Venerable Fulton Sheen said that “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.” Every parent knows this, mothers as early as childbirth. There is no true joy without suffering, and we suffer for the ones we love.
Unconditional love – how many parents today, myself included, describe the love felt for their children – is a phrase I didn’t hear much in my lrish-Catholic, 1980s childhood. This wasn’t because my parents loved any less. They were just less saccharine with words, with much stronger message discipline than I show as a father.
And their message? Our love is conditioned on your not being a knucklehead.
At least that’s how I perceived things in my youth. For parental love poured out freely then, but my credit wasn’t infinite. Over time -- and rapidly in adolescence -- I drew down my deposits on account with The First National Bank of Mom and Dad. When funds zeroed out, replenishing them was on me and nobody else.
These “no overdraft protection” parenting rules weren’t the least bit traumatizing. It was the same for all of my friends. I think this is why today when it comes to Donna Summer, people over forty don’t remember “Unconditional Love”, only “She Works Hard For The Money."
The takeaway from that era wasn’t “whatever you want, precious child”, but rather “your mom is sacrificing to give you opportunities she never dreamed of, so don’t blow it.” Yet blowing it is often exactly what I did.
Sometimes it was the cumulative effect of venial things, like once after finishing a phone call from the girlfriend room. That’s what we called dad’s study, the only place in the house where you could call a girlfriend free from sibling torment. The room’s only light was a lamp on the desk, so you entered and exited in darkness. I’d finished my call and, as I killed the lights, heard footsteps in the hall.
Confident it was my kid brother Jack coming to make his own girlfriend call, I remained still in the darkness. The door opened, and from behind the desk I channeled Vincent Price: “Good eeevenning.” Unfortunately it wasn’t Jack but my old man, carrying an armful of pictures.
Dad shrieked in the refrain pitch of “Sloop John B”, and glass shattered as the frames hit the floor. Yelling from upstairs, mom demanded to know what had happened.
I can still recall dad’s reply: “Your son is sitting around in dark rooms, just waiting to scare people.” I remember because dad often disclaimed paternity when I did strange things. To him, lying in wait to scare people was about as strange as it got.
Other times one mortal error did me in, like when dad said four fateful words across the dinner table that unleashed mayhem: “Mike, pass the chicken.” Even now, I wince at the judgment I showed next.
With my bare hands I picked up a chicken breast and, like an option-quarterback eyeing the running back in the flat, pitched it toward my old man. Dad looked away at the worst moment, missing the marinated projectile that was heading his way. Everything around the kitchen table slowed down once the bird took flight, even the sound of Jack’s voice. His cri de coeur of “Nooooo!” was like the heroic soldier’s in the war movie, the one who’s just seen a live grenade fall near a comrade.
The flight path of the chicken breast could not have been worse. On greasy descent the bird hit dad’s tie, shirt and jacket, all before crash-landing onto his lap. Dad looked at me -- through me -- for an eternity, then finally down at the sloppy bird resting on his thighs. I had no intention of still being in my seat when he looked back up. Like A Flock of Seagulls I ran so far away, with the intention of coming back home once he’d cooled off. One missed dinner was a small price to pay for dodging frontier justice.
Such was the imperfect rhythm of my adolescence, venial mistakes interspersed with a few mortal ones -- grace, sin, atonement -- and I loved every minute of it. Looking back now, though, I realize something. Even without my old-school parents calling their love unconditional, that’s exactly what it was, no less than mine for my own children. We all love as perfectly as imperfect humans can love.
That is the reason why on this Good Friday, my heart is filled with humility and gratitude. Humility because however we describe it --conditional, unconditional -- no earthly parent loves perfectly, try though we may. And gratitude because one Heavenly Parent does, even when you’ve thrown greasy chicken at your father. Especially then.