For Fear of the Alternative

Here’s a passage to ponder. It’s from My Beloved World (2013), the memoir of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sottomayor. As a young child, she didn’t feel particularly close to her mother, a working nurse, raising two children, while struggling with her husband’s alcoholism. Then one day,

"SONIA, we’re going to visit your grandfather. My father." This got my attention. My mother had never so much as mentioned his existence before. When I questioned her, she answered in a voice that sounded as if she were reading aloud from the small print on the back of a package of medicine. "I don’t know the man. He left when I was born. I haven’t seen him since then. But Tio Mayo and Titi Aurora want me to come with them to the hospital to see him, and they say you should come too." The unknown grandfather was not the whole mystery. I usually knew what Mami was thinking from the flash in her voice, the speed of her smile, as rare as it was then, the telltale arch of her brows. This woman speaking with such flat indifference was not the mother I knew.


Tio Mayo led us to the bed at the far end of the room, by the window. As we walked the length of the ward, I hardly saw the patients in other beds, so intently was I focused on my mother and our looming destination. Nothing was going to slip by me, though I had no idea what to expect or even what I should be wondering about. Would she greet him with a kiss? How do you relate to a father you don’t know?

He had Mami’s light eyes. Framed by the white of his hair, the white mustache, the white of the sheets, their sea-green color seemed even lighter, bluer, more startling. He was a handsome man but gaunt. His arms were just sticks poking from the sleeves of the hospital gown. A thousand questions ran through my head, but I didn’t dare speak any of them out loud: Why did you leave Mami behind? Who are you? Do you have a wife? Do you have other kids? Where have you been living?

I climbed onto the chair and watched. My mother walked up to the bed and stood looking down at the old man. In an ice-cold voice she said, "Yo soy Celina." That was it. He didn’t say anything to her. He didn’t ask how her life had been, what it was now. There were no tears, no revelations.

Titi Aurora led me by the hand to the bedside and introduced me. I got barely a nod from him. I retreated, climbed back onto the chair, and watched as Titi Aurora chattered about nothing and fluffed his pillows. Tio Mayo was there and not there, talking to the nurses, taking care of business. But in all this nothing, I understood something: that my mother had been wounded as deeply as a human being could be.

I have carried the memory of that day as a grave caution. There was a terrible permanence to the state that my mother and her father had reached. My mother’s pain would never heal, the ice between them would never thaw, because they would never find a way to acknowledge it. Without acknowledgment and communication, forgiveness was beyond reach.

Eventually, I would recognize the long shadow of this abandonment in my own feelings toward my mother, and I would determine not to repeat what I had seen. The closeness that I share now with my mother is deeply felt, but we learned it slow and with effort, and for fear of the alternative (38-39).

A little girl, for the first time, goes from Harlem to the Puerto Rico of her family. Mother and daughter meet a man they have never known. "I don’t know the man. He left when I was born. I haven’t seen him since then." Yet despite himself, in the last moments of life, this absent Father becomes an instrument of God’s grace, if only because he teaches two women the importance of intimacy, which is more than a gift of God. To love in Christ is experience something of God’s own self.

Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying:
"Holy Father, I pray not only for them,
but also for those who will believe in me through their word,
so that they may all be one,
as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,
that the world may believe that you sent me.

And I have given them the glory you gave me,so that they may be one, as we are one,
I in them and you in me,
that they may be brought to perfection as one,
that the world may know that you sent me,
and that you loved them even as you loved me
" (Jn 17: 20-23).

We live in a time when many would argue that gender is never more than a social construct. Yet even if it is fashioned by humans, its effect in our lives is nonetheless inescapable.

One can certainly argue, quite rightfully, that men, that fathers, have as much an obligation as women and mothers to maintain and nourish the bonds of intimacy, to keep families together — even when they part — by their loving ministrations. Yet men must sadly acknowledge that this task is more often borne by women, by those who accept motherhood as mission and joy. "Eventually, I would recognize the long shadow of this abandonment in my own feelings toward my mother, and I would determine not to repeat what I had seen. The closeness that I share now with my mother is deeply felt, but we learned it slow and with effort, and for fear of the alternative." It isn’t the God-given mission of mothers to protect and nourish the bonds of intimacy. All should. But thank God it is a task they’ve accepted, "for fear of the alternative."

Acts 7: 55-60 Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20 John 17: 20-26

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