Friday, April 8, 2011

Fathers and Sons

A couple of days ago, my father turned 76 years old. This weekend, we will go to my parents to celebrate his birthday with a family gathering.

My father. I have a father. What a wonderful thing.

I am a 48 year old man. I have five children of my own, and it feels like they will always be "my children." I can't avoid being more or less constantly aware of my children; there is always someone needing this or that. They are all so dependent on Eileen and me, especially the little ones, but also John Paul and Agnese--who could probably run the house by themselves, but who couldn't stand up emotionally for much time without the touchstones that they still call "Daddy" and "Mommy." At some point, soon, I know my name is going to change to "Dad." But the dependence and the relationship, while it evolves and changes, will remain obvious for some time (certainly it will be obvious to me). If I ever imagine my children as adults, I always imagine them as still "being around" all the time. I can't help having this sense, even though I know that some of them may be thousands of miles away. I will still be their father, caring about them every day.

Yet, it is almost surprising for me to recall that I am also someone's son.

I walk around through the day feeling as though I sprung straight out of the earth. But I have a mother and a father who care about me with the same kind of love that Eileen and I have for our own children. Their love has accompanied me since the first moment of my existence, because their love was the mysterious cooperation with God in that first moment when He called me into being. And my parents have never failed me. They have always been there for me. What a blessing!

I am supposed to be a mature adult, and yet in one way at least I am still very childish. I still take my parents for granted.

I have a "good relationship" with my parents...no, I have a great relationship with my parents. They live about 70 miles away. 13, 12, even 10 years ago, we used to go regularly to stay with them on many weekends. We had small children and they, well, they were a dozen years younger. They acquired new names: "Papa" and "Gramma." Now we are a bigger family, and they are older. They visit us frequently, but my mother can only manage day trips, so their visits are brief. It is also hard for all of us to fit into their small apartment (although we still do a few extended visits, with kids sprawled around in sleeping bags), and it is harder for them to have us. Still, my parents love their grandchildren like crazy. I have never done anything in my life that has made my parents so deliriously happy as when I finally had children of my own.

The grandchildren.

I think of my Dad as "Papa"--the grandfather of my children. I still take it for granted that he is my Dad and that I am his son. (The same thing goes for my Mom/Gramma, but I have been reflecting in particular on my Dad because we are celebrating his birthday; I take it for granted too that Dad and Mom always go together, and it is hard for me to imagine that a time may come when this is no longer true.)

I am beginning to see a new dimension in our relationship. As they get older, they are going to need me more. I am going to learn that there are other aspects to the responsibility of being a son (and in spite of the feeling that I have of taking them for granted, I have always been aware, deep down, of this responsibility--I have always wanted them to be happy). I have received so much from my parents, and giving to them has always seemed "easy." I don't know what lies ahead but I know I want to continue to give.

I have had my share of trials, but I have been blessed by family life. My heart goes out to people who are estranged from their parents. There are many kinds of suffering in life, and all of us have our trials. I pray for the healing of families.

Our society does not encourage us to be aware of our need for one another, by which I mean in particular that deeply rooted connection we have with the persons who have been given to us: husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister--these fundamental relationships, this mysterious little community called the family. There is a tendency to fragmentation and distraction, to the false sense that we don't belong to anyone, that we can somehow be human without being in relationship. These relationships shape the persons that we are, even when they take the form of sufferings that must be borne, or--as I am learning from my friends and will probably one day experience myself--absences that must be endured and embraced in the hope of eternal life.

Family shapes who we are. It even affects our names. My kids think that my first name "really" begins with a "D" and the name "John" is some sort of abstract, silly thing that grown-ups call me.

In a way, I still think that about my Dad.

Happy Birthday Dad.

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