I Made a Change—And It Brought My Prodigal Home
This is a story about me and my baby, who’s now 22, and the misery we walked through together to find a love connection. It’s a story of our mutual failure, but it’s a story with a happy ending. I lived the miracle. I watched it change me. And then I watched it change my prodigal son.
Stone’s given me permission to tell it with all the sordid details—I love a blank check—but I’ll just hit the lowlights.
How the Separation Started
In the summers before his junior and senior years of high school, Stone got drunk on our family’s lake vacations. Both years, he also drank at his proms, letting us know his plans beforehand. He was proud he hadn’t drunk anything while driving. I have to hand him that.
There were consequences that involved his meeting with recovering alcoholics, losing the use of our truck and gas card, losing his Xbox, and peeing in countless cups, but none of it did diddly squat.
On the day before his senior year started, we drew up a contract that said he agreed to abstain from alcohol and drugs, or he’d find somewhere else to live. But it was too little, too late. He was angry discussing it and angry signing. His mouth was ugly and loud about it.
First Questions, Then Destruction and Danger
My conversations with him that year became interrogations: Where was he going? When would he be home? What about homework? There wasn’t much of anything said between us that wasn’t hostile.
But his pee was clean with a couple of oops that were forgiven. Good enough, I thought. Never mind the relationship; he was finally toeing the line, and that’s what mattered.
Sometime that spring, I caught him substituting someone else’s pee for his. How long he’d been doing it, I had no idea—likely most of the year.
By now, I was out of ideas. The obvious consequence, the one we’d all agreed on in the signed contract, we didn’t have the heart to enforce. I kept hoping he’d get onboard and respect us.
But things became even more ridiculous.
For spring break, his friends cooked up a senior trip that included inviting all the moms to go with them to the Hard Rock Cafe in the Dominican Republic. It was the insane idea of brilliant young minds, who knew how to pluck their mothers’ throbbing heartstrings. “It’ll be a chance for a mother-son adventure before you lose us to college,” they said with straight faces.
But my worst fears were realized: Stone was drunk all day, everyday, beginning the first day before breakfast. He was so sick-drunk by the end of the trip, we saw a doctor who recommended the ER. I was broken hearted. I had such high hopes and had spent so much money, only to have my son nearly dying from alcohol poisoning while I stood by and watched.
A few weeks after we got back, he totaled our truck, and some months later, our beloved old Jeep. We had no more cars to give him, and we weren’t looking to find any. The next car he drove, he’d have to buy.
He was playing football in college after that and had games every weekend, and since he was without a car, he was never home that fall except for Thanksgiving. And then it was Christmas, and I was so glad to see him–until he got drunk three times at home that week.
With another week of Christmas break to go, we’d finally had enough. We said he couldn’t live with us and continue to be defiant: getting drunk at home felt like an enormous middle finger.
So on January 4, we asked him to leave. I remember the date because I wrote a poem about it. It was a difficult thing, kicking our adopted son out of the house.
So, We Kicked Him Out of the House
Kicking out any child is hard enough, but kicking out an adopted child has got to be worse. I had fears about how it might impact him, this son who’d felt displaced since birth. I don’t know where he went or how he got back to college, but I had a fleeting moment of sanity and realized it wasn’t my problem.
In March, a different insanity began. COVID hit and colleges closed down. Being kicked out was awkward and inconvenient now that life as we knew it was coming apart, so Stone came home to Zoom the rest of his freshman year. Who would take him if not us?
Quarantining with a 20-year-old son, fresh out of college with unresolved issues between us was complicated, exacerbated by a husband who didn’t believe in quarantining and two daughters-in-law who did, who were the gatekeepers for our grandkids.
By May, something was obvious: Stone had to go. He was like a tiger in a cage, restless and growly. He wouldn’t quarantine any more, and I was aching to see my grand boys. But he was already way ahead of us. He announced he was dropping out of college and getting a job. Football wasn’t enough of a reason to stay at a college he didn’t like. Even if he did go back, classes were going to be online, which this rambling man could’t handle. “Mom, everybody I know will be sitting around their dorm rooms, drinking and playing video games all day when they aren’t zooming. I want to work; I want to do something.”
This was certainly different. Sitting around with friends in college, drinking and playing video games didn’t sound like fun? Since when?
