Although we cannot assume all the blame for our son’s problems, and he still has plenty, we have learned to accept our mistakes. Our biggest, I think, was our failure to be really together in our parenting.
My wife and I were pleading our case before a judge in juvenile court. The police in another county of our state had arrested our youngest son on suspicion of something or other after he had dropped out of school and run away to follow The Dead. He had put us through worse times before, and this odyssey hadn’t lasted long, thank God, but it marked the beginning of change. Returned by our request to juvenile detention in our own county in Virginia, he was not charged with anything this time, other than violation of the probation imposed as a result of previous juvenile offenses. Since he was almost eighteen now, this would be our last chance to intervene before the law would treat him as an adult. We begged for help: “Do something, Judge, anything. Just don’t turn him loose to become more sick, more confused and angry. He already hates us, and we’ve done everything we know how to do by ourselves!”
Because our son was addicted to drugs, no one could have reached him at that point – not before he hit his “bottom.” The Twelve-Step program and some of the many counselors we had seen with our son had stated this part of the equation correctly. The judge knew this, and so did we, but no one knew then just how far our son would have to fall to find his bottom. Without knowing this, we were unwilling to let him go, but the judge knew what she had to do. With a sigh of regret and a sad glance in our direction, she let him go without taking action. She let him fall; in doing so, she did the best thing she could have done for him. We later understood this. But it would take us a long time.
Although we had hoped for something else to happen, we were not really surprised by the judge’s action. Now there was nothing left for us to do but to let him go ourselves. Even so, we tried again. We asked his probation officer if we could all meet together one last time. Our son came to the meeting elated, high on the prospect of freedom. We, on the other hand, felt devastated. He thought his ordeal was over. We knew it had only just begun.
We asked our son what he wanted to do: Would he like to come home with us now, or did he have something else in mind? When he said he didn’t know, we helped him decide. We told him that if he wanted to live with us and go back to school or get a job, or whatever, he would have to live by our rules. There could be no drugs. Hearing that, he made up his mind. He told us that he loved us but, under the circumstances, he would be staying with friends until he could get enough money together to get a place of his own. With broken hearts, we understood him to be saying that he loved his drugs more than he loved us. Thunderstruck, I thought, How could this have happened to us? What did we do that was so wrong? Later, my wife would audibly echo my thoughts.
After that day, seeking answers, understanding, and forgiveness, my wife and I separately shared our grief with friends. This helped some. We both also prayed individually, which helped even more. Attempting to put it all behind us, we threw ourselves into our individual work, which seemed to help the most. But we went up to our bedroom every night dreading our dreams and thinking silently to ourselves, He’s out there in the cold and the dark. Does he have a safe place to sleep tonight? Did he eat today? Is he well?
Occasionally, our son stopped by to see us. Oh, how bittersweet those visits were! We let him come in, warm himself, bathe, and have a bite to eat. We tried not to give him money, but sometimes we did give him small amounts. Never, though, did we let him leave the house without food for later on. On other occasions, he sneaked into our house or garage to spend the night. Sometimes we heard him; sometimes we didn’t. Sometimes he took something; sometimes he left something. But by morning he was always gone.
Months later, neither my wife nor I had found peace. Neither of us understood what had happened, and neither of us felt forgiveness. Instead, we hit our own couple relationship bottom. It was as if the fabric of our love for each other was torn. Then God intervened. It happened like this…
My wife and I took a weekend away with friends. While we were gone, we paid the daughter of friends, a mature teen, to stay at our house and to look out for things, caring for our pets. We failed to consider what might happen should our son decide to break into the house while we were gone and we failed to even warn the girl. Well, it happened and it scared the poor girl out of her wits. She called 911 and, afterward, told her parents. They called us to tell us of the break-in and, immediately, we knew who the interloper had been. We were devastated and clueless about how to proceed. We were trapped in the most difficult of parenting circumstances. We even considered filling charges against our son.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The phone rang while my wife and I were sitting at the kitchen table toying with the food on our dinner plates. Neither of us had much appetite. It was a realtor and she asked if we would like to sell our home. At first I thought she was just calling to drum-up business. I told her, no, that we had no intention of doing so. But before I could hang up, she said that she already had a buyer who wanted our home. They would pay a premium price for it.
“Okay,” I said. “How much will they pay?”
“How much do you want?” she answered.
Never dreaming that anyone would pay so much, and only suggesting a number that I thought would discourage this woman and let me get back to my cold dinner, I gave her a price that was ridiculous, a third higher than what we had paid for the place just two years earlier.
“Okay,” she said. “I think I can get that for you.” A month later we were moving.
When I had told my boss that we were going to sell our home, that we already had a buyer, he asked what we were going to do. I told him that we were keeping our options open. He took that to mean that we were going to move to another city, possibly another state, and he was concerned about losing me. The next morning, he called me into his office with a proposal. If I wanted, the company would move us, pay all expenses, and give me a raise to take over the company’s government materiel testing support business in St. Louis, Missouri.
When God moved us, and I am convinced that He had a hand in it, it made it easier for us to stop enabling our son’s behavior. Our individual sharing with others, our individual praying, the hours of individual distraction, and even our new surroundings, however, did nothing to mend our torn relationship.
Desperate and lonely, we decided to rededicate ourselves to what we had learned years before during a Marriage Encounter weekend. On that weekend we had learned an effective communication tool called “dialogue,” which we started using again. Daily dialogues, using the steps we learned during our weekend, enabled us to share on an emotional level. The structured approach helped us to focus on what we felt rather than on what we thought. This was easier for my wife than for me, but over time I learned to give myself over to my feelings more and more, and the change this made in our relationship seemed almost magical.
We had also learned during that weekend the difference between living together as a married couple (working and loving together) and living as a married-singles couple (working and loving separately). But then we became lazy, distracted, jaded, or something. Truthfully, I think we just let the challenges posed by our son’s problems overwhelm us. Now we are stronger because of those challenges, but we had to work hard and work together to find our way back.
Fortunately, we knew what to do. We joined a couples’ support group in our new area, a Flame, as we call it in the United Methodist expression of Marriage Encounter. We also volunteered to serve as regional coordinators for Marriage Encounter in Eastern Missouri. Doing this meant that we had to give up some individual distractions, but it was worth it. Serving together in a ministry such as this kept us focused and forced us to work at keeping our act together. This loving task placed us in the role of parents, in a sense, to other couples, and nothing reinforces learning like teaching and mentoring others.
Although we cannot assume all the blame for our son’s problems, and he still has plenty, we have learned to accept our mistakes. Our biggest, I think, was our failure to be really together in our parenting. My wife and I both tend to be competitive, especially with each other; our son became an expert at using this to his own advantage. When nothing else worked, he knew that he could always play one of us against the other to get his way.
Other couples who have had to face failures in parenting have helped us to forgive each other and ourselves. They’ve also helped us to focus on what we have done right and to stop punishing ourselves. One couple in our flame always asked about our other sons, and smiled broadly when we spoke of their achievements. They knew something of failure themselves and had shared this with us, but they also shared their successes. We learned a great deal from them. Now we give love and get it back as a couple again. Christ’s love expressed through other couples has mended the torn fabric. The stitches in this, the fabric of our love, were by God’s hand.