations. But it was my dad’s faith that sustained us through so many trials, and which today underpins our own faith. He weathered the storms that came, especially the loss of family, which impacts us all, losing both his wife and his eldest son.

My dad was the real deal. He was a veteran, and he never allowed his nine kids to forget it. We learned a reverence for serving our country from him. He fought in Korea, and returned with four bronze stars and a United Nations Medal of Valor.

When 9/11 came, he tried to rejoin the Army — at age 70.

Lionel was a laborer with a strong work ethic. He was a carpenter and a wordsmith, an electrician, a plumber, a roofer, even an artist. He taught me to work and how to organize. I’m certain that’s why, at age 13, I organized several of my siblings and neighbors into a lawn-cutting business. I scoured the parish for entry-level jobs, trained others, collected and paid out their earnings, and most important (following my father’s example), got in there and worked with them.

Lionel’s jobs came with hazards. His back was broken when he was hit by a crane while working for a construction company, and he was later struck by a truck while riding home from work on his bike.

He knew adversity — from the loss of loved ones and the horrors of the battlefield to conquering cancer and waiting five days to be rescued from the fetid floodwaters of Katrina, where bodies floated nearby.

He was not one to judge or become selfish.

Despite having a patron saint he loved, Lionel wasn’t a saint. He was tough — steel spine tough. He could be changeable, sometimes in a New Orleans’ minute. Our house smelled of bleach, Lysol and Pine Sol. He wasn’t a “germaphobe,” but a man who wanted things clean. I still love the smell of disinfectants.

Lionel loved family, country and sports, in that order. He cherished good conversation, enjoyed a cold beer with Louisiana spicy food and, along with clean floors and countertops, clean living. He was a member of what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” I know my generation is indebted to the examples set and love given by Lionel and his generation.

A father never stops being a father. It’s the most important job in the world. It’s even more important than being president. Being a father comes first even if you are president. In so many ways — in every way, actually — all that I am, I owe to him.

Our nation is built upon the characters of fathers and mothers. Our nation’s survival, its commitment to preserving human rights as the gift of God alone, and our national character are the accumulation of the faith, love and character of millions upon millions of parents.

This Father’s Day, I’ll be thankful for my dad Lionel’s love and upbringing. I’m in Portugal to celebrate his birthday on the day his patron, St. Anthony, also is celebrated. I’ll be grateful and happy because I know my father is not lost, but found — in my daily life.

Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.