Saturday, November 25, 2023

Holidays and Loved Ones: Past, Present, and Future

There’s Maria, licking the whipped cream beaters. She called them “lollipops.”

A full house and a full table on Thanksgiving 2023, and time with family throughout the weekend, has reminded us in a beautiful way of the abundant gifts in our lives, and all the persons for whom we are most especially grateful. 

This whole life is precious, with its foretaste of the joy we long for, and also with its vulnerability, weakness, achievements, struggles, sorrows, consolations, and sufferings—with all the searching that we pursue and endure with wonder and incomprehensible pain. 

Trust—the living adherence of faith—seeks “understanding” not so much of theology as a practical awareness of the meaning of reality (wisdom) and a profound awe and gratitude at the realization that everything is gratuitous, that our entire being is a gift. In this moment, as I breathe this breath, everything is gift. Our very selves, and every step of our journey, are generated for us by the Eternal Father who loves us. I know this. 

I have decades of convincing experience, of consistently growing existential certainty (a reasonable and “most firm hope”) in which I recognize again and again that following Jesus Christ in the Church corresponds to my true desire for infinite happiness, to the whole scope of my freedom’s aspirations for self-expression, fulfillment, and self-giving love.

And yet, it remains so hard. O Lord, why is it so hard?

I have my own aches and pains and etc. but I will not air laments at this Thanksgiving. The greatness of God’s love permeates the circumstances and expectations of this remarkable time for our family.

These days are full of anticipation, as John Paul and Emily await the birth of their second daughter (any day now!) and Maria continues to be Maria, growing and surprising us every day with her unfolding personality. She doesn’t demand to be the center of attention; in fact she is perfectly capable of keeping herself busy, but when she does “take the stage” she naturally commands everyone’s eyes and ears. 

Maria is used to being THE Queen of Everything, and things are going to change, but I think Maria is going to do just fine as a big sister. She is a very self-possessed little person… as long as she gets her way, haha!☺️ She will grow.

The kids are alright. Teresa, our only university varsity sports player, went with her school’s soccer team to the national finals tournament of the USCAA (a league for small university sports programs). Unfortunately, they finished in sixth place, losing both games in the first round. Still, it was an adventure well worth pursuing. Even greater adventures await her next Spring, when she will spend her semester in Rome. Agnese’s health remains stable since Christmas 2021, with the help of medication. Doctors still monitor her and search for the underlying pathology but they don’t know what it is. Thank God she lives a normal and active young-adult life for the most part. Lucia and Mike are in New Jersey, where both of them have become involved in the local Catholic school, where Lucia teaches third grade and Mike has begun to teach part-time while he studies remotely for a Master’s to become a mental health counselor. John Paul continues to move up in his work with an IT provider, while his wife Emily graduated this past Summer from Shenandoah University as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, and has been working with a local practice (from which she is about to begin maternity leave). Eileen has been working this year in the adolescent program at John XXIII Montessori Center, and Josefina is one of her students, pursuing her path toward the high school degree. She is our “last child” at home (at age 17) and the three of us have become particularly close. I don’t know how I shall bear it when she finally leaves home.

The changes in life are beautiful and mysterious.

Our table was full this Thanksgiving. My memories were drawn to other tables in other rooms (and, sometimes, restaurants) going back 60 years. It doesn’t seem too long ago that we sat at the kiddie table while the “adults” sat in their exalted places, eating and talking loudly and always laughing for reasons we could never understand. But they were good times. And so many people, generations of people who long ago finished the journey of this life. There were grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and—of course and above all—my father and my mother. Dad and Mom were with us year after year, from my smallest childhood to adolescence and young adulthood to married life with “Papa and Granma” and their cheerful chattery little grandchildren running around. Every year, the kids got bigger and my parents grew older…

On Thanksgiving 2017 (only six years ago), we were at my parents’ condo in Arlington. Their condo on Glebe Road that once seemed to be one of those “permanent things “ in life has now “vanished.” Today it belongs to someone else, has someone else’s furniture in it, houses someone else—a person or persons I have never met, living in the spaces that my parents lived in for 30 years, where my parents met Eileen for the first time, where all my kids spent so much happy time in their childhood. Thanksgiving 2017 would be our last Thanksgiving together. My father (I realize in retrospect) was already experiencing early symptoms of the dementia that would come full force in the following year. After the meal, as we sat in the living room in various conversations, I saw my father sitting in his chair, looking somewhat withdrawn. Though he was not a man of many words, we had had beautiful conversations through the years. I looked at him and something inside said, “go talk to him.” The only way to get close enough for him to hear me was to sit on the floor next to his chair, which was something of a challenge for me but seemed like a challenge worth taking.

We spoke at great length of many things. He was totally lucid, and recounted with great feeling the sorrow that he had carried with him all through his life due to the loss of both of his parents when he was a child. In those days in New York City (1944-46), there were close knit ethnic neighborhoods and multigenerational interconnected extended families living in close proximity and sticking together. They did it not only to survive in this new country, but also for love. When Dad’s mother died, the family decided that the three children (my father was the youngest) needed to stay together, so they were taken into the grandmother’s house down the street, and they grew up there under her care and with the help of numerous aunts and uncles. 

This was a great and good support that my father received, and yet those times—for all their intuitive generosity—had their own limitations and unavoidable ignorance. My father told me that he and his brother and sister were sheltered in every possible way from thinking about their parents’ tragic deaths. This was an understandable and well-intentioned human strategy at a time when little was known about the deeper layers of emotional and psychological wounds and there were so few resources to help people heal and find greater peace. But my 82-year-old father said to me with tears in his eyes on that Thanksgiving Day, “We were never able to grieve. I have never grieved the loss of my parents.” 

My father was a great man, but he had a certain residual emotional awkwardness on occasion that we usually dismissed as taciturnity or moodiness. Now I wonder whether perhaps there were “emotional pieces” of a lost and traumatized 11-year-old boy buried within him, never able to grow to maturity, always hindered. I do think he was healed and freed very much by the love of his extended family growing up, and then by my mother and even his sons and his grandchildren. But it was still hard. He bore this suffering with much patience and trust in God, and it became fruitful in profound ways, including in the way he cared for his wife and his own children. Now I am beginning to see the quiet heroism in my father’s life.

My Mom once told me that it was only after many years of marriage that she realized why my Dad always seemed “moody” during the holidays. “It was because he missed his parents.”

On Thanksgiving 2023 —though it’s obviously very different, it’s not on the same emotional level as a loss in childhood—I think I understand my father a little better because I feel a touch of melancholy during the holidays because I miss my parents. It’s not from any particular lack of faith (I don’t think). I just miss them. I can’t see them. I can’t hear them. It’s a kind of “wound,” and wounds hurt. I can only offer it to Jesus. He knows what pain is, what my pain is. There is nothing human that fails to find its ultimate meaning in Him.

I pray that my father and mother and all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. And I pray for Emily, my beloved daughter-in-law, and her baby girl whom we all await. Grant them a safe and healthy birthing, and all the grace for this new adventure, this new human person, that they have welcomed into their life from the hand of God. 

Time, change, patience, love—these make the steps of our journey in this life. As we glimpse that ultimate destination while still on the journey, our hearts are filled with gratitude. And gratitude strengthens us.

Happy Thanksgiving!