"You know, Ben, people don’t make big stupid mistakes overnight." A short story about the challenges of being a businessman dad.
“You learned what
today at school?” Angela’s 14-year-old son Ben really knew how to ignite a heated conversation with his mom.
“That’s right, Mom,” he repeated his statement slowly and emphatically, “Hell does not exist.”
“And just what makes you think so? Because some teacher goes spouting out his latest crazy ideas? Why don’t you learn to think for yourself!” Angela was no apologetics buff, but she knew some things about fighting a battle on a teenager’s turf.
“Look mom, it’s simple. God loves us. He would never send us to hell to suffer for all eternity…”
“Now wait a minute…” Angela cut in.
“Let me finish,” he insisted. “I know. You’re going to say that God doesn’t send anyone to hell, and that people choose to go there themselves when they sin and disobey God. It’s a free choice. But we have both been taught that, in order for a sin to be a sin, you have to know it’s wrong; for it to be a sin big enough to get you into hell, you have to know it’s really bad stuff. Using your terminology, that means venial sins won’t get you into hell, but mortal sins will. Well, who is so stupid that they would commit a mortal sin? If they really believed it was that bad, they wouldn’t do it. No one thinks about slapping God in the face when they’re just looking to be happy.”
This son-to-mother lesson was delivered in the typical know-it-all, teenager tone. Angela became more familiar with it daily. She loved her kids. That love that makes mothers invincible gave her hope in these moments of trial. She promised herself that God would take care of him and despite her occasional late night tears she found solace in prayer.
“Ben, you know I can’t play your mind games. Just wait till your dad gets home and…” She didn’t finish her sentence. Ben rolled his eyes and looked out the window of their shiny new Suburban. They both knew that Dad would be home late as usual, and that that conversation would never happen.
That night at about 10:00, Angela snuck up behind her husband, Tony, as he went to the fridge for a drink. “Hey honey, we need to talk.”
“Now what?” Tony shocked himself with the gruff tone of voice that escaped him. Angela did not say a word. She glared at him, but seeing the extreme fatigue written on his face, she forgot herself and managed to make her tone even softer and sweeter.
“Tough day at work, hon?”
“Yeah, again,” came his reply, a half-sigh.
“What’s going on? We haven’t seen you for dinner all week?”
“Things will settle down. I just need… just give it some time.”
“What is it, hon?”
“Look. I’m tired. I don’t want to talk about it. Can we just call it a night?”
“We’ll ah… sure. We can talk in the morning.” As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t bring herself to push it any further.
The next morning brought the typical scene. “Mom, the toaster’s jammed again!” Her response was delayed.
“Just a minute, Ben… Joel, for the last time, get your tail out of that bed and in the shower before I…” Just at that moment, she saw her husband zipping down the stairs in dash for the front door.
“Yes, dear?” he answered, trying hard not to sound sarcastic.
“Remember. You gotta talk to Ben today.”
“Uh… Sure. I’ll be home early tonight.” He gave her a distracted kiss as he hurried out the door and added, “I promise.” He paused for a split second on the doorstep and thought to himself. “A little white lie never hurt anyone, right?” Reaching for his keys, he wiped the thought away in a rush to the car.
That day at work, 10:30 rolled around just as quickly as usual. Then something strange happened.
“Tony!” the feminine voice caught him off guard. He looked up from his computer to see his secretary, Michele, smiling at him with a cup of coffee in hand. “You look beat. Thought a little coffee might do you good.” She leaned across his desk to place a fresh cup of steaming coffee at his side. Michele had been working for him for almost a year now. It was thanks to her exceptional secretary skills that his hours had increased. She could handle any volume of work he could throw at her, so he made sure to keep upping the ante and his profits. She said no more and left, but her smile haunted him. Her beauty had never made such an impression, but now it consumed his thoughts. Tony gave himself a shake and fiddled with a stack of papers on his desk.
“What’s this?” he asked himself out loud. A bulge beneath the papers turned out to be a golden picture frame. He pulled it out and gave the picture a once-over. It was his family. He slowly turned back to his computer leaving the picture aside, but suddenly wheeled back around and studied the family photo attentively. His two year old daughter, Jen, was not there. He frantically scanned the room for a more recent picture of his family. He found none.
