A Patrimony of True Matrimony
My father’s fidelity amid unexpected challenges taught me the importance of irrevocable love
By Mike Phelan
WHEN MY PARENTS MARRIED, there was no question that they wed for life, for better or for worse. I know this from the family story in which I was both spectator and participant. Let me explain.
The mutual consent to marriage, the Church teaches, is exclusive, permanent and irrevocable, and it can be lived faithfully, though the smiling wedding-day couple can’t know what is coming on the road of irrevocable love.
Thank God. Love makes us brave.
As the oldest of four children growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, I got a front-row seat to the challenges that life can bring a married couple. In 1972, when I was 5, my father was among the first permanent deacons ordained west of the Mississippi. One year later, life suddenly changed for our family when my mother had a severe stroke at age 38. She permanently lost the use of the left side of her body, and temporarily lost most of her speech. Her youngest child was only two months old.
Disaster was averted on the human level by two things: our community of faith and my parents’ character. Our parish and the fledgling diaconal community responded with astounding charity and presence. My siblings and I were dropped at people’s homes, often for months, while Dad tried to figure out the way forward. We had a “meal train” miles long. I’m told we didn’t do our own laundry for three years. Mom worked her way to a partial recovery, and life went on.
Fast-forward nine years. Mom was now president of the Scottsdale Stroke Club, drawing the interest of a local news channel, which decided to do a human-interest story on her and our family. Filming for a day, they captured my mom doing various tasks around the house one-handed and then stayed to record us eating dinner.
After misbehaving during the entire meal, we kids were called to task: “Kids,” Dad said in a you’re-in-trouble tone, “it’s been a long day, and this is almost done, and I have one last thing to do. This nice lady is going to interview me in the living room. So that is where I’ll be. Where you will be is in your rooms. Understood?”
We all marched down the hall to our rooms, except for my sister. Just as the lights went on and the camera began to record, Mary Kate slipped into the living room and stood by the cameraman. Dad saw her, sighed, and motioned to continue the interview.
Mary Kate remembers the final question: “So, Deacon Tom, you are a father of four rather young children, and your wife sometimes needs special care. You are busy as a deacon on Sundays, and you are working two jobs to make ends meet. A lot of men might have left. Why did you stay?”
My sister was shocked. He could leave? The thought had never entered her mind.
My father’s response has become family lore: “Well, because I promised I would stay. In front of God and everyone that I love. For better, for worse. In sickness and health. Until death. Next question.”
The cameraman whispered in my sister’s ear, “You’re a lucky little girl.”
The vows were real. The marriage was real.
Matrimony, etymologically, means “the state of motherhood.” The motherhood of my mother, lived out in the face of much trial, could still be real too, because of the marriage vows that protected her and us.
Patrimony, a word seldom used nowadays, originates as “the state of fatherhood.” Inheritance, tradition — that which is passed down makes fatherhood possible.
An Italian philosopher once said, “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
In other words, a father’s character does the training, in unplanned moments.
This is still what we do, dads, and what we must do. May we seek God’s help every step of the way.
MIKE PHELAN a member of Father Marcel Salinas Council 11536 in Mesa, Ariz., is director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life for the Diocese of Phoenix.