In all my life, I have had only one perfect friendship. I think I lack the courage to have another friendship so perfect. I am too selfish, at my age, to want to endure the pain of helping a friend (or a family of friends) be happy, without counting the cost to myself. I am to self-centered to want to endure the pain when common sense tells you the best thing you can do for your friend is to say good-bye.
Friendships, please God, do not often involve the breakup of people who love each other; but if you care for someone, you have to recognize if the moment has come for letting go. If you can let go while the pain is killing you, if you can say good-bye when it breaks your heart—then maybe you can imagine, as I did, that your friendship is unselfish enough to be called perfect, because you have given your friend the most godlike love you are capable of.
Once, many years ago, when I was a young priest feisty with messianic ambitions, I was working in a parish in a New England suburb, and I heard stories of three neglected children whose father was busy living in distant places with other loves. The children were poor with no one to look after them while their mother worked, and sometimes they cried themselves to sleep at night because they had toothaches. The middle child, an eight-year-old boy named Kenny, was rumored to be the devil’s imp, and Catholic parents had talks with their sons and locked up their daughters whenever Kenny’s shadow moved across the playground.
Naturally, in my messianic mood, I had thoughts about helping the family out of its distress. Everyone else who needed me that summer seemed to be sick or elderly, and I though, how lovely it would be to be responsible for children.
So one evening, after carefully brushing my best black priest’s suit so as to be stylishly messianic, I walked to an apartment at the address the parish secretary had given me, and rang the doorbell. Eight-year-old Kenny opened the door.
I was temped to ask, “Are you the devil’s imp who turned our pastor’s hair gray in a single night?” but the question didn’t seem friendly. Instead, I asked, “Is your mother home?”
The mothers of impish lads are apt to be very nervous when a priest comes to the house, and Kenny’s mother seemed on the point of asking, “Do you have insurance?” as though she expected to hear news that her son had been striking matches that burned down the church.
I said: “I want to be a friend to your family.”
She said: “In what way can you be of help?”
“First of all, you must tell me if you consent to my being a friend to you and the children,” I said. “After that, you can tell me how I can be of help.”
“Why do you want to do it?” she asked. “I’ve had many problems, but I’ve never asked for charity.”
“It wouldn’t be charity,” I said. “I love kids, and you have a youngster who gets in trouble. I wouldn’t like myself if I kept away from a child who gets in trouble.”
“What have you heard about us?” she asked. “What do you want to help with?”
“Neighbors mention things,” I said, “out of concern. Your children tell neighbors’ kids that eating candy gives them toothaches so they can’t sleep. Is taking them to the dentist something I could help out with?”
Almost as a hobby, I became involved with this parish family. To tell the truth, I was not acting the least bit messianically, but only as tenderly as a bachelor could. After the tooth repair, there was the need for summer sneakers, and then shoes for school, and winter coats and Christmas presents and birthday parties. In every season and after every celebration, the children’s mother would ask: “Why are you doing this?”
“Because I love children,” I would say. “I just want to be of help.”
Growing children have needs that department store purchases can’t supply. What Cathy and Colleen, the other and younger daughters, needed most, of course, was a father’s love. Kenny, that devil’s imp, needed it most of all. The clue to his impishness seemed to lie in the fact that the devil had no love to give by which to acknowledge the existence of his offspring.
I thought: maybe I can love the children enough to make up for their father’s not being here. Maybe I can love Kenny enough to drive out the demons that tease him crazy.
Exorcisms are possible, of course, if love is very patient and gentle and generous.
In the beginning, I did not know who to be patient with Kenny. I would become angry when he annoyed me with his mischief, and the anger would move in as a demon seven times worse than the one he had, making us look at each other like strangers.
Kenny’s mother said: “He’s testing your patience with him. All of his life, people have told Kenny: ‘I love you, and I am your friend.’ Then, if he’s naughty, they scream at him in anger. Rage is his proof that they don’t really love him.”
It took me many months to learn that friendship with Kenny was a maneuver as delicate as offering your hand as a place where a tired bird can rest its wings. You could not command his trust, and you could not bribe him into relying on you. You had to remain motionless while offering your help, waiting for him to feel at ease with your being there.
One day, after knowing the children for a long time, I explained my experience to Kenny’s mother. She said: “I’ve been waiting for you to understand. No one else has understood this about Kenny. Now you are in a relationship where you can help him most. I think you love Kenny almost as much as I do. I’m afraid that loving him so much is only going to hurt you.”
“Can it ever hurt anyone to love a child?” I asked.
It was too late for me to draw back from hurting myself. By this time, you see, there had been a letter from the children’s father. He was coming to see the children. He wanted to talk to their mother about resuming the marriage.
It is a terrible sin in a man to be resentful of the joy of children. Instead of being happy to see these young children brought together with their parents as a family, I felt their excitement like a punishment for the love I had given them. I could give them gifts and some of the necessities, but the one thing I could never do for the children was to be the father they adored. There was a loneliness in them that would be chased away only when their father’s arms were around them, hugging them tight. They knew this, but it took me a long time to learn the truth.
I remember especially he happiness of Kenny, the elf child whom I loved perhaps even more than his father loved him. He told us with ecstasy of a morning he remembered when his father, shaving, had rubbed Palmolive lather on Kenny’s face. It grieved me to see him anticipating another such bathroom anointing which would proclaim in a family liturgy: “You are my son, and I have begotten thee.”
Jealousy tempts us to commit an ancient sin: to try to steal another’s place, as Satan tried to steal the throne of God. I could have tried to contend with the father for the children’s love; the temptation was there, as the temptation to usurp is often present in ministry.
Friendship is a still, small moment of truth, accompanying our most consuming loves, when the head is wise than the heart. Friendships are never perfect, but there are sacrifices that the heart makes when you think: I can never be so unselfish again.
A priest friend told me: “You began by trying to serve the needs of children. But now, with the return of their father, your need for them has become greater than their need for you. Still, you are trying to hold onto them, making them serve your needs. With this kind of self-serving, your friendship and kindness can only do damage.”
So I stepped back. For many years now, I have never stopped caring for Cathy and Colleen, and especially for Kenny, who needed me so much in a critical way. But I stepped back, when my stepping back was the kindness the children most needed. I stepped back, but I thought the loneliness would cause my heart to die.
Cathy, Kenny and Colleen, the children I would have walked off with, have grown into adults now, and I scarcely remember what their young faces looked like. I think a small part of me has become a small part of them through the things I tried to offer: vacation trips, summer camp, special schools, pets (and even, rather foolishly of me, a pony). The most open-handed gift I was privileged to provide, and the costliest to me, was the freedom to keep their love independent of any needs of my own.
I don’t have many friendships when I am willing to be that generous. I’ve had many perfect friendships given me, but of all the friendships I have offered others, there is only one friendship I have ever described as perfect.