Tony had a very active mind, and it did not take long to think things through and make some big decisions. Within minutes he had the phone in hand and a plan in gear.
“Angela, Ang, honey, what are you doing for lunch?”
“Well, I was just on my way out the door to… wait, why? What’s wrong? Is there something I can do?”
“Yes, you can let me treat my beautiful wife to lunch and we’ll talk there. Don’t worry it’s good news. I’ll pick you up in an hour.”
At three o’clock a stunned-yet-ecstatic Angela stood at the front door and waved as Tony headed off to their son’s basketball practice for the first time that year. Fear mounted in Ben’s mind as he ran up and down the court watching his dad sit on the bleachers. Practice finally ended and the question came blurting out.
“Dad. What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Nothing son. I just thought we need a little man-to-man time, you know.” The bewildered look on Ben’s face didn’t budge. He continued, “Your mom tells me you got questions.”
“Something about what you learned at school yesterday.”
“Oh! Nah, that’s nothing. I just like to get mom riled up now and again.”
“You know, you should take it easy on your mom. She’s got enough things to keep her busy without you giving her problems. But really, what’s up?”
“Well you know, I do kind of find it hard that anyone would be stupid enough to choose to go to hell.”
“Hmm. I see. Looks like this could take a while and would go over smoother with a little ice-cream. What do you say?”
“Sure, Dad. Anything for food.”
Ten minutes later, with Ben thoroughly entertained by his banana split, the thoughts about hell had drifted from mind. Tony decided to get serious again.
“Look Ben, a big part of being a man is knowing that your decisions have consequences. Sometimes it’s the decisions we don’t make that have the biggest consequences. Sometimes we get faced with big, tough decisions because we’ve been dumb in making lots of smaller decisions. Am I making any sense here?”
“I think so.” Ben’s attention was focused on getting the last chunk of strawberry to fit onto the spoon with a banana slice.
“I think your mom would say that the path to most mortal sins is paved with a bunch of venial sins. It’s kinda like the straw that broke the camel’s back, you know.”
“I got it.” Ben lifted his eyes from an empty bowl, paused for a moment and then added, “But still, life’s not like that, if you know it’s that bad, you’re not going to do it.”
Tony smiled. He son was a hardhead like him. “Ben, when’s the last time we shot hoops together?”
Silence. Finally Ben piped in, “Dad, it’s been a long time…”
Tony took his eye off his rapidly melting cup of Rocky Road and looked straight at his son. “Remember, we used to do that three times a week?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Then… then things got busy at work. And well… it got whittled down to once a week and then once a month and then… Ben, I haven’t held the old Spalding in over a year.”
Ben couldn’t handle the tension. “Hell, dad. What’s this got to do about hell?”
“You know, Ben, people don’t make big stupid mistakes overnight. I know more than a few dads that forget about their family, their wife, and their children because work becomes this all-encompassing monster. Sure, they tell themselves the lie that they are doing it to get more good stuff that their family needs, but deep down they know better. White lies? Right! Ben, I swore I would never be one of those dads. I swore it on my wedding day to your mom. I swore it to God every time he gave me another child. And then, this morning the reality all smacked me in the face.”
“Dad! That’s exactly the point. Here you are. Once you saw the choice for what it is you couldn’t choose it anymore.”
“Well Ben, I guess you weren’t in my shoes at 10:30 this morning, now were you?” With that question, Tony went back to his ice cream and Ben, studying the chocolate stains on his napkin, shivered. All his mental back flips faded into the dimness of imagination before the bright and bold color of reality. Silence reigned.
Several minutes later Tony soberly put the icing on the cake. “Hell does exist. It is full of people who are masters at lying to themselves and to God.” The phrase burned into Ben’s memory and years later he could still repeat it word for word. When he did, he would see his dad’s ice cream cup twirling through the air towards the garbage can, as if it had all happened yesterday.
Oddly enough, he gave up his argument that hell doesn’t exist on the same day that he learned about how much his dad loved him. The household budget did take a cut, but Tony’s three-point shot was not the only thing that improved in the Johnson family that year.
Brother Scott Murphy, of the Legionaries of Christ, studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.