Of all the nightmares that haunt a parent's private moments, this one is particularly terrifying.
Losing contact with an adult, or young adult, child, for whatever reason. Then living every day with a host of silent questions.
Is he sick? In jail? Is she married? Are there children? Is she suffering? Is he somewhere in the next town, or the next country? Is he alive?
When a child and parent sever ties, the roots of the break are often complex. They may go back generations within a family's history.
A precipitating event of anger or psychological trauma may trigger the actual separation. Or it may come as the side-effect of addiction or rebellion. Sometimes it follows a gradual pattern of alienation and escalating resentment: sporadic contact, a few updates from third-party sources, then finally—nothing.
No e-mails or phone calls. No messages, pictures, or Christmas cards. No news at all. For days, weeks, months ? maybe years.
As a parent, busyness distracts you from the silent questions. In the midst of day-to-day concerns, you almost forget, for a while. But the quiet, raging fear awakens you at night, and you find yourself face to face with the gaping reality: Your child is lost to you.
A good friend of mine lived with this fear. Her son—a bright, inquisitive risk-taker, a fun-loving fearless leader, kind-hearted and helpful to a fault—drifted as a young man into a web of self-destructive behavior.
Who can say exactly why? The emotional aftermath of his parents' long-ago divorce? Disappointment over what he felt were broken promises? Over time, personal growth had come for the adults in his life. But the wounds sustained in the fragile years of childhood have a way of sticking with us; his still haunted him.
Love, freely offered by his mother and a deeply caring stepfather, seemed unable to halt his downward progression. Talking and reasoning solved little. As it turns out, the intellect is a poor salve for ruptured emotions.
The son didn't finish high school. After a time, he entered the military. When that didn't work, he tried other jobs, moved every few years, sometimes every few months. He became a nomad, spiritually and relationally, always migrating to the next situation, the next location, the next person who embodied an ever-retreating mirage of fulfillment and happiness.
For a while, here and there, he kept in touch—until addiction took its toll. He eventually dropped out of mainstream life and ended up living on the streets. The mother was left with her private nightmare.
In situations like these, your spiritual reason tells you that God is still in control. On good days, you remind yourself that wherever your child is, God is there too. You take heart, commit your child to him. Waver, then recommit. Day by day, hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute.
On bad days, you give up. You struggle to believe that anything matters. The future looks like a wasteland of empty years, your life a meaningless act of going through the motions.
But love and desperation drive you, so you pray, even while you doubt. Those who love you and your child pray too. Grandparents, pastors, friends, other family members—even people you don't know but who share a similar despair over a child of their own.
And sometimes ? sometimes, in the midst of the doubt, there's an answer.
For this mother, it was a phone call. "I'm fine," her son told her. "I'm okay. Let me tell you the story."
The son was living on the street. Addicted. No place to go, following something, he didn't know what. The urge to move on. The compulsion to get away. He arrived at a new city. He lay down to sleep one night, under a tree in a park, somewhere. As his head came to rest on his rucksack, it suddenly hit him. The desperate loneliness of his situation. The pain and futility of his life.
"I knew I couldn't keep on living like that. So I prayed, Mom. I said, ?Dear God, please get me out of here.' Then I fell asleep."
When he awoke the next morning, he watched while a red pickup truck pulled up to the curb beside him. A man leaned over, rolled down the passenger window, and yelled, "Well, are you ready to get out of here?"
"Those were the exact words I prayed, Mom! And I was ready to get out of there. So when he told me who he was, I went with him."
The Good Samaritan in the Big Red Truck drove the son to a halfway house, run by a local Christian outreach group. During the next several months, the son lived at that halfway house. He stopped taking drugs. He took long walks. He attended a Bible study. He found the relationship that rescued him from his life as a nomad: Jesus.
"I'm okay, Mom. And I'm sorry. I love you."
Joy and tears circulate with the news. He's all right! We know his number. We know where he is. We know his address and where he's working.
His life isn't perfect overnight. But it's good. There are happy visits home, reconnecting with family and friends. Healing. And for the mother, the end of the nightmare and the quiet, raging fear.
Then, too soon, another phone call comes, this one with serious news. The young man is sick, the diagnosis dire: lung cancer.
The restored prodigal faces the news with courage. He has a tremendous will to fight. He dreams of starting a program to help addicts living on the street. But the cancer is late-stage.
So brief a reunion. And now, for this mother, another kind of nightmare, terrifying, but also bittersweet, because this time she will share it with her son.
She makes several extended visits. To the hospital. To the cancer treatment center. She and her son read books out loud. They go to movies when he feels strong enough. They laugh, cry, talk about the old times.
She cooks nourishing food, his favorite meals. She lavishes all her love and care on him, knowing it will never be enough to cover the missing years—those past, and those to come.
She can't think about that now. She can only be thankful for the present.
To fill the long hours by his hospital bed, she crochets while he sleeps, his body and spirit fighting to stay connected to this life, this earth.
"What are you making?" he asks one day.
"An afghan," she answers.
"Will you make me one?"
So she goes to WalMart, picks out the colors she knows he'll like, and works the pattern. When it's just big enough, he wraps the finished end in his arms and holds it close to his chin while he sleeps. She holds the unfinished side, working it stitch by stitch, row by row. In the quiet hours, a blanket grows between them.
If we live long enough on this planet, we will experience pain. We will face challenges that swallow our humanity whole and bring us, helpless, to our knees. We will know what it is to be thankful, just to hold the unfinished end of a blanket.
Her son is gone now, but he left a message. He told his mother that people should remember the Big Red Truck, and the difference it made in one person's life. And they should try to be the answer to somebody else's prayers, too, when they get the chance.
The mother passes on a message of her own. Her son's absence leaves a void, dark and often terrifying. Like before, she has good days and bad days. But that quiet, raging fear? The familiar pain of not knowing?
That pain is gone.
She knows where her son is. She knows who he's with and what he's doing.
He's alive with Christ. "So pray," she says. "And keep on praying."
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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