Back on the Roller Coaster

Three weeks ago, on the day after Mother’s Day, I got a call telling me my son Nick had been picked up by the authorities in a small town a thousand miles away. He was sitting in a county jail way out east, awaiting word about whether authorities in Minnesota would extradite him back to Minnesota.

I was shocked to learn that a state can say yes or no to retrieving parole violators: apparently the decision depends on the state’s budget picture, the population and capacity of the offender’s home state prison system, and the time lapsed since the warrant was issued, as well as other considerations. In some cases, a state may simply decide the expense and effort of bringing an offender back isn’t worth it. When that happens, depending on the circumstances under which the person was brought to jail in the first place, the holding state may end up just cutting the person loose.

But Minnesota said yes. They wanted Nick back.

So once again, Nick is back in the custody of the Minnesota Department of Corrections. A hearing in front of a parole judge in the coming days will determine how much additional time he will serve.

Several factors will determine whether the judge shows mercy to Nick or chooses to make him an example. In his favor is the fact that he wasn’t arrested in the commission of a new crime, other than public intoxication. True to what he told me in cryptic texts and brief phone messages over the past five months, he’s actually been working steadily. It seems he managed to get himself hired on to a crew doing commercial roofing all over the country, which is how he landed on the east coast. By all indications, including statements from his foreman, until the day he was picked up, he was a reliable and hard worker.

But the list of factors working against him is long, too. He’s been a previous flight risk. He crossed state lines trying to outrun the consequences of his initial failed drug test. And he hasn't managed to stay sober, despite the fact that drugs and alcohol are the source of most of his poor decisions and bad choices.

People have asked how I felt in the moments after I got the call telling me Nick was back in custody. They wonder if I felt relief knowing he was alive, and at least relatively safe. Or they imagine that after holding out so much hope after his original release last August, I’m devastated he’s fallen so far, so fast again. They ask what I’ll do next and if I plan to let Nick come back home whenever he gets out again.

The truth is, I felt surprisingly disconnected in the days after we learned of his re-arrest. Mildly detached, the way you feel when you stumble across the rerun of a movie you’ve seen more than once. You remember the first time you saw it in the theater, and how caught up you were in the story of the characters, or astonished by the plot twist, or irritated by the surprise ending, and when it’s over you can’t stop thinking about it for days. But by the time you run across it again, years later, flipping through the channels in the wee hours of a sleepless night, you wonder what it was that gripped you so the first time.

You’ve seen this story before. You know the drill.

It’s not as if any of this was unexpected or unpredictable. Things have a way of catching up to Nick, and we always knew it was a matter of time before they would again: the only uncertainty was when and how. I wasn’t gutted the way I was when I first learned Nick was using drugs, or when he was arrested and sentenced the first time, or when he absconded after his first release from prison. I’ve had a lot of practice on this roller coaster. I’ve held my breath a thousand times over the sharp twists and turns, the steep highs and lows. What stands out most this time around is the slightly weary sense of familiarity as the ride loops back around for another plunge.

I’m not sure what happens next. It’s not clear to me at this time whether it would be good for Nick or me for him to return to my home, or whether it’s even an option. For now, my #EveryOther Sunday visits to him in prison will resume. He calls every few days because he knows I love and support him. As to the shape my support takes once he’s nearing release again, I guess we’ll see what feels right when the time comes.

It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed since I first started sharing this journey, and more than five months since Nick took off. In that time summer turned to fall, winter turned to spring, and the world continued its steady forward march toward summer again. For the little family unit that remained in Nick’s absence — Alex and Nathaniel and me — we three endure and persevere and thrive. We’ve gone to concerts and movies and on vacation. We’ve had colds and coughs and minor infections. We’ve voted and we’ve protested and we’ve turned inward and back out again. We’ve laughed with each other and gotten mad at each other. We’ve worked hard in our respective jobs or transitioned away to start something new. Through it all we’ve stuck together, all the while still holding space, each in our own way, for the brother and son who went missing from our lives again. In short, we keep on living. There’s a lot of life to be lived in the in-between spaces while we wait for something, anything to happen.

This story isn’t over, and the next chapters are being written even as I type these words. I won’t know how it all turns out until it’s time for me to know. I pray Nick will use this setback as a springboard toward a new life. As always, it is for him, not me, to choose the path he takes. I hope he chooses well. I hope he finds compassion and mercy along the way.

For now, he’s alive and as well as can be under the circumstances. His presence — and absence — from my life colors my days, as does the presence of so many more so very dear. Each of my people, and every new day, weave together a rich tapestry that unfolds to reveal the vibrant hues and unexpected textures of my life. I draw it around my shoulders like a blanket, equal parts wisdom and comfort, pain and love, and it wraps me in a cocoon of protective warmth as I strap myself in and brace for the next steep climb up and down and around the rollercoaster again.