The face on TV was talking about the latest celebrity couple to break-up after just six months of marriage: the grounds for divorce were “irreconcilable differences.” Ada, my wife, looked at me over her glasses and said, “You and I have had irreconcilable differences for 48 years; I didn’t know they were grounds for divorce.”
That statement says it all. You cannot be married for 48 years, raise seven sons, take on board five daughters-in-law, two partners and seventeen grandchildren and not experience a few scars and bumps along the way. We do not view life through rose-tinted glasses.
The seven boys are now grown men, five with families of their own; two with male partners. Yet the awe and wonder of being an important part of God’s creative plan has never left us. Indeed it is renewed each time another grandchild comes along. I watched Ada the young mother count the fingers and toes of each new son. I have watched each daughter-in-law proudly hand over her newest child to the now much loved grandmother.
We shared the joys of academic and sporting success; we assailed the gates of heaven when illness and serious accidents struck at us. It is impossible to count the number of rugby league, soccer, hockey and tennis matches we attended over the years. Now we line up for a whole new round of confirmations, eisteddfod performances, graduations and twenty first birthdays; sometimes travelling hundreds of kilometres. Not to do so is unthinkable to either Ada or myself.
Parenthood is a lifetime occupation for us. The boys ‘phone home’ frequently; sometimes just to chew the fat, sometimes to run past us a work-related or family matter. That the families and couples come to us on a regular basis is proof positive we have done something right. I believe the greatest gift we gave the boys was the ability to believe in themselves and their talents. The shadow side of this gift is that it can be seen as arrogance. The daughters-in-law tell us we spoilt their husbands.
Mind you – the boys often regale us with stories of mental, physical and emotional abuse, and how deprivation has scarred them for life:
“How about the time you abandoned me at a service station at age 3!”
“Mum never picked me up from piano lessons on time, ONCE!”
“I was exposed to child labour abuses, sun-stroke and dehydration every summer, raking up cut grass because Dad wouldn’t use the grass catcher.”
“How does a chocolate milkshake from a milk bar compare with shaking up some milk and Chocolate Quik in a plastic cup at home?”
“How about being mentally abused from the sideline in an under 6 soccer match?”
“In 1968 you refused to buy me a St George footy jumper because it was too hard to keep clean!”
But of course you also receive this:
“Whenever you speak of holding me on the plane to Sydney just after I was born, it triggers the most wonderful feeling of being, just for awhile, the centre of your universe.”
“Thank you for your selfless contribution to my journey.”
To top it off, we have teenage granddaughters who think we’re “cool”.
Ada and I are “cradle Catholics”, with all the baggage that entails, both good and bad. Finding a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in mid-life gave both of us a whole new view of the spiritual journey. We learned to question and challenge and found a religious freedom we never thought possible. Our prayer life took on a whole new meaning for us. So now we have all the answers to life’s mysteries?
Like each one of you reading these lines, we struggle daily with the twists and turns of life; laughing, crying, grieving and rejoicing. As we get older we wrestle constantly with our relationship with God and our part in God’s creative plan. BUT, and it’s a very important BUT, we do not give up. We carry our scars, doubts and confusions with a sense of pride and a quite dignity that comes from being a disciple of Jesus the Christ, and a realisation we are loved in spite of our doubts; our human frailties. Our belief in God’s constant, unqualified love for us has been put to the test many times.
Our second son was born RH negative, at a time when blood exchange was the only method of treatment. Our third son was run down from behind whilst road training on his bicycle and not expected to live. Our first grandchild was stricken by a mysterious illness that slowed his mental growth for several years. Both sons lived and are healthy young men, fathers of their own families. Our grandson has slowly but certainly overcome his affliction and holds down a responsible job.
Our biggest test came when two of our sons declared themselves to be gay. We had no experience of homosexuality, didn’t understand it and really didn’t want to know. Because we love our sons very much, we embarked on the steepest learning curve of our lives.
Our sons are wonderful young men; intelligent, caring and creative: gifted in many ways. Both are the fruit of our bodies. Ada and I created them and formed them as they are. We both believe that, totally. We would be lying if we said we don’t have concerns, particularly the fear that comes from knowing that many people are as we once were, condemnatory; some to the extent of physical abuse.
The issue of homosexuality entering our lives has forced both of us to examine ourselves deeply in other areas of prejudice, bias, intolerance, and non-acceptance. Our love was put to the test and we were challenged to grow. The gospel images of Jesus acceptance of all who came to him were our constant companions in those early days.
The five brothers were magnificent; concerned initially for our well-being, then re-affirming their bond with their two brothers. We are a stronger family because of this, and our sons’ partners are treated as sons 8 and 9.
I wrote above that we often struggle with God’s unqualified love for us. It took a while, but we gradually realised that we are able to love our family as much as we do, because we are loved first by a caring, loving God. If we can be so loved without conditions, we have no right to qualify our love.
This is our final thought – we are called to love our children come hell or high water – and both will.
This essay was originally printed in Online Catholics.