The Father: A Story Retold

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 166...

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1662–1669 (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now it’s definitely Advent, the time of waiting. Waiting on a very small scale for Emmanuel, God-with-us. For the anniversary of God making known that his presence is as pervasive as everyday blessings like bread and water, wine and fish, fruits and seeds and wheat and weeds. I long to know his presence in my bones, especially when the winter feels too dark and hard, when all seems overwhelmed by pain and muck and mess.

It occurred to me that, to hear Jesus tell it, God also longs for the likes of me. And so the story below was born.

* * * * *

There’s never a night I don’t dream it: a flicker of movement on the horizon, the faintest, shadowiest silhouette no one else would recognize. My heart’s desire. There’s no room in my mind for questions, no desire to wait for an apology. There’s no need to know anything but this: he came back. He turned around. Instinctively, my tired body starts to move, to leap and run, my arms spreading wide to welcome him… and then I wake up.

My friends, their faces starting to crease with age like my own, tell me to cut my losses. I have my other son, the one who starts the coffee while I’m still sitting in my room in the blue dawn, staring out the frost-feathered window. Who has grown strong bringing in harvests with me, who has grown shrewd multiplying my money, who has grown wise leading men, who looks more like me every day. Who still looks at me like a little boy sometimes, eyes hungry for love.

I do love him. I’ve told him over and over: everything I have is his. Sometimes, as we sit by the fire together wordlessly, he looks at me and seems to know how much his presence means. Other times, especially on the holidays, he sweats and swears trying to make everything his idea of perfect, as if I cared, as if I wanted or needed anything other than him sticking around and still giving a damn.

He’s still just as angry about his little brother taking his share of everything and driving away, screaming he’d never see us again, as he was the day it happened. As for me, the rage and shock and grief of that day have long since given way to a spectrum that runs from worry to cold fear. If I know my younger son, and no one knows him better, that money is long gone and he’s worse off than before, nothing standing between him and the many addictions that drove him to cut and run. Now every time I go to the city I half expect to see him standing on a corner with a cardboard sign. I half want to. He could well be dead.

But he could be alive, and the thought haunts my thoughts, waking and sleeping. Sometimes I think about leaving all of this, packing up the truck and leaving to look for him. But I gave him his freedom, and he could be anywhere. Better to stay where he knows I am and hope he realizes someday there will always be a place for him here. All he has to do is turn around.

I mostly don’t tell my older son I’m thinking these things. He knows anyway, and sometimes he looks at me wonderingly. Why, Dad? Why would you want him back after all he’s done? Why not just try to forget?

I can’t forget. It’s not in my nature. Lost or found, my child is my child, and I’ll never stop loving him. His brother’s not the only one who looks just like me.

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