I’m sitting in the back seat… again. It’s been a while since I’ve sat back here, looking on over miles and hours at the moving portraits of pine trees, cherry orchards and clear water. I haven’t gone on a vacation with my parents since I was 17, which was a weeks-long trek to Disney World via minivan. I was on the brink of college then and, like any self-respecting adolescent, brimming with impatience and disdain.
Back then my parents seemed almost rooted to their positions in the front of our Dodge Caravan. My dad, firmly secured in the driver’s seat, my mom entrenched at his side, in command of the radio dial to say nothing of our lives. My two sisters losing the unwinnable battle of sitting next to their big brother and his dual obsessions: music and getting into the college of his choice — with little to no interest in the forthcoming sojourn to the “happiest place on earth.” We would intermittently fight over Travel Yahtzee and the last of the Sour Patch Kids as my mother made half-hearted attempts from her perch to divert us from our combat with the license plate game, a contest consisting of spotting as many out of state license plates as possible.
Now, the minivan has been replaced with a sensible sedan. The objective is less grandiose; no more 16-day road trips to Orlando, instead a more reasonable four-day journey to Michigan, with its infinite shoreline and glorious green scenery — the perfect weekend getaway spot for harried Midwestern urbanites looking for a quick escape.
I’m an adult now. Though that becomes less clear as I spend more time with my parents on the beaches of Traverse City. The adult/child line becomes very blurry when vacationing with your parents. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — financially everything is taken care of, the burden of having to check the prices on the menus of every restaurant is momentarily relieved. Emotionally I’m 9 years old again and winning my class spelling bee, as my mother tells perfect strangers in line for the continental breakfast in the hotel lobby about the book I wrote. Spiritually, I’m allowed time for prayer and rest, because as my mother says, “That’s kind of your job, isn’t it?”
Still, it’s different. After much haggling I do occasionally pay the bill for lunch or dinner because… well, I am an adult. The drives are much quieter now, dare I say serene; it’s just me in the back seat; my sisters have their own lives that don’t allow time for Travel Yahtzee and the license plate game in mid-July. Now, instead of talking about college applications and Radiohead, I talk about going to Colorado for a retreat and my swiftly approaching priestly ordination. And, most telling of all, while my parents will return to their (our) home of 28 years, I will return to my own home (or as much as a Jesuit can call a place home) in California.
Back in the backseat — my dad still steady in the driver’s seat, my mom still at his side — I’m in the unique position of being able to see them from the perspectives of both adult and child. The only people, who, to this day, are interested in everything about me, for the simple fact that I am me. The people who showed me perfect goodness and unconditional love before I ever knew anything about pain and suffering. The people whose own love has been the entryway by which I’ve come to understand God’s love for me.
In the space between that teenage trip to the Magic Kingdom and this drive to northern Michigan I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to garner approval, esteem and love from a lot of different people for a lot of different reasons. I’ve run very fast, and oftentimes pushed very hard, always chasing words that began with “some”: I wanted to be “somebody,” make “something” of myself, and go “somewhere.” In the midst of all this, I’ve frequently forgotten that while the “cash and prizes” that life offers are nice and my parents are very proud of what I have done, there are no asterisks next to their love for me, no clauses, and no caveats. It’s pure and unconditional love, and it is the only place where I can begin to comprehend that mammoth crazy love that God has for me.