Our Son Returned
October 1979

“Our Son Returned,” Ensign, Oct. 1979, 25

Our Son Returned

For ten years we prayed for the Lord to bless our straying son.

When the phone rang that Sunday evening I couldn’t know it would herald a miracle. Oh, yes, we had experienced the Lord’s hand in our lives before—healings, miraculous protection from sudden death on the highway, inspired guidance; but this miracle would bring us a joy we had not imagined possible. This phone call would answer ten years’ worth of fervent prayers.

“It’s Jim,” said my wife, as she held her hand over the mouthpiece. I was lying down, recuperating from a sickness.

“Oh! How is he?” Our son Jim had been living in another state for some years, and contact was infrequent.

“He sounds awful. He says he wants to come home—” she paused. “And he wants to put his life in order.”

Wants to come home! Those were the words we had longed to hear ever since he had left home about nine years before. “Tell him we’ll meet him at the airport,” I said.

We had three days to wait before he arrived, three days to remember the past ten years. Jim had been a child of promise, as his patriarchal blessing indicated. He had been raised in the same family environment as our four other children, where attending Church, serving, praying, living the Word of Wisdom, paying tithing, and other marks of the LDS life were the unquestioned way. Yet, unlike the other children, with Jim it didn’t seem to take. The first signs showed when he was only eleven.

I well recall the specific occasion. His mother had disciplined him for some infraction by sending him to his room. When I arrived home from work about an hour later she greeted me with, “Jim’s gone!”

“What do you mean, Ellen? Gone where?”

“He’s left. I sent him to his room, but I just found out he isn’t there. He must have climbed out of the window.”

Ellen and I will never forget that feeling, centered somewhere in the lower stomach, a combination sinking-churning sensation which would never be far away during the next several years. Our son running away! How could that be? And how should we deal with this act of rebellion? Should we scour the neighborhood, drag him back by the ears, discipline him severely? Perhaps we should try to laugh it off, regard it as a harmless prank. Just what would be for his best interest in the long run? (If only a parent always knew the answer to that one!)

Ellen came up with the answer—at least, with an answer—when we discovered that Jim was about a hundred yards up the street, hovering. “I’m sure he’s sorry by now. He’s not naturally rebellious. Perhaps if we just say nothing about it when he comes back, his own conscience will punish him enough; then maybe he won’t do it again.”

I hoped she was right, and anyway I didn’t have a better solution. About an hour later Jim came in. We said nothing about the incident, and he made no comment. Did he feel any remorse that first time? I don’t know. But six months later he did the same thing again. From about fourteen to seventeen he “ran away” every few months, for periods ranging from overnight to three or four days. On those occasions we always knew where he was—staying at a friend’s house on the next block. We had not approved these “visits,” but at least we knew the boy’s parents and could monitor the situation by phone. Talking to Jim did nothing to remedy the matter.

Fortunately, nature has a way of spreading a callus over certain emotional hurts. Hearing the words “Jim’s gone again”—perhaps over the office phone—was never painless, but the familiarity of repetition at least lessened the shock and the stomach turbulence. Not so with new developments, however. As the escapades increased in seriousness, each “first time” was more of a blow. For Ellen, with a more tender heart, it was especially rough. Jim’s unexplained absences from MIA when he had left home to go there; his unauthorized citywide wanderings, made more adventurous by illegal hitchhiking; his and our consequent summons to juvenile court; the discovery that he was experimenting with drugs; his sudden dangerous and forbidden visit, while she was alone babysitting, to a girl of suspected loose morals—a few short years before we would have thought such experiences impossible. (I have omitted the worst incidents as too painful for recollection, for both Jim and his family.) We were new at handling such situations. No doubt we were over-sensitive, too, for every fresh venture of Jim’s jabbed those raw nerve endings and deepened our worry and frustration.

How did we try to handle Jim in those days? Speaking for myself, firmly. Not always lovingly, perhaps, but firmly. I’m sure it’s a valid principle to hate the sin and love the sinner (for my own sake I have to believe that our Father can do this), but it can be supremely difficult to act in this enlightened Christian way. And it is especially so when one family member’s activities keep the parents constantly on edge, wondering where and when the next blow will fall. This doesn’t do much toward making a relaxed home life.

But when I say “firmly,” I don’t mean physically. My father didn’t use corporal punishment on me, and I had no disposition to use it on my children. But I knew I had a short fuse (Jim knew it too, and making me angry seemed to be his favorite indoor sport), and there were times in his early teens when I could have worked out my frustrations on Jim by physical chastisement. Once I nearly did. I had had enough, I told myself. I ought to have done it years ago, and this was it! I steeled myself for the encounter, but a chance circumstance intervened and I then talked myself out of the unwelcome task. I’m very glad now that I didn’t make that particular mistake.

