If I Never See My Son Again
I’m not typically someone who finds the silver lining right away. Mostly, when I’m deep in the morass and the muck, I sweat and struggle and swear and push and pull, until I finally settle into whatever passes for “new normal.” A phrase that, by the way, kind of sets my teeth on edge. I mean, really, what’s normal about anything these days?
It’s been nearly three months since I’ve laid eyes on my son Nicholas. As of this writing, he’s still on the run, wanted by the Minnesota Department of Corrections on multiple parole violations. Since he’s been gone I’ve gotten sporadic text messages from him, brief and vague reassurances that he’s “okay” and “working hard”, but at what and where, I have no clue.
Despite the uncertainty of this strange situation, I find myself oddly at peace. It’s not so much that I’ve located the elusive silver lining, but rather that I’m bolstered by a few unshakable truths that help ease the way forward. For instance, the gratitude I feel that Nick continues to let me know he’s alive. A few sporadic and cryptic messages may not seem like much, may even seem selfish from the outside, but I can’t overstate the change it represents in terms of his awareness of the impact his actions have on others, especially me. He understands that keeping in touch, no matter how infrequently, allows me some semblance of peace of mind. That’s a significant change from his past behavior.
I take enormous comfort, too, knowing I’ve done everything possible to show and tell Nick that I love him, no matter what. If I never see him again, I’ll go to my grave secure in the knowledge he knows how much I love him and that he loves me the best he’s able.
There is also tremendous peace in the knowledge that as long as he is alive, hope lives, too. It may seem a fantasy, but I believe it’s entirely possible that one day he’ll turn toward home, led in part by the steadfast belief so many have in him. I keep the porch light on just in case, hopeful he’ll be drawn by the warm glow of welcome and unconditional love.
None of that is to say I don’t have days when I’m pissed off — at him, his choices, the current situation. But I’ve found anger to be pretty useless, especially when the target of my anger isn’t around for me to give him the business. Thankfully, those days are pretty few and far between.
It would also be a mistake to take this relatively peaceful state of mind to mean I don’t miss him like mad. This separation is longer and more distant than any that have gone before, even counting his time spent behind bars. Strangely, that makes for odd moments when I actually feel nostalgic for his time in prison. Which sounds weird, I know. Like the battered spouse who knows she can never go back to her partner but misses the feeling of being part of a couple, or the addict in long-term recovery who understands that one drink or one hit will trigger a downward spiral, but still speaks with longing about the way that first drink or hit made him feel. Crazy — but at least when Nick was in prison, I saw him on a regular basis.
The hours we spent in gray-walled visiting rooms produced some of our most honest and authentic conversations. Every other week, under the watchful scrutiny of security guards who monitored our every move, we were free to speak openly, tenderly, unburdened by pretense. Absent the distractions, suspicions and worries that tainted our conversations in the years leading up to his arrest and conviction, we were simply two people connecting for real. It was as if prison stripped away our need to keep secrets from each other, the brevity of our time together compelling us to leave small talk behind.
Our conversations were broad and far ranging — books, current events, news of friends and family, history, politics, stories of his time on the streets (oh, so hard for a mother to hear,) and mutual advice we each offered the other — nothing was off limits during those bi-weekly visits. And while it was awful, terrible, to see him behind bars, it was an unexpected gift to become reacquainted with him, and affirming to catch glimpses that the real Nick was still in there underneath the mask of street-smart attitude and bravado he wore to survive.
Not all of our visits were productive and satisfying. Sometimes one of us would be in a bad mood or tired or just didn’t feel like talking much. But even then, we rarely cut our visits short, because we both understood it might be the only humanizing interaction he would have that week.
Some of our visits were just sad, particularly the ones that required me to deliver news of loss. Nick suffered a great deal of loss during his time inside. We all did. His maternal and paternal grandfathers. His beloved dog. His childhood home. Perhaps hardest for him, cruelly unexpected and sudden, his beloved friend Jack.
Friends since grade school, Jack and Nick were partners in adventure as children, companions in risky behavior as they entered adolescence. The two shared a loyalty that bonded them through thick and thin and they were united in their bent for destructive choices. Both were seduced and captured by drugs and alcohol far more quickly than they’d bargained for. Both came from loving families who intervened early and compared notes on the virtues of treatment, tough love, unconditional support. Both lived through repeated cycles of sobriety, relapse, and eventual collapse that took increasing tolls in terms of personal consequence, ultimately leading Nick to prison and ending Jack’s life far too soon.
Carrying word to Nick of Jack’s death might be one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. Jack died while Nick was being housed in a county jail, having been transferred due to overcrowding in the state prison system. County jail visits are even more restrictive than prison visits, conducted via cracked and cloudy video screens, no opportunity for the visitor to greet the inmate with a hug or a handshake. All told, I had twenty minutes to share what little I knew, to offer what little comfort I could. The reinforced glass that separated us prevented me from even holding his hand as he struggled to absorb the shock of what I was telling him.
In all my life, I hope to never see that kind of sorrow on the face of anyone I love again. To say his pain became my own is an understatement. And leaving him there, alone in his grief amidst the simultaneous chaos and isolation that defines life behind bars, was a new and sharper sadness among the many I’d experienced over the past few years.
Except for this: though undeniably, utterly terrible, the entire episode also left me with feelings I didn’t expect. Feelings like gratitude. And hope. And resolve.
A few weeks ago I came across a journal entry I wrote that night when I got home.
“…and still, tonight, I feel lucky. Because when I left my son, it was to attend the memorial service for Jack. A memorial celebration for a lovely, funny, brilliant and troubled young man who will never make any of us smile or laugh or curse or cry again. He’s gone now — never forgotten, ever — but lost to us save for our memories. Gone before he found his way to the place of peace and serenity that he — and those who loved him — dreamed of and hoped for. Gone to a place where his mother can never again hold his hand or kiss his forehead.
So yes, I’m lucky. Nick is still here. He’s still breathing. He’s safe, or at least as safe as he can be in that place. He’s wounded and he’s struggling, and I know he’s grieving and lonely. But he’s alive. As long as that’s true, there is always hope he’ll find his way.”
Those words still hold true today as I wait for news of Nick, whether it’s the next text letting me know he’s “okay” or the call from authorities who have caught up with him after all this time. When word comes, I know I’ll still feel lucky. Not because I’ve found a silver lining, but because I believe — I know — as long as Nick is alive there is hope. The porch light stays on because there is always hope.