Dad will cry if he wants to—or not

Among the harder things to prepare for as a parent is the raw emotion that pushes up like an oil strike during big family moments. Our Clara’s confirmation got me good.

We earned our stripes with Clara. She is the oldest of our five. My wife and I could teach a masterclass covering all-night fevers, tick removal, car-seat vomit, tween drama, sideline pep talks, technology interventions, pop-star crushes, groundings, un-groundings and the rest.

You’d think 15 years of this dad business would’ve toughened me up. You’d be wrong.

Clara is the pioneer—first to do everything. And at every sacramental rite of passage I’ve had to fight off the ugly cry. At her baptism. At her first Holy Communion. When she made confession.

How could I possibly hope to hold it together at confirmation?

The Hennesseys are on a treadmill. The conveyor belt never stops: work, school, study, banjo, soccer, lunch, dinner, bed, up again, out the door, head count, back home, don’t forget, wash your hands, tie your shoes, go go go go go.

The questions are future-focused. How are we going to get these kids through high school? What about college? When will the mortgage be paid? Will the car make it another year?

So transfixed by what’s ahead. The past gets blurry. Sometimes the present does too. What day is it?

Treadmills break down. Without the conveyor belt moving beneath us, we go at half-speed. For a man of my emotional makeup this is the moment of danger. Call me a mush.

I knew I was in trouble during the procession. The candidates wore white robes, hands clasped like praying angels. The robes were for me what students call a “trigger.” White is the color of baptism. It’s the color of the cloth draped over the coffin.

Birth. Life. Love. Death. Mom. Dad. Eternity. The rush came fast. It gets me every time. Oh, goodness, it gets me good.

It wasn’t my first Holy Spirit rodeo. I knew the pot was boiling over. I took a deep, trembling breath. And another. Our Patrick, age 10, sat next to me, stonefaced, none the wiser, probably his mind was off in the Marvel universe.

For much of the mass I was mostly fine. Bishop Caggiano told us to remember to slow down, to make one good choice at a time. The right message, compellingly delivered. Teenagers, in my experience, want to get to Heaven but live in a world of easy pleasure and cruel temptation.

Well, we all live there.

I stole a look at our Clara while the bishop homilized. She looked so adult it frightened me. I imagined her vulnerable, the way dads do. The wolves will come. She’ll be a target. I’ll won’t be able to keep her safe.

Then, suddenly, she looked young again. So innocent. To be 15 is to feel like a puzzle piece that won’t fit. She handles it well. I saw her in that moment as a walking, talking miracle, the way dads do.

Along with another young lady, our Clara took to the lectern to read the prayer of the faithful. In her long white robe she was beautiful, self-possessed, her voice clear and steady.

That’s my girl, I thought as the treadmill came to a dead stop. That’s my little baby girl.

I should have been ready for what happened next, but of course I wasn’t. The boil was roiling again. Throat closed. Eyes welled. It was coming strong, coming fast. I had to act.

I made a noise as if clearing my throat. Patrick glanced. I pulled a tissue from my jacket pocket and blew. Fooled you, Iron Man.

“What’s the big deal if the boy sees you cry? It’s a happy occasion. It’s 2019. The Great Depression is over. You don’t have to be such a stoic. Dads aren’t like that anymore.”

To which I say, go pound sand. I can do what I like, when I like. I’ve earned my stripes.