Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Adventures in Fatherhood

“What did I tell you about that yesterday, sweetie?”

My eight-year-old Jopa (short for Johanna Paulina) stared at me blankly with her big blue eyes.  “I don’t know.”   She was cutting up an entire avocado, throwing it into a bowl to mix with a full can of tuna and a mountainous blob of mayonnaise.  Breakfast.

“Didn’t I tell you not to open cans of tuna, peaches or whatever and eat everything up.  That’s why there’s never anything in the pantry when Mama’s looking for it.”

“No, I don’t remember.”

“Well I’m telling you now, again!  Don’t open cans of whatever you want and gobble them up without asking Mama.  And, don’t eat tuna for breakfast!  Cover it up and put it in the refrigerator for later.  Eat cereal. ”

I left the kitchen and came back five minutes later.  Jopa was more or less in the same spot.  There was no bowl of cereal on the table, counters or sink. 

“Did you put the tuna away?” I asked while rifling through the refrigerator for eggs.   The tuna was covered with tin foil on the bottom shelf.  I lifted the cover in order to satisfy my curiosity.  The bowl was now half full rather than burgeoning.

“Jopa, why did you eat the tuna when I told you not to?” 

She looked up at me calmly with her big blue eyes.  “I didn’t.”

“Sweetheart, the bowl is half empty.  Did the other half stage a jailbreak and get away?  Why did you do what I told you not to do?”

“I didn’t.  I swear I didn’t!”

That’s when this prosaic household scene transported me into the Gospel.  The passage I’d read that morning was about Peter’s denials of Jesus on the night of Gethsemane and his trial before the Sanhedrin.

St. Matthew tells us that the second time Peter denied knowing Jesus, he did so with an oath.  The third, “he began to curse and to swear that he did not know the man.” 

When the cock crowed, Peter remembered Christ’s prediction and wept bitterly.  He’d protested to Jesus, “I will never be scandalized… I will not deny thee.”  St. Luke adds that when the cock crowed, “the Lord turned and looked upon Peter.”

I looked at my daughter intently, searching her face for throbbing veins, shifty eyes, sweaty skin or any other sign that her conscience was bothering her.  There weren’t any.

Time passed very slowly, our eyes locked onto each other’s.  She’s so delicate, so beautiful, so diminutive a person with so underdeveloped a soul.  What was in her heart? 

This was a teachable moment.  But, what lesson?

“OK, sweetie.”  I let her go and turned to make my eggs.

Maybe I was wrong about the tuna.  Maybe I was right.  To the eight-year-old mind, maybe not eating every last bit is equivalent to not eating any.

I’ve grown more lenient as I’ve grown older.  My 23-year-old daughter, Esther, the eldest of eight, said as much the other night.  My 16-year-old Rachel had asked me if she could use an old, stored-away coffee table of mine for her room.  After a moment’s consideration, I said yes.

Esther’s eyes popped out.  Having received “no” for an answer most of her life (though much less than she thinks)—even in the not too distant past when that very same room was hers and I declined to let her hang a stored-away piece of art—she can’t believe how lax I’ve become.  (She reminds me that she, too, asked to use the table! I apparently said no.)

I lend Rachel and my 14-year-old Susanna my laptop all the time.  Esther would have been afraid to ask for it.  The evening before, we’d seen “Thor” for family movie night.  Esther and the first batch of kids were raised on Bob Hope.

It’s not just that children wear you down, though they do.  Jopa is the seventh of eight.  I do pick my battles more judiciously now.

Rather, it’s that I don’t want to crush them.  Not that I ever did.  As a younger father, though, I would have obsessed about character.  If I let this slip, Jopa will grow up to become a pathological liar and a selfish old bag.  I can’t let that happen.

So, I would have drawn the line at every can of tuna.

I want Jopa, and all of them, to do the right thing for love of God.  I want her to feel His disappointment by feeling my disappointment.  But, even more, I want her to feel His love by feeling my love.

Pope Francis has been stressing mercy.  He wants us to be a missionary church that adapts to context and goes forth to draw people in; to go where people are capable of going, always and for everyone, especially the most needy.  Who is more needy than a child?

He writes in Evangelii Gaudium that “[t]he Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the gospel.”  That’s what I want for my home. 

Further: “[a]n evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative; he has loved us first… Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.”

Tradition tells us that in his old age St. John would be carried into church and repeat, “Little children, love one another!”  When asked why he always said the same thing, he replied, “It is the Lord’s command, and if this alone be done it is enough.”

Love in all its manifestations takes on greater meaning as one gets older.  Other motives dissolve into this one, grand command.

Does it suffice to raise children, or a Church, this way?  Who knows?  I put my faith in the Lord, and pray that it works.

I mulled the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation as I sat down to a plate of eggs-a-la-leftover—chicken, vegetables and whatever else was in the refrigerator scrambled together with eggs. 

Suddenly, I knew what Jesus would do.  I called her back to the kitchen.

“Sweetie, would you like some eggs?”

“No, thank you.”

“Are you sure?  Why don’t you take some?”

“No, I don’t want any.”

“OK, sweetie, you don’t have to have any.  Are you sure you don’t want some, though?”

“Well (pause), if you want to give some to me.”

“I do, sweetheart.  I really do.”

It was like a confirmation from St. Peter that I was on the right track.  She’d reversed course before declining the third time!

I gave her eggs from my plate and we ate happily together.  As glad as she was to be eating, I was the happier of the two.

"Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men," Christ had told his apostles.  The fisherman had caught us, ironically using a can of tuna for bait.

Later in the afternoon, I saw her in the kitchen again and asked if she’d had her tuna for lunch.

“No.  Esther ate it.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart.  I’d wanted you to have it.”

We looked at each other in nearly the same spot as we had in the morning.  I searched her face for disappointment or sorrow. 

She smiled and said, “I don’t mind.  Esther didn’t know.”

There might indeed be something to following Pope Francis where he is leading us.  Thank you, Lord, for loving us first.

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