The Story of the Prodigal Son (and His Father)
When Stone was gone for the summer, I was asked to write an article about how to come back to God after falling flat for Grit and Grace Life. I spent a lot of time with the prodigal son story in Luke 15. I couldn’t help but notice that when the prodigal headed home, the father ran to meet him before the son said any words about being sorry.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him,” (Luke 15:20).
It wasn’t the son’s repentance that connected them. It was the father’s love and forgiveness. The father had been watching for his son and saw him when he was “a long way off.” The father had already forgiven him before he even showed up.
What’s more, he was eager to have his son back, even after all he’d done, which the Bible says was way worse than underage drinking. When the son finally gets close enough to say something about how unworthy he is, the father is already putting a robe on him and giving him his ring—cultural cues that say “this is my son, who I’m so proud of”—and he’s calling for the servants to get a party started to celebrate.
What I learned from Luke 15 was to be glad, even giddy, every time my boy came through our door breathing. I decided that if it was good enough for God, it was good enough for me: breathing was the only prerequisite I needed to be absolutely thrilled with him. Period.
I Realized I Needed to Change, Too
So I gave up trying to control him. And I got a new goal: to be connected with him. I stopped fussing and asking questions every time I saw him. I stopped telling him what to do and how to live and about all the things he’d done that I wasn’t proud of. I stopped commenting on his lifestyle choices. I stopped making an issue of alcohol.
I started letting him see how overjoyed I felt whenever I saw him. I started hugging him a lot for no reason. I started telling him all the things I loved about him. I asked him to forgive me for trying to control him. I said I’d been afraid of him messing up his life and breaking my heart, and that I let that distract me from what was most important, which was loving him.
With my eyes on his sin, I couldn’t see anything else about him. If you’ll notice, all I’ve written here so far are all the ways he’s messed up. That’s what his life had boiled down to for me—what he did wrong. I wasted a lot of years trying to police him rather than simply enjoying him, years I can’t get back.
And then it happened: he began responding.
He started sending silly videos on Instagram. I sent him videos of his dog wrestling our cat. He’d send wake-boarding videos. I sent back Jim Gaffigan links so we could laugh.
Stone turned 21 in the spring of that gap year, 2021, and he didn’t get drunk to celebrate it. I know because he called me that night to say hi and see what I was doing. Something was changing.
By August, he’d saved up enough money to buy his own car. He said he wanted to finish college. He enrolled at a local university, found roommates, and moved into a bonafide house. He was no longer living on anybody’s couch.
The good news is that even if you’ve messed up badly, like I have, and you’re on your very last, even your most precious, adopted son, it’s never too late to have a heart-to-heart connection. It’s never too late to start over and really love.
And the more good news is that you don’t need anyone else’s permission. You can do it without anybody’s help or cooperation. It’s a powerful and contagious thing to be a truly loving human being. When I changed, Stone changed. Is there any other power you know of that can enable a silver-haired mother to lead her grown son?
I don’t know of one.
Love Brings Us Back Home
God reached down through his word and showed me who he is— the Father who longs for a love connection with his children. He showed me what that longing looks like—a father watching and waiting and running to greet his wayward son, overjoyed to hold him and welcome him home without one negative word and before that son has answered any questions or said anything about repentance, much less changed one little bit. What the son has done is come home. He turned to his father.
Turns out, that’s what repentance means—to turn. It doesn’t mean to have it all figured out when you get there. It doesn’t necessarily even mean to do it all right from now on. It’s looking to the Father for what you need and can’t do for yourself. It’s depending on him, who’s always running to us in love.
When the prodigal said he wanted his half of the cash and took off to take a walk on the wild side, the father let him go. He didn’t say a word of reproof or try to lay out the issues and help his son see what was at stake. He let him go and waste every bit of his hard-earned money.
He said something like, ”Here’s your half of all I have. Take it and go. Remember that I always love you, no matter what.”
Sometimes I just don’t approve of the way God parents. Doesn’t he know people will take advantage of this kind of freedom and grace? Doesn’t he know that if you give a kid an inch, he’ll take a mile?
I’m sure he does. But God says it’s his kindness that leads us to repentance, not bootstraps and ought-tos. He’s not looking for obedient robots: he’s looking for sons and daughters who love. I know which I’d rather have. And I know which I’d rather be. We’re all prodigals who need the Father’s love.
“…God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance,” (Romans 2:4).
In motherhood, it’s easy to slip into a cycle of anger or a need to control. This podcast episode has some tips to help: How Do I Overcome Destructive Anger and Burnout in Motherhood? with Natalie Hixson – 201