By “firmly,” then, I mean by insisting on what I felt was right. We allowed Jim to cut out MIA attendance, since he said he wasn’t getting anything out of it. (This was true on the surface—inadequate ward youth leadership at that time, coupled with too few youth, resulted in totally activityless evenings.) I now see our acquiescence as probably unwise—he needed the association anyway. But when he wanted to stay away from Sunday meetings, that was a different matter. “Ours is an LDS family,” I told him. “We all go to church.” He attended with growing reluctance. I still think our decision on this was correct, though I have known some parents who have faced this situation differently. I like to believe that Jim’s longer acquaintance with Church doctrines and practices was an advantage to him when the stirrings within began to point to reactivation.

At seventeen Jim asked to go away for the summer and work. Here was a no-win decision—refusal would stoke the fires of rebellion and precipitate another breakout; acquiescence could provide an easy jumping-off point to “freedom.” Ellen and I decided we must acquiesce. After two months of work Jim disappeared, and it took two more months to find him and bring him back. I was not very happy then to hear a social worker carefully explain to him that the law required him to live with his parents now, but that at eighteen he could leave if he wished. He wished. He left a couple of days after his eighteenth birthday.

Looking back, I see that I was not very smart. As the difficulties multiplied, I ought to have sought another way. The wise thing would have been to arrange for him to live away, perhaps out of state, with some trusted LDS friend or relative, preferably in a family with other teenagers. Hindsight tells me that if I had to do it over, that’s how I would work it.

After Jim left home we saw little of him. School over, he wandered a lot—from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts. A good worker, he could always get a job and had no difficulty in keeping it until the gypsy urge again asserted itself. Occasionally we would see him—perhaps he would be living in our city for a few weeks and would come to dinner several times. He was welcome, long hair and beard and all, but I frequently was on edge as he recounted his travel experiences (or some of them), and I could sense the high interest and near-envy of his younger brother and sisters. To them it all sounded exciting. To Ellen and me, Jim’s life-style was a passport to sin and we knew he was finding his share of it.

Naturally, during those wayward years Jim did not want to hear about the gospel. An ordained priest, he did not attend church anywhere. A couple of times we phoned his local bishops to see if they could help. At least one good man did his best, but Jim would not respond. Once when he was with us on a rare visit, our own good bishopric, out visiting sick members on a summer evening, stopped by to visit with him on the front porch. He was guardedly courteous until the inevitable invitation to church was offered. His reply was a forthright request not to “bug” him about the church. Any approach on our part brought a similar response.

Over the years we continually prayed for Jim in both private and family prayers. Our youngest daughter, Jenny, sixteen years his junior, could not even remember Jim as a church attender; but as she grew to take her turn at offering the family prayer, she too asked each time that the Lord would somehow touch Jim’s heart and bring him back to the gospel. Notwithstanding all our prayers, that heart remained obdurate.

Ellen and I finally reasoned that Jim was too comfortable in his waywardness, that his income and his associations were providing a life-style that satisfied him all the time he lacked understanding of the higher way. We therefore began praying that, if it were necessary to make his true needs apparent, the Lord would send some crisis into his life. We just had to take the risk as to what this might be. Over the course of the next six months or so, developments in Jim’s personal life left him penniless, in debt, and betrayed by one he had trusted. Overcome with despair, as he told us later, he several times contemplated suicide. Fortunately, he instead finally decided to telephone home.

Jim did not quite know what to expect from home, however. From his viewpoint, he had done nothing to deserve a hero’s welcome. How would the family receive him? For our part, overjoyed as we were at the developments, Ellen and I were similarly uncertain as to his long-term intentions.

As arranged, we met him at the airport. Rick, then fourteen, and Jenny, eleven, were elated as we drove there to pick up their big brother. Ellen and I were quietly happy, yet reserved in our expression of hope. Clearly we had had a striking answer to prayer, but Jim was, after all, still a free agent. Would he come to see the gospel as the only way to set his life straight, or would his return prove to be just a respite for him, an “R and R” before he set off for the world again?

Jim’s plane was early, and he was waiting near the entrance when we arrived. Ellen recalls her impression: “I shall never forget what I saw as I entered the airport. He sat there on his luggage, thin and haggard, his shoulders drooped, his bearded face sad and woebegone, his whole being a picture of total dejection.” We quickly got him and his scanty possessions into the car and whisked him away from his lonely contemplations. With Jenny chattering out her joy at his return, who could even contemplate contemplating?

Employment was an immediate and high priority, especially for a man who had brought home an empty wallet and a several-thousand-dollar debt. Our good bishop (the same one Jim had rebuffed on the porch) was knowledgeable and alert and might have some leads, but would Jim go this “church-type” route? Jim’s decision to go and see him, at our suggestion, seemed to us second in importance only to his decision to come home, for it put him into the Church network, whereas we had feared he might first seek out former non-LDS or inactive friends. Within twenty-four hours he was in the office of the stake president, who found him a job he started at two days later. To say Jim was impressed would be understating the fact. These two men were not the hypocrites he had classified Mormons as being. They were concerned; they had exerted themselves to help; they really cared.

That first Sunday home was Mother’s Day, when Ellen sat in Sunday School between Jim and me and tearfully savored his presence. “Remember,” I warned her that morning, “this is a special day, and he wants to do something to please you. He won’t necessarily go to church every Sunday—not yet, anyway. Don’t expect too much too soon. Let’s just keep praying.”

