After a long day in the office getting ready for the barrage of activity heading our way in the next couple of weeks, I arrived home to pack an overnight bag, collected three of my children and set off to the west. It is a lovely late summer evening, and as we drove from our hilly hometown toward the plains of western Minnesota and South Dakota I was reminded of the beauty of the prairie. It has now been fifteen months since we last lived in prairie abode, and having lived for seven years surrounded by such serene geography, I find myself reminiscent of days gone by.
When we arrived in Luverne in 1999 our family was intact. Our oldest son was headed to eighth grade, and our youngest child was just four years of age. In the ensuing seven years we witnessed our intact family begin to disintegrate as first Mike and then John began to run away for days on end, become involved in antisocial behaviors and push us to the point of having them live outside of our home. Those early, nascent days, however, linger in my memory as times of relative calm and the ability to go to sleep every night knowing where our children were. We had probably two or three good years as a family before the really challenging behaviors began.
Driving through the late afternoon, sun-drenched fields on the way to our destination I am reminded of how calming are the open spaces of both physical and emotional geography. It feels less encumbered here in the plains. The lack of traffic on the highway, the quiet small towns and field after field of soybeans and corn, punctuated by an occasional farm home, give me cause to remember the point in our travels this night.
Tomorrow we will see John, our seventeen-year-old son who has now been living out of our home for a continuous twelve months. I have seen John very infrequently since last summer's assault which resulted in his departure from our home. As I think about John and the reality that he is growing up without his family to live with (although his family has frequent contact with him in other ways), I recognize that the prairiescape I have witnessed is not the only open space in my life.
From the time he came into our home at the age of nine John has been a special person in our family's life. The day he met us he jumped into my arms as he exclaimed with joy, "Dad." At the time he was a short, skinny little Hispanic boy with a Texas accent, "fixin' to live in Minnesota" with his forever family. We had been told by his foster parents and social worker that John had issues with anger control, but we hoped in the face of the reports that we might "love" that out of him. There is no question that John loves us, that he is attached to us, that we are his mom, dad and family. But we have never been able to "love" away his low impulse control, nor his angry outbursts. When he was younger we could deal with his explosivity because I could take him into my arms and control his actions, but by the time he was twelve that was no longer a possibility.
The open space I feel in my heart for John is something I sought to avoid for years. Counseling sessions, treatment center stays, police reports filed, medications adjusted, let's-try-it-again-at-home-once-again attempts ... we did everything we (and the professionals) knew to do for John in an effort to avoid his permanent departure from our home. It continues to sadden me, although I am relieved to know he lives in a place where his medications are consistently administered and where he is able to be academically and socially successful, that one of most loving and attached kids cannot live in our home, and that he is now 150 miles distant.
Tomorrow three of his siblings and I will meet him at the South Dakota State Fair to watch as he exhibits a champion horse that he has been working with for the past year at the Boy's Ranch he now calls home. It will be a bittersweet moment for me. I will soak into my soul the beauty and the capacious healing of the geography I so miss, but I will leave having recognized once again the open space in my heart that was formerly occupied by our son John.
I love John. I miss John. I do not miss his behavior. I do not miss the anxiety his presence caused our family. I do not miss the veiled and intentional threats to my safety and wellbeing. It is an open space filled with ambiguity and a wistful thought of what might have been.