Prodigal son

I remember the day my son came home as if it were yesterday.

It had been over two years since he’d left, taking all his share of the estate with him. Of course, I had dreams for his future: that he and his brother would take over the family business and home and that I would grow old to see them thrive and be happy. The kind of dreams every father has for his children.

I still recall the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I think back to the day he announced he was leaving. I tried to convince him to stay, pleaded with him not to walk away from everything that was his here. But it was clear from the set of his chin and the look in his eyes that his mind was already made up. Somehow, everything I’d provided for him – provided for his fulfilment and happiness! – had turned out to be nothing but a source of restriction and resentment. And so, in the blink of an eye, all of my dreams evaporated as he walked out the door with the clothes on his back, a bag full of money and barely a backward glance.

The days that followed were a mix of emotions. Caught between the hope that he would see the folly of his ways and return home and the growing certainty that he was gone for good, I tried my best to focus on the day-to-day tasks of tending to the farm and supervising the servants. But my mind was not on the job; though I knew not where he was, my heart was out there with my son.

Hope ebbed away as days turned into weeks and months. Life took on a dreary, flat aspect that even ordinarily joyful occasions – a birthday here, a betrothal there – could not help me shake off. Try as I might to comfort myself with the minutiae of normal existence, nothing could quell the deep ache in my heart.

My son! Occasionally, when in an unguarded moment I allowed my mind to wander, I found myself thinking of the blue-eyed, curly-haired little boy who used to love bouncing on my knee. And of the fine young man who attracted such praise from everyone in the village, not to mention alluring glances from more than a few pretty girls. Where had things gone wrong? What more could I have done to make him want to stay?

The second year after he left was darker still, as a countrywide famine added yet more worries to the weight of my sorrow. Though I didn’t know where my son was, as I listened to tales of families struggling to survive with no food and farms laid waste by lack and disease, I feared greatly for him. He wasn’t prepared for life on his own in such a cruel world. The future I had imagined for him was so much better.

Still, even on the darkest days, every evening I would stand on the porch for an hour or more, scanning the horizon in the forlorn hope that my long lost son might return. People told me – even my wife told me! – that I was foolish to keep torturing myself this way, that I needed to let go and move on. But in my heart of hearts, I knew I could never do that. Even though he had spurned his family and turned his back on a whole life that was there for the living, my heart would always be with him. Somewhere, deep down, I could not let go of him. And so I could not give up watching and waiting, evening after evening, come rain or shine.

Then came the evening when, beyond all hope, he returned. It had been a long, hot, tiring day and I was getting ready to go inside when I saw the lone figure trudging slowly up the road in the distance. At first I assumed it must be some traveller looking for a place to stay, but before I could process the thought further, my feet took over and I found myself stepping off the porch and setting off down the path, first at a fast walk, then breaking into a run, gathering up my robe so as not to trip and fall. He must have been half a mile away, and when I got to him I was out of breath and covered in dust.

I don’t know if he was surprised or just dazed and weakened by hunger and exertion. His face was gaunt and there was a sadness and an emptiness in his eyes that pierced my heart. Never had I felt such a mixture of joy and sorrow: joy that my long lost son, my boy who I had thought and dreamed about every day for over two years, had come home; and sorrow that he had clearly suffered such pain and loss. All this time I had carried the pain of my own loss; but as I looked at my son, my own pain was as nothing next to the compassion that flooded my heart for him. I wrapped my arms around him and, between sobs, kissed his dirty, unkempt hair and told him over and over again that everything would be all right.

That day was months ago, and still I look back on it with a mixture of joy and sorrow.

You see, though I cannot describe the joy of knowing that my lost son had been returned to me, the sad reality is that things have never been the same. In spite of all my efforts to welcome him home with open arms and restore him to his rightful position, some part of him seems to have stayed out there in the far country. He wouldn’t countenance the idea of me throwing a party for him; wouldn’t even come and sleep in the main part of the house, insisting instead on sleeping in the servants’ quarters. In fact, from that day to this, he has never once set foot inside the family home.

Since then, I’ve tried everything in my power to draw him back into the family, but still he stays on the edge of things. It’s as though he’s attracted by the warm security of everything that could be his, but something in his heart – some notion that he doesn’t deserve it, that he has forfeit his right to be my son – prevents him from coming closer. It breaks my heart to see him so crushed by guilt and shame, but when I try to tell him that the past is gone, forgotten and wiped clean, that there’s nothing to forgive, that he has always been and forever will be my precious son, his eyes glaze over; some part of him can’t allow him to believe and accept it.

He still sleeps with the servants and works in the fields. He’s often the first out in the morning and the last to return in the evening, as though relentlessly working to pay off some intractable debt. I try to engineer opportunities to stumble across him at various moments here and there, hoping to catch him unawares with his defences down. But as soon as he sees me, he’s instantly on his guard and looking for some job that needs doing, toiling and striving to earn a forgiveness that was always his and to make himself worthy of a status he never lost.

Though I’m saddened by my son’s refusal to open his arms and return my embrace, I’m not angry. As I look at this boy, battered and bruised by life and weighed down by failure and regret, how could I feel anything but longing and compassion? All I can do is keep holding the door open for him, laying his place at the family table, and encouraging him to come in, sit down and simply be who he is. I hold onto the hope that somehow, some day, love will overcome his fear and shame, and he will finally come back into my home, his home. Until then, I keep watching and waiting, just as I watched and waited out on the porch all those long evenings.

[ Image: Le Retour de L’Enfant Prodigue – photo by Edith OSB ]