Love in the Trenches

One of my earliest childhood memories takes place during Mass. I’m lying half asleep on the kneeler, next to my father’s perfectly polished shoe. He reaches down to grip my hand during the Lord’s Prayer. The back of his hand looks massive folded over mine, its arteries pulsing like tributaries of the Nile. I trace them with my finger and feel his wedding ring press into my palm. His other hand falls gently on my head, and my eyes shutter closed in murky darkness.

Many years later, my older brother and I are in our pajamas up in our bedroom playing the final game in the “Nerf Basketball Championship of the World.” It’s well past midnight, and Dad has already warned us three times to go to bed. As my brother drives to the hoop, I leap off the bed to make the perfect block, and then it happens. We hear his footsteps, like an unleashed freight train, pounding up the stairs. Bursting through the door, he rips the Nerf hoop off the wall and crumples it into a heap of twisted plastic and wire.  

“GO – TO – SLEEP – NOW,” he says, clearly restraining himself.

“OK, Dad.” “Sorry, Dad.”

No doubt my kids will someday tell similar tales, remembering me at my gentle and joking best, my weary and angry worst, and every state of mind in between. As a father, I have come to believe that perfection in love is not the point. Love in the trenches of family life makes room for imperfection in love, growth in love, forgiveness in love. As the years passed, age smoothed over Dad’s rougher edges. But I’ve come to appreciate all of it, wheat and chaff alike, as part of a larger mystery that would prepare me for the wild ups and downs of my own vocation as a father.

On the whole, what my dad imperfectly gave us I hope to give to my kids: that deep-down sense of being cherished as a child, even after midnight, when the day’s trials have frayed the last nerve. I imagine Joseph providing the same for Jesus, sometimes in words, perhaps more often by his constant presence, a thousand wordless touches of the hand. “No matter what the world deals you, no matter where your choices lead, please know, even when I’m gone, I won’t be gone. There will always be a place for you in my heart.”  

St. Joseph, so often I seem caught between fear and freedom, poverty and grace. My kids stretch me to the limit. I want to be present, but my attention is divided. The demands are many.

I try to breathe deep, but something catches my lungs short, pressing against my ribs. If I could just walk under the stars for a while, reconnect with the Earth, the trees, the Spirit of God who breathes in all things.

Joseph you were a carpenter, a contemplative shaper of trees. Carve open a space, could you, in my stubborn wooden heart? Your Jesus was beautiful, so alive, so attuned to the world! My kids, too, are beautiful, bursting with life!

Let me encircle them, as you did for Jesus, with constancy and strength, setting them free to love and be loved, to risk, to fall in love with the world. St. Joseph, patron of all fathers, be with me.

My father, Jack Pramuk, died peacefully in his sleep, April 29, 2021.

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