When I became a mother more than two decades ago, I never thought I would have to deal with the prospect of having a fugitive for a son.
In the month since my son Nick disappeared after violating parole, I’ve been engaged in a familiar existential battle. It’s the battle between living in limbo and living fully. Between balancing uncertainty with my inherent need for answers and closure. I struggle to answer fundamental but necessary questions: How do I keep from putting my life on hold as I wait for word that my son has either done the right thing and turned himself in or been apprehended by the authorities who issued a warrant for his arrest? How do I reconcile my grief and disappointment with the certainty that I can’t allow it to define my life? How do I live in the in-between space of knowing and not knowing?
I’m a full-time resident of that in-between space right now. It’s a space that provides very little in terms of support groups or academic research or first-person sharing about how to get through. No matter how much I search the interwebs and google the Google for family support resources, there is precious little that’s been written on this particular subject. No surprise, really. I get it. Not many parents freely open up about what it’s like to have a child who is a fugitive from the law. Those of us who live it face an almost untenable choice — protect our child at any cost or to turn him or her over. Either choice can have real life and death consequences for the one we love. Turn him over and face the grim certainty that he will go back to prison. Or give in to parental instincts that whisper in my ear to protect him as long as possible, even though I know that aiding and abetting his desperate need to avoid responsibility could sentence him to a fate worse or more final than being locked up.
For me the choice is pretty straightforward: My innate sense of order and the values I was raised with offer no alternative but to cooperate with the police and other law enforcement officials searching for Nick. That means opening my home to corrections officers who comb it for clues to his whereabouts. Calling sheriffs detectives with bits of information or ideas about where he may be. Checking in with his parole officer on the progress of the search. And hardest of all, saying no on the rare occasions Nick mysteriously surfaces with a call or text from an untraceable number to ask my help in prolonging the inevitable. The most recent example: a few weeks ago he called to see if I would meet him at a coffee shop to bring him some items he said he needs to “get it together.” My response: “Umm, no. I love you. Turn yourself in.”
Even when the answers are clear, as they are for me, there are countless moments of second-guessing, of questioning if I made the right choice, of wondering if I’ve squandered my last chance to see or speak to Nick. There is no road map for doing this, so I’m left to forge my own path through murky and uncertain terrain. And as I go, I fight to keep the uncertainty and darkness from swallowing me whole.
I’ve inhabited this space before, when Nick was younger and would run. His instinct has always been to run away — from home, from school, from treatment, from consequences, from reality, from love. In the early days, I would pace the floor and count the days he’d been gone, checking and re-checking for clues, driving around aimlessly looking for his face around every corner in every crowd, generally doing anything I could think of to end the uncertainty that tortured me. It made me crazy. And it brought to a screeching halt everything normal in my life, because somehow it felt wrong to do anything that smacked of normalcy when my son was out there in the unknown.
As time went on I came to realize the futility of living in suspended animation. I saw the damage it did to my physical and mental health, how it separated me from every other precious person in my life, most of all Alex and Nathaniel, how it isolated me from the sweetness still right in front of me. By focusing so much on the lack, I missed the abundance that filled so many other parts of my life.
After one particularly dark stretch that left me so physically and emotionally drained it was nearly impossible to get out of bed, I realized this was no way to live. In fact, it wasn’t really living at all. So I made an intentional effort to flip the equation, deliberately ignoring the pangs of guilt I felt about taking tentative steps back to the land of the living. I took greater care to eat healthy foods and found time for long walks. I embraced the good fortune of a job that inspires and challenges me. Instead of staying up till all hours of the night endlessly replaying every interaction with Nick on an continuous loop, I established a regular bedtime and stuck to it (for the most part.) I spent as much time as possible with family and friends, focusing not on what — and who — was missing, but rather on the joys of being together. I grew to appreciate the way simple routines provided structure in the midst of chaos. And I practiced, and came to embrace, the radical (to me) concept that detaching, with compassion and care, from what you love most can be the most loving thing you can do.
That’s how I learned how to navigate the in-between. Using my own road map, I found proof positive that when I pay close enough attention, there are joys to be savored in every day, wonders to behold in the sunsets, and peace to be found in quiet moments. And I reckoned with the truth that this life is my one and only, and it’s about damn time I got busy living it.
That’s what I do now. And for the most part, it’s working. Of course nothing is fool-proof, and in my worst moments, I wonder why in the hell the Universe keeps giving me a do-over. Like really, would it be so hard to give me a passing grade in this life lesson instead of making me take it over and over again? But thankfully, even in those moments, I’m more open to the feelings of pain and loss, and I recognize them as one of the exquisite gifts of a well-lived life.
Of course, Nick is never far from my thoughts, and I offer incessant petitions to the same Universe I sometimes curse, praying that she holds him in a cradle of protection I cannot. But it’s also a little easier to go for a few hours at a time without stopping to dwell on the worst of my imaginings.
And so until the time my beloved prodigal returns, in whatever shape and time that happens, I am living life — fully, hopefully, gratefully — in the in-between, savoring the unparalleled beauty that lies right inside the reality. I hold fast to the anchors of family and home and friendship, and embrace opportunities for adventures of my choosing. Mine is not a life to be lived on hold. Rather is is a life rich in blessings and filled with possibilities — chief among them, my belief that even as he wanders through the wilderness, every step my son takes will lead him closer home.