For the fourth week in a row, the piercing ring of the telephone disturbed my mother’s mid-day quiet in September 1960. Slowly picking up the receiver, she held her breath and hoped 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 eight-year-old daughter. As she was about to promise the black-frocked warden that I’d be dully 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 officer 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 pontificated not just for my benefit, but for my three brothers as well. As the arms of the antique cuckoo clock spun in lazy circles towards adulthood, I wondered how she could keep reciting it—especially when one member of our family consistently 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 or what to watch on the only TV in the house. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, our baby brother’s actions chipped away at the peaceful serenity 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. Phone calls from the police are far worse than the principle.
Every family has one member who makes us cringe at times. It’s just how life goes, but reflecting back on my parent’s 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 quietly, “he’s my son.”
Now, I’ve always understood a parent’s love for their child was 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 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 that are easy to love. Maybe it was because I was getting something in return; a warm touch, a positive response, a gesture of kindness. My father understood that loving the soul unconditionally, despite the fact 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.”
I think we’ve all been hurt by someone we love or have that one family member that disembowels the family unity. It’s heartbreaking when you feel you no longer can physically be with them. I hope you haven’t experienced this, but if you have, I’d love to hear your story.