November 5th is a date that always gives me pause and forces me to reflect on the “what ifs” of life; this year the day will be more significant than usual. Our first son, Don Isaac, lost too soon on November 5, 1990, would have celebrated his 25th birthday today. Our youngest son, Jack, will make a different journey on the same date, arriving in Palm Beach Gardens from Montana today, the first day of the next step in his own journey. A coincidence? I think not. When Jack’s counselor called to inform us that he would be transitioning on this specific date it made me stop. Life is filled with twists and turns that leave us wondering and growing and learning, and the timing of this lesson is no different. On this November 5th, as I contemplate my son that was and my son that is, I am more aware than ever of the plans we make and the plans that come to be.
What to share concerning Jack’s journey? I wrestle with that question. Friends and family members who know me best know that I am transparent to a fault; I bare my soul easily, at times more than I should. Yet if stories are to make a difference – if it is true that God comforts us in all of our troubles so that we can comfort others (II Corinthians 1:4) – then stories need to be told. This is a chapter in mine.
My 15-year-old son is an addict. The details of his addiction are his to tell as he chooses but the aftermath of his choices and the effect those choices had, and are having, on our family is a story for now. This chapter has been building for some time. For the past several years Jack has slowly retreated; we noticed in little ways. A bad attitude, a lost interest, or a silent response; all were often dismissed as adolescence or growing pains. As the behaviors became more marked we sought the help of clergy, counselors, and coaches. We turned to law enforcement and loved ones. Encouraged (too much so?) by small glimpses of hope we would move forward only to be disappointed when Jack’s choices were inconsistent and defiant. As parents we fluctuated between loving our son with kindness and loving him with toughness. I personally struggled with guilt over the times I failed as a mom. At other times I boiled with resentment when I allowed Jack to drive me to anger and harsh words.
We punished. We rewarded. We wept. We prayed.
One day we finally admitted that Jack’s desire to use was stronger than any gift we could give or any punishment we could withhold. Our family, including Jack, was slowly being strangled by the horror of his addiction. On that day, and on every day since, we acknowledged that our son needed help beyond our home. Deciding to intervene in the way we did was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made but choosing to look the other way would have been so much harder. On the day of intervention, the healing began.
The journey has been anything but easy. The healing has come at a cost, emotionally and financially. Sending Jack away was a bit like ripping off flesh – it wasn’t the way life was supposed to happen and his absence created a void. Our family has had to work towards reconciliation. We’ve learned first hand that quality intervention is costly; the need for affordable mental health and addiction care in this country is a crisis that must be addressed. We stand in amazed gratefulness for the privilege of adequate health insurance as well as the generosity of others. We’ve also had to reevaluate priorities, giving up things we thought we could never live without. Turns out, we can.
Jack’s time in primary care has resulted in a young man who admits he has an addiction that he cannot handle on his own. The time has forced him to face his fears and his demons, coming to realize that it is okay to ask for help. He has grown and matured and learned to laugh again. Sharing this as a family has allowed opportunity for growth as we admit to the world that life is rarely as perfect as Facebook makes it seem. And most importantly, this time has given us reason to hope.
So now the journey continues. November 5th and Jack is beginning the next phase at a transitional home in south Florida. There, with five other young men aged 15-18, he will continue to learn how to live day-by-day without drugs. He will restart 10th grade with a handful of exceptional teachers, educators trained in helping young lives rebuild; teachers who will remind him that he is smart and capable and of worth. He will work towards coming home, and we count the days until that homecoming is a reality.
And me? I reflect on what was and what is. What if our son Don Isaac had not died on this day 25 years ago? What if our daughters Maggie and Jennie had not died in 1997? How would our family be different? Would different be better? If we knew then what we know now would we have altered our decisions? Grace guards us from knowing the answers to so many of the unknowns. But there is one question we can answer with confidence. Did God design that we be the parents to accompany Jack through this time? A thousand times yes. He is our son.
Soon after adopting Nathan in 1998 (Jack would follow in 2000) Sam, an inquisitive 7-year-old at the time, asked:
“Mom, if my brother and sisters hadn’t died would we have adopted Nathan?”
As I stumbled over trying to explain to him the mystery of the unknown he interjected:
“Well, I do sometimes wonder about my other brother and sisters, but I’d never ever give up Nathan.”
In all of his young wisdom Sam was able to make sense of the mystery. We may not know what would have been but we do know what is. Jack is our son, today, tomorrow and beyond. And today, November 5th , I embrace it all.