The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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In my family, as in many families, there is a moment we all remember but never speak about. It’s the moment in which my oldest brother went around the dining-room table and smashed every dinner plate, then tried to punch our father, who punched his firstborn son in the face. My sister, even then an authoritative and quick-thinking soul, had shepherded her three younger brothers into a bedroom right after the first plate was shattered, and I remember kneeling and chanting the rosary with my brothers and sister to the sounds of china breaking and then shouting and then scuffling and then silence.
I don’t remember what happened after that. I imagine my oldest brother stormed out of the house, and the rest of us sat down to a cold dinner, with new plates.
Over the years I have tiptoed around that memory with my siblings, and we have not discussed it at all with our mom and dad. It’s not quite that we pretend it didn’t happen; it’s just that we don’t walk down that road. It was a hard road, and no one wants to pass that way again.
I thought about this the other night when my teenage son came home drunk and cursing and shouting, and he shoved his mother and had to be restrained by his calmer, stronger brother as I stood three feet away, wanting to punch him in the face as much as I have ever wanted to punch anyone. I wanted to punch him so badly my fist is still sore, three days later, from being so tightly coiled. I wanted to punch him so badly I can feel my face flush with anger and shame even now, as I type these words.
I didn’t punch him, but I wanted to, with every fiber of my being. For a moment in the kitchen, at one in the morning, I wanted to smash the face of the boy I’d seen emerge into this world from inside the woman I love, the boy I’d rocked and cuddled and wept over when he was sick, the boy whose vast grace and humor I’d marveled at as doctors rebuilt his faulty plumbing, as he lay many an hour sore afraid. For a moment in my kitchen I was my own sweet, gentle father, goaded beyond reason and love, cocking a fist to end an argument, close a mouth, finish a war.
I am more ashamed of this than I can say. I do not have any wise and sweeping message or moral or lesson. I suppose I want to say that I love my father in part because he never punched any of his children again, and he has regretted that one punch ever since. I want to say that no one has preached nonviolence as much as me. And yet here I am, still in the kitchen with my fist coiled, a liar and a fool. I suppose I want to say that I long, with all my heart, to get out of this kitchen. I hate being here with my fist coiled. I hate the rage and fury — I hate it. It is an ancient, dark, evil pulse that has drenched the world in blood and closed the mouths of countless beings who were holy and brilliant beyond our ken. But I don’t know how to get out of this kitchen. We have been in this kitchen for a very long time, all of us. You know what I mean; you know all too well what I mean.
But what are we here for, if not to find a way out of the kitchen?
I have written many letters to you in my mind about how much I love The Sun, but the piece that finally made me put my thoughts on paper was “Punch,” by Steven Robertson [March 2013]. I will make a copy of that essay for my twenty-six-year-old godson, who strangled his teenage sister last week until she passed out and the blood vessels in her eye popped up red. Maybe it will give us a way to talk about the violence in our family.