For the fourth week in a row, the piercing ring of the telephone disturbed my mother’s midday quiet in September 1960. Slowly picking up the receiver, she held her breath hoping it was just a wrong number.
“Mrs. Madden,” Sister Mary sneered, “Jackie will be spending the afternoon in detention – again.”
Chanting a mea culpa, my mom sought pardon for her 8-year-old daughter. As she was about to promise the black-frocked warden that I’d be duly crucified at home, the angry nun steamed, “Doesn’t she ever shut up?”
Later that afternoon, as I was released from my prison cell at St. Charles School in San Carlos, I came face-to-face with my parole office and her infuriated glare. “Jackie, what’s gotten into you? You used to be so good.”
Feeling the intensity of her disapproval escalate, I bowed my head and whimpered, “I’m sorry, Mommy. Does this mean you don’t love me anymore?”
Instantly, the stiffness in her back turned to rose-colored Jell-O as she bent down and took me into her arms. With a soft voice now void of all anger, I heard, “I’m not happy with you right now, but I’ll always love you.”
Over the years, this message was repeated not just for my benefit, but for my three brothers’ as well. But as the arms of the antique cuckoo clock spun in lazy circles toward adulthood, I wondered how she could keep reciting it when one member of the family’s choices constantly caused consternation.
As children, the Maddens resembled images from a Norman Rockwell painting. Life was innocent and sweet. The only discord that erupted centered on who got the last piece of chocolate cake. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, our baby brother’s actions chipped away at the peaceful serenity that cherished childhood memories bring. The phone calls received on his behalf made my indiscretions look like small dribbles of milk dotting my chin, easy to wipe away.
Every family has one member who makes us cringe at times. It’s just how life goes, but reflecting on my parents’ struggle with the twists and turns of raising a child laced in heartache, there was a question I needed my father to answer: “Dad, how are you able to still care so deeply?” I blurted one night while spoon-feeding his medications.
Looking up from his wheelchair, he took my hand and said simply, “He’s my son.”
Now, I’ve always understood that a parent’s love for his or her child is unconditional – that intense affection that has no limitations. I feel it for my kids every day. But when a person becomes toxic and poisons the surroundings you live in, it can feel like an impossible task.
Seeing the question still lingering in my confused eyes, Dad pulled me close to share a secret he’d been keeping all these years. “I understand that you might need to detach yourself from him physically, but it’s his soul you must love. That’s what God sees and holds in his hands.”
My father taught me many things during our time together for which I’m eternally thankful, but I have to say this was the most powerful.
I’ve always been grateful for those who are easy to love. Maybe it was because I was getting something in return – a warm touch, a positive response, a gesture of kindness. But my father understood that loving the soul unconditionally despite the fact that it may be hurtful not only encouraged a balanced heart, but also kept you in tune with God’s vision for the world. “We should love because of who we are, not because who they are,” he said.