Discovering a Poet
I have a friend I only see on occasion. She is a younger woman with a 10-year-old child. I’m a grandmother of two. You wouldn’t think we’d have a lot in common. But we resonate whenever we find ourselves together, which is usually once a year at a community camp in the Mendocino Woodlands.
The other morning out of the blue she sent me this link to this poem on Instant Messenger. What a tender gift.
The host of the podcast Poetry Unbound is someone I’d never heard of: Pádraig Ó Tuama, described on his website as a poet and theologian. I love his deep, sonorous voice and musical Irish accent. And I love the way he analyzes the poem, helping me notice the details and understand the backstory, bringing me deeper into its world as he reads the poem, discusses it, and then reads it again.
The poem itself speaks to me directly. “The Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God” by Allison Funk brings to mind my own struggles with an adult son who has a major mental illness coupled with drug use, the dual diagnosis borne by so many, causing him to go far afield and return home, again and again and again.
It’s not as easy to welcome your prodigal son back the second time, the poem says. Or the third. Or the thirty-third, say I. Each time my own prodigal son returns my hope is rekindled — Maybe this time will stick. Maybe he’s home for good — which makes the disappointment bitter. And though I feel better about where my son is today than I have during much of his 14-year illness — he has an apartment, a doctor, a social worker, a prescription — he’s been afield all week, and this morning, his younger brother is out there with him, trying to capture him and bring him in to the psych ward— a necessary stop on the route back home.
During his analysis of the poem, Pádraig Ó Tuama talks about two friends of his with addiction problems in their family. One tells him how whenever she returns home strung out on drugs, her father stands up to support her. The other tells him that after three or four returns, he told his son that he wouldn’t do it again — that his son would have to find somewhere else to live, someone else willing to take on that role. Both friends described those as loving responses.
I needed to hear that. Because throughout our son’s life, his father and I have conflicted on how to respond to his crises. In classic mother/father roles, I was the one wanting to stand up and support him. He was the one wanting to set clear boundaries — to throw him out. Both are loving responses.
Another thing Pádraig Ó Tuama says is that we don’t know what to do. Despite all the “how to” stories and self-help books and TED Talks and articles, we don’t really know how best to behave in complex situations — how best to love and support one another. There isn’t one approved method that works every time. Each pair of people is different. And each day, and each hour, and each situation.
Today the way I loved my son was by calling the police, describing his behavior, asking them to do a “welfare check” at his apartment and hopefully take him to the hospital. When they showed up, the door was wide open, but no one was inside.
Today the way his younger brother showed his love was to show up at the apartment to talk to the police and confirm that his brother was ill, not a criminal. That he needed to go to the hospital, not jail. They were standing on the street corner when the prodigal son returned, out of his mind, walked up to his brother and threw a punch at him. Minutes later, he was in handcuffs in the back of the police car. Police said they would take him straight to the hospital.
Some would call that a crisis, but in our family we call it a crisis averted, because they didn’t say they were taking him to jail. They didn’t pull out their weapons. They didn’t harm him. They didn’t decide he was not “a danger to himself or others” and therefore free to continue running amok. The younger brother evaded the punch, which just glanced off him. It was the best possible outcome — today.
I remember when our sitting president called other places “sh*thole countries.” But a month and a half after the election, with him rousing the gun-toting rabble and refusing to concede, with the pandemic raging, with small businesses like our family’s cafe closing daily, with people frightened and struggling to scrape together some dollars, it feels very much like I’m living in a “sh*thole country” here in the U.S.
I spend a lot of time on Twitter, stoking the outrage. I spend a lot of time reading the apocalyptic news. I spend a lot of time watching Netflix as a distraction. I’m so wound up by the national questions of the day that I don’t think about my personal ones: how do I be a good friend? A good wife? A good mother and grandma? How can I best support the people I love — including myself?
Poetry reminds me to pay attention.
The next day, my friend from camp sent me this poem, about a surprise connection between strangers. It’s stunning.
Tomorrow, she says she will send me another.
And that’s how I will get through all these crises: one poem at a time.
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