“It is natural that a father’s care for his son should endure to the end of his life.”
Thomas Aquinas, SCG Bk III
My mother is moving today from the house to which she and my father came over twenty-two years ago. I have been helping in the enormous job of packing, and yesterday I spent some time collecting a few things from a very special place: my father’s garden.
There is nowhere that I feel my father’s presence more strongly than among the trees, plants, and soil that he tended. I have not had time to maintain what Dad planted—though much still remains, and so it has been especially difficult for me to go there. There are some beautiful garlic plants still growing among the weeds, having reseeded themselves for at least eight years. Dad passed almost four years ago, and he was unable to garden in his last several years.
So yesterday I rummaged through the weeds, in search of a few garlic bulbs to dig, as well as some comfrey plants. One of Dad’s countless birdhouses—all were carefully made by hand—was there in the tangle. The front of the house was bulging out with an old nest squeezed behind it. I decided to take out the old nest and see if I could set the house aright; perhaps a pair of birds might use it yet again. Starting to remove the multi-layered nest—I suppose by unconscious habit doing it slowly—behold I spied a clutch of baby birds. I knew right away they were bluebirds.
Carefully tucking the nest back in, only then did I turn my gaze upward and listen. The tell-tale soft warble was not far off; and there was a father bluebird looking down at me. No distress call, no swooping down to ward off danger—common among other nesting birds; just a gentle, if somewhat concerned warble. “Don’t worry Mr. Bluebird,” I found myself saying in my father’s voice, “it’ll be alright.” I almost wondered if the bluebird recognized me.
At that point I was overcome with emotion, and I hung my head and wept.
The relation between a parent and a child is one of the most profound of human realities. My relationship with my father has changed since he passed away. He is present to me in ways that he was not and could not be before. Yet our current relationship remains grounded in things that we did long or not so long ago.
I think we have to be careful not to romanticize or white-wash our past interactions with parents who are now deceased. The wounds we carry are just as real as the blessings. But in the end, the wounds need not have the final word; indeed, they too ultimately can be blessings. When I am feeling the pain of some past wound, one thing I try to do is put it in the context of what I know my father most of all wanted to be for us children. I hope that my own children might be able to do the same one day.
So I go about my way, living in the presence of my father via so many memories and tangible reminders. Thomas Aquinas wrote that a father’s care for his children should endure to the end of his life–a remarkable thing. I think we can go even further: it can endure even to the end of his children’s lives.
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NOTE: Please forgive me for putting off until next week the What to Do This Summer installment.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1215-1274) is considered by many to be the greatest theologian and philosopher of the Middle Ages. A Dominican friar, a major interpreter of Aristotle, and a Master of Theology at the University of Paris, he was known for his humility, and his single-minded devotion to teaching.
Image: a male Eastern Bluebird