Stir crazy from screens and plagued with cabin fever from a never-ending winter, I drove to Milwaukee the other Saturday to spend time with high school friends and watch the Badgers play in the Final Four. They lost. Dejected after the game, I drove back to Chicago while my buddies commiserated on Brady Street. The following day, a few texts went back and forth about the smells and dulled senses of the morning after–the beer bellied, sticky-mouthed, pizza-bloated, sore-backed-from-sleeping-on-a-couch mess of it all. “No regrets,” a message read. “College.”
Ten years ago shouting “College!” was a safeguard for our tomfoolery. It meant we could do whatever we wanted. A standard response to “College!” was, “NO PARENTS!” An expression of freedom and independence or a guise for terrible decision making, in either case, I’ve worn out that kind of living. Most of my peers are newly vowed in marriage or religious life; we have let go of the hyperactive, unconcerned, living for the moment vanity of young adulthood. But still, as a 31-year-old reading my friend’s recent text, I replied instinctively as I did before: No parents!
A few months back I was out for drinks with relatives; the evening was, shall we say, animated. Irish Catholics in an Irish pub at Christmas time. My aunt mentioned that she enjoyed my Jesuit Post articles, but had an issue with my biography. Fearlessly opinionated, she said, “A construction guy and a farm girl? You know as well as I do that your parents are not just a construction guy and a farm girl. By calling them that, you short-change everything they’ve accomplished, and everything they’ve done for you. You’re just trying to appeal to people and that, Eric Thomas, is an issue of humility.”
Yikes. First and middle name. Tough words over a pint. I don’t recall whether I tried to defend myself, but either way, I shouldn’t have. She was right. My life is anything but an existence with “no parents.”
I have to admit that sometimes it can be hard to keep in touch with my folks. We talk most every week but that hasn’t always been the case in my adult life. There was a time when I thought that I wanted freedom and distance from them. It may be a terrible excuse, but I’m the kind of person whose mind is where his feet are. Friends and family still take the brunt end of that character trait. It meant that chatting with my folks wasn’t always on the list of daily priorities. I regret those years, because they say nothing of how much I have always loved them.
There are small moments I return to in prayer and in memory that overwhelm me with the persistent and unwavering love of my parents: Mom buying me an extra chocolate milk while she volunteered serving school lunches; Dad welding me a metal rail to do tricks on in my skater days; their letting me practice with punk rock bands in the basement (it was truly awful noise); trips to Cunetto’s and Amighetti’s for Italian food when they visited me in college; endless memories of my parents and their hand in shaping the good man I seek to be. As I was applying to the Society of Jesus, my mother tearfully asked where I got the strength of faith to make that leap. “God gave me the faith mom,” I answered. “But, I learned it from you.”
One of the great challenges of growing up has been trying to get over myself–to become humble. My streak of independence once persisted because I thought that everything I had become and everything I had accomplished was because of my own effort. I did it all by myself. I did it as if there were, well, no parents.
I guess that’s normal in adolescent life. But, in my adult life and in my life of prayer, I see over and over again that this is simply not true. Everything that I have I’ve been given. I’ve never done it alone. I’ve never been lacking. I’ve always had everything I need and I am profoundly privileged. God has graced my life, and called me to seek gratitude and humility in response. Maturity calls me forth to go further still–beyond humility and into generosity. My parents have lived their lives for me and in turn I seek to honor them by living a life for others. Similarly, as a Jesuit, I choose to live a life for God because of all that God has given me. It’s a mature love and it’s mutual.
Greg and Rita Immel have set me up and sent me out. As I continue my formation as a Jesuit I realize that a part of looking forward involves gazing into the past–to places where I became who I am; to lessons that continue to remake me; to the love I have always felt, carrying me ever further into the joy of the unknown, the thrill of what lies ahead. When I gaze back in this way, I see them, I see my parents.
A necessary annotation to my bio (thanks Aunt Dorothy!): My dad turned 66 on April 16th, and my mom turns 68 on May 6th. This September, they’ll celebrate 40 years of marriage. They were wildly successful in their working years and are happily retired now, they’ve raised three children, all adopted, they’ve seen two kids marry and one join a religious order, they’re proud grandparents, they’ve carried their extended families through loss and love, they grow their own vegetables, and they are unafraid to learn. Aside from the actual trinity, my dad says that his holy trinity is talking to each of his kids in one day. At one time, they really were a construction guy and a farm girl, and they gave me life. But that isn’t the whole truth. Seeing all they do, and all they are, I must be–and am happy to be–their hopefully humble son.
The cover image, from Flickr user stacya, can be found here.