The Prodigal's Mother

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I’ve often wondered what the prodigal son’s mother was doing all that time her boy was away. The biblical account says the father had been the one who had the confrontation with their son. The young man wanted his inheritance now. He wanted to take charge of his own life. He ­didn’t buy the old promise of deferred gratification.

The father must have come back to the bedroom and collapsed on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, and sobbed as he told the boy’s mother that he had given their son his share prematurely and that he was, even as they spoke, packing to leave the house and set out on his own.

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He ­hadn’t listened to reason; he ­hadn’t wanted to hear about how much richer he would one day be if he would trust his father to make wise investments for him and, as the inheritance grew, allow his father to teach him everything he would now learn the hard way. No, he ­wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted his share now, not when he was too old to enjoy it, like his father.

How torn that mother must have felt between the practical wisdom of her husband and a mother’s need to try to understand, too, where the boy was coming from. He ­wasn’t a bad boy. He was just immature, and she well remembered the passions that once drove this man whom she loved to take risks, strike out on faith. ­Hadn’t he loved her when she was a naïve and inexperienced girl? What had they known then of what the future would hold?

She could feel her heart splitting down the middle. She was helpless to stop what was happening to her family.

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She stood silently with her hand on her husband’s heaving shoulder. What could she say? It was done now. The boy was an adult for all intents and purposes, yet in her heart she knew that, protected and provided for as he’d been, he’d be a sheep among wolves once he got wherever he was determined to go. He ­didn’t have a clue!

It was as if that whole evening were moving in slow motion, like the recurring dream she’d had since she was a girl, the dream in which she was trying to run down the lane to her old childhood farmhouse. Something she ­couldn’t see was chasing her and she could feel it gaining on her, but her legs ­wouldn’t work right, and she ­couldn’t seem to scream for help. She just kept trying to run or call but ­couldn’t do either. She would wake up in a sweat, unable to identify her fear.

She felt the same panic rise now. It had no face, yet she could almost feel it breathing on the back of her neck. She could only pray that her son would come to his senses before something tragic happened.

The boy left. His parents stood and watched as he slowly turned into a speck on the horizon, then disappeared. They both went back to their routine after that. Thank God for work! But they kept feeling as if there was something pending, that all their sentences ended with question marks.

Their other son kept things going. They could always depend on him, and they were grateful. The farm prices stayed steady. The crops flourished, yet somehow their prosperity and good fortune seemed pointless. The color in their lives was gone, and they moved about through sepia-toned days.

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The mother would often catch her husband standing on the porch around sundown, looking at the place on the horizon where their son had disappeared, but he never mentioned how much he missed his son. She longed to talk about the things that gnawed at her heart and churned in her stomach, but her husband was a man of few words and she knew he would respect his son’s decision to walk away.

Often at night when the house was still and she could hear everyone’s measured breathing, she would slip down the stairs to the bench and table by the window. She would pick up the quill and write letters she knew could never be sent. There was no address for “a far country.” Or sometimes she would climb to the roof, where she could see the stars and feel the breeze stirring the night. Here where there was no risk of being heard by the household servants, she would send her son messages on the wind, for it must blow, too, where her son had gone. And she would pray.

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Her husband saw him first. He was standing on the porch like he often did at the end of the day, straining toward the horizon. He called to her. Did she see it? That speck where the road met the waning sunset?

At first she saw only the heat waves rising from the freshly plowed field. No, to the right of the clearing—did she see it?

She ­couldn’t dare to hope, yet the figure now materializing was unmistakably a man ... but her husband was already running down the lane toward the road.

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