Crying uncle: A priest plays dad
No one can strike terror in the heart of a grownup quite like a 16-year-old girl.
Many people call me "Father" (I'm a Catholic priest), but I've only had three days of on-the-job experience as a full-time parent. My sister and brother-in-law took their oldest off to college and asked me to watch the other three, ages 16, 13, and 9, for a few days.
Now I've always gotten along with these kids. They're easy kids, good kids. And I'm the original Uncle Buck. When they were really small, I once fed Katie and Kim Jell-O and whipped cream for breakfast as we watched The Little Mermaid on video. My sister was not impressed. Fourteen years later I was getting a second chance.
Kim, the now-16-year-old, had been involved in some typical teenage stuff the year before. Nothing really serious. Still, I was to make sure she was in by midnight each night.
The first night she didn't even go out-stayed home and played Uno with us. The next day she went out to the mall with her friends, and returned home about 7 p.m. The third night she came to a summer play in which the youngest, Christine, had a role. We got home and ordered pizza about 8:30. "I'm home free," I figured. "Kim hasn't even come near breaking curfew."
Then it happened. The words struck terror in my heart.
"Uh, Uncle Rick, I'm, like, going over to Kelli's. I'll, like, probably just, like, stay over there tonight."
My sister's instructions hadn't prepared me for this. I'd heard of gambits like these. Even played a few of them myself back in the day. What do I say now?
Firmly, betraying no sense of anxiety (I hoped), I confidently (I hoped) replied, "No. The deal was you would be back here at midnight every night."
"Well, let's call my Mom!"
"Kim, you know she's out of cell phone range." (This was in that ancient time pre-2006 when not every teen on earth was texting every other teen 24 hours a day.)
"Like, my Mom always, like, lets me stay over at Kelli's."
"Yeah, well, your Mom isn't here. I am. So be back by midnight," spoken calmly (I hoped) with no trace of my skyrocketing anxiety.
No yelling. No drama. The other two are puttering, unfazed by this exchange. I'm thinking, "I have this under control."
From 8:45 on all I can do is think of Kim. All my Jesuit training prepared me not at all for the next three hours. Jesus' time on the cross was much shorter than this.
What do I do if she's late? What do I do if she doesn't come home? What the heck is Kelli's number? Why didn't I get it before Kim left? What if she comes home smelling of beer?
"I stick my nose down their throat and check," my sister once said. How does she do that? Is that a "Mom thing," like having eyes in the back of your head?
My brother-in-law had gotten a cool guy's DVD--we didn't have to worry about chick flicks tonight. But I couldn't concentrate on who was shooting whom or who was blowing up what.
Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. "If Kim is just a few minutes late, do I make an issue of it? What do I do if I smell beer? She's already had one accident with the car. Is she safe to drive, even sober?"
Minutes crawl by. Oh, I pray. I just tell God, "Let me get through this. Just get her home without any incident. ‘Let this cup pass me by . . . ' " The answer to my prayers? It starts pouring. Buckets. Denver monsoon. Water is beating on the windows. Lightning is cracking, brilliantly illuminating a pitch-black sky filled with sheets of rain. Thunder rumbles like angels bowling using skyscrapers for pins.
"Great," I think. "Now she'll call and say she can't drive because of the rain. What do I say to that? Does she know how to drive in this weather? Should I call Kelli's and tell Kim not to drive in this rain? Oh, $#!&. Don't have that number."
No Boy Scout I. Never prepared.
Give up on the movie. Try to read. Right, like I'm going to remember a word.
11:45 p.m. These 15 minutes take longer than the previous three hours. My anxiety and worry rise: "Gee. Is this what they mean by panic attacks?" Heart beating like I've just climbed three flights of stairs. "Is this what high blood pressure feels like?"
The 10-minute hour. 11:50. 11:55. 11:57. All thoughts are weirdly both focused and unfocused on the situation at hand. Where is Kim? Where is she? She's not going to be on time. Does the rain make lateness acceptable? Who the heck is Kelli anyway????
11:59. Door opens. "Hi, Uncle Rick. Man, it's, like, raining out there." She comes over and gives me a hug. No whiff of alcohol.
How do you parents do it? Is there some kind of special prayer you have? How do you go through evenings like that, not once, but many times? My hat is off to you. Praise be to parents. They do God's work. My favorite sister-in-law says parenting is the hardest job there is. She is so right.
This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 4, pages 32-33).