We did just that, and each day or two produced its miracle which was passed breathlessly around the family when Jim was out of earshot. Now Jim had started praying in his room. Now he had joined the family prayer circle. Now he was taking his turn as mouth—and, oh, how good it was to hear him use those peculiarly LDS expressions the subconscious had not forgotten! By this time he had quit drinking coffee and stronger beverages, and now he was face to face with the demon nicotine. What a struggle that was! He was beaten back twice; then, with a special blessing from the bishop, and the Lord’s help, he made it on the third try. How we empathized with him and implored the Lord to help him!

With things working out so well for him, Jim decided he must look closely into the philosophy that shaped the lives of our family and of other Mormons he was coming to respect and appreciate. He started reading A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Despite my cautions to Ellen, within three or four weeks after his homecoming he was attending church regularly. He joined in family home evenings virtually from the start, and quickly became the self-appointed roundup man on Monday evenings and at family prayer time. Soon he was into Jesus the Christ. And, blessed day, he started on the Book of Mormon!

All this time the quality of his prayers and of his life was improving, and as a consequence the Spirit was beginning to work on him. Never will I forget the sheer delight and wonder he expressed to me many times as one by one the precious truths of the gospel were opened up to his mind and heart, nor the exciting gospel talks he and I had alone night after night long after more sensible people were in bed. By this time the dejection (and the beard) had given way to a radiance of countenance and a firmly positive attitude about life and himself. Clearly, Jim was becoming converted.

Jim’s increasing cheerfulness and vibrancy sprang from a new and exciting realization—his Father in Heaven loved him! Ah, yes, but would he forgive him? That question took longer for Jim to satisfy himself on, and it required the bishop’s help. But the answer came; forgiveness was granted; and his prayers began to be filled with a joy and peace and humility such as Jim had not known existed.

Forgiveness at home was easier, instant, eagerly given—his new attitude made it simple. “I did so many things wrong, and I did them just to hurt you,” he said. “I don’t know how you can forgive me.”

“Very easily,” I told him. “I made a lot of mistakes in those days too, and I certainly need you to forgive me.” He did. (Oh, Jim, if you only knew how grateful I am that I won’t have to answer for helping to push you irrevocably away from the Church by not being as loving as I might have been. Forgiving you is no price at all to pay for my peace of mind on this issue. You’re not the only one who has learned a few things by sad experience.)

The siblings were a great help. Rick and Jenny loved having Jim home and showed it. We are a kissing and embracing family, and now the circle was complete. It was a joy for me to exchange embraces daily with Jim, and to observe similar expressions between him and the other family members, including Rick and his married sister. The third sister was then still away on her mission. It was probably that mission as much as anything—his “little sister” out there preaching the gospel and writing to him about it weekly—that first turned his mind toward the possibility of coming back. I’m convinced anyway that wayward youth may be as likely to be influenced for righteousness by their brothers and sisters as by their parents.

It was now easy for Jim and me to talk, to communicate, and in retrospect we both recognized our weaknesses that had contributed to—his earlier problems. He had resented what he had thought were unreasonable restrictions. I had developed my own resentments at his bucking what seemed to me reasonable guidelines for growing youth. We had even come to resent each other’s resentments. Ellen and I ought somehow to have been able to straighten this all out, but parents too are people and are not always bursting with wisdom and patience. Children’s teenage years notoriously tax both these qualities in parents. I hope we are doing better with our current teenagers.

But that’s all in the past, and the past is gone forever. The reconciliation was complete within a month or two of Jim’s return, and he and I both felt and now feel a total love for each other, a feeling that also exists between Jim and the other family members. With his return in spirit as well as in body, our home truly seemed like a heaven. Now our five children all had their feet on the right path.

As faith grew and prayer prevailed, the miracles multiplied. Jim changed jobs and improved his situation somewhat, but his income was still hopelessly inadequate to reduce his substantial debt. By now he was a home teacher, however, and in that capacity he met someone who put him in the way of a position which was entirely new to him, but in which, if things went well, he could earn substantially more than he was now getting. He prayed about the matter and, full of faith, took the job. By this time his recent experiences had taught him conclusively that God would help him to do anything he wanted to that was right—and getting out of debt was right! (Incidentally, his faith pulled him through that one too.)

By this time too he was becoming conscious of an infinitely greater debt, of how much he owed the Lord. Two years of his life full time to the Lord’s cause, which he ought to have given years before, was but a small part of that debt. He nurtured that seed, and it grew and matured into a solid conviction: If the Church would only accept him he would join the Lord’s missionary army.

Less than eighteen months after the most memorable phone call of our lives, Ellen and I sat on the stand as Jim gave his farewell talk. The transformation was complete. The Lord had heard our prayers and had used many people and circumstances as instruments to effect his greatest of miracles—the “mighty change” in the human heart. And as I sat there on the stand reflecting gratefully on many things, my mind framed the not very original thought that Jim would never look back, would, as we say, never be the same again. But then, neither would I ever look back or be the same again. And though this might seem like a very little subsidiary miracle, it is by no means insignificant to me.

Illustrated by Ted Henninger