Five years ago, I called a 302 on my son. A 302 indicates to the police that someone is either a harm to himself or others. It allows the authorities to search for him and admit him for evaluation though he might not be in possession of drugs or even doing anything particularly illegal. Police get a lot of 302s, usually in cases of domestic abuse.

I called one in for my son because I was convinced he was a harm to himself, that he needed to be stopped. As far as I was concerned, he qualified for that 302, and like a kid on the honor roll, he deserved it.

However, calling in a 302 wasn’t as easy as I thought. There’s a protocol, which makes it difficult to explain anything. When I got the dispatcher on the phone, her questions seemed redundant to me: Did my son say something that would lead me to believe he was a harm to himself or others? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Before he left, with his hand on the doorknob, do I remember him turning, by the way, I might hurt myself, I might hurt someone else?  

It was like there was a thick black line down the middle of life that separated evil from good, and every word I said or didn’t say needed to lie on one side or the other for the dispatcher to consider a 302. I’d dialed 911; I was in utter straights because I thought our child might die, and a dispatcher was taking down my words about as fast as a texting grandmother. Every muscle in my body felt weak and cold. I answered her questions as best as I could. I tried not to cry. I hung up, sat down with my husband and waited.

I’ve always been the kind of mother who packs lunches with natural gummies and sandwiches made with non-emulsified peanut butter and whole wheat Ezekiel Bread. When they were in school, I wrote my children notes reminding them of how much I loved them and how much God loved them. I slid the notes in with the food. I tried my best to be a good mom.

Plenty of times, our children fought, or I would lose my temper. Plenty of times, I fed them frozen pizza for dinner, but my husband and I did the best we could—loved them, encouraged them, showed them what it’s like to walk closely with God.

We work with a campus ministry, and we would spend many weekends going to retreats where we would hike into the woods and find waterfalls and rocks to climb. At night, there were bonfires and our children would hear students talk about how God was working in their lives.

How can a child who grew up like this become a prodigal?

That night, after I made the call and there was nothing to do but wait, I held everything in front of me like a strange movie—someone else’s movie—humming along in the middle distance, only a part of me felt it was important to respond to the narrative, somehow insert myself into the story, because if I said just the right things and made just the right choices, it was still possible that my son would be healthy and young and vibrant, that he would be back at his desk sketching bugs and making boats out of duct tape. It was still possible for things to be just like they would be if he had never tried heroin.

Unless you’ve had—or have—a prodigal, it’s impossible to understand the pain involved. It’s a unique pain: feeling like it’s your fault, that you could have done something to prevent it, convinced your child is running away from you (Is there something wrong with me?). You experience hate, anger, love and compassion that are so intertwined it’s impossible to tell one from another. It’s a war only you understand. Others are often compassionate, yet they silently side with your child; you did something wrong or this wouldn’t have happened.

Remember this: as handy as having one might be, I’ve learned that a thick black line that separates good from evil is a spurious thing. It just plain doesn’t exist.

Until we experienced the pain and confusion of having a prodigal, I always assumed that if we fed our children healthy food and disciplined them appropriately and read to them every night, they would fall far to the left of this virtual thick black line, safe and snug in the section labeled “good.” However that night, five years ago, when it all began, we discovered this was far from the case. One of our well-fed, well-disciplined and dearly loved children went far off the rails.

We would spend years in prayer, longing for him to come home.  

Our son didn’t come back that night when I called in the 302, and there were many anxious nights to follow—there was no moment when—like good news after an MRI—everything was declared “cancer free.”

It’s taken years, and mercy, and prayer, and so many other things, but our son did come home. His journey back wasn’t the way we had originally wanted it to be—some kind of light from Heaven and voice from God commanding him to “Return home!”—but it was a journey back.

And for anyone out there still waiting, know that there are many of us praying just like you, anxious in the middle of the night, desperately searching for tin foil and spoons and pipes in childhood rooms, crying in showers because sometimes what else can you do except cry in a shower?

And if I must give you a takeaway, I’ll say only this: Remember your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Remember that Satan meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. Remember that God’s ways are not our ways. Remember the eternal, lavish love that your Father in Heaven has for you.  

Katherine James
Katherine James has an MFA in fiction from Columbia University where she received the Felipe P. De Alba merit fellowship. She has studied at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and has work published in the anthology, In the Arms of Words (Sherman Asher, 2005), St. Katherine Review, and other periodicals. Excerpts from her novel, Can You See Anything Now, which was a semi-finalist for the Doris Bakwin Prize, are forthcoming in the anthology, Between Midnight and Dawn, edited by Sarah Arthur (Paraclete Press). One of her short stories was recently chosen as a finalist for a Narrative Prize. Kate and her husband, Rick, have three grown children and are on staff with Cru, a ministry to college students. She blogs at northhillsdrive.com.

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  1. Bless you, Kate. I pray that God keeps redeeming your story over and over and over again. Can’t wait for the memoir to come out! I’m sharing your story with a friend deeply struggling with her daughter now.

  2. I remember watching a stairstep family of adopted kids performing a “Sound of Music” bit w their Mom in a church talent show… and I remember several years later when adoptee number 12 ran away to the streets, taking a couple sibs w her. God is very powerful… we somewhat less so. Even our SuperMoms. Hugs

    1. Sound of Music families can be so intimidating. We need to get the word out that the only way SuperMoms could exist is if parallel universes exist.

  3. Hi Katie, So glad you didn’t give up on this. It’s going to touch, help, encourage . . . a lot of people waiting for their prodigals. Hope!!

    1. Hi Ellen, don’t stop, keep it up. I know you know this, but it can be so wearying. Praying with you (also, sign up for Prayer for Prodigals. They have a website for prayer. It was really helpful to me)

  4. Kate- I’m in the middle of raising my 4 children-complete with almond butter and canola free oil bread sandwiches-and feel like i need to tuck this away for the “maybes.” That maybe, even though I am doing my best to love them well, things won’t go the way I expect or hope…and I’ll have to wait and see what God does. Thank you, friend!

    1. Hi Heidi – I’m sure they won’t! The fact that you even think it’s possible goes a long way toward prevention. Unfortunately, I was just proud enough to think they would do well only because of me!

  5. Thank you for writing “My Journey with a Prodigal,” Katherine. An author, myself, I felt as though you were writing my story. All the feelings, all the angst and agony. As you so beautifully stated: “You experience hate, anger, love, and compassion that are so intertwined it’s impossible to tell one from another. It’s a war only you understand.”

    God bless you for blessing so many people with validation and hope.

    Continued prayers for you and yours,

    Warm regards,

    Carol Castagna

  6. Hey Kate,

    I so wish we’d had time to swap stories of our dearly loved prodigals when we spent that little time together earlier this year. This is such moving article. Thanks so much for opening your story to us; tears in my eyes and in my heart too. Guilt is a default to mums everywhere, for some reason. I have no idea why but we carry all the debit and none of the credit for our childrens’ lives…

    Love to you and thanks for telling us this strong story.

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