What will I do when my children sin? I’ve asked myself this since my first moments of mothering, holding delicate pink baby fingers in the palm of my hand, wondering how my own sins would carve out the pathways down which their baby feet would totter. I ask myself this even now when they do sin, for they are all old enough to contrive their own vices and plot their own deceits. To be human is to fall away from God’s perfection, to perish in the pits we dig for ourselves, individually and collectively—except that God himself comes down into the pit, pulls us out one by one, and makes us whole.
In A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love, Katherine James traces out the origins and meanings of her son’s heroin addiction and his two, mercifully, nonfatal overdoses. In painful, haunting vignettes, James interweaves her life with his, telling their story from the anguished, solitary helplessness of self-doubt—and then, ultimately, the resplendent relief of joy.
Working backwards from the devastating hour of discovering her son dying, blue and unresponsive, in a stranger’s pool house, James recalls his childhood and adolescence, wrestling with essential questions of motherhood along the way. “Of course it’s not your fault, someone says even though you suspect they think otherwise,” she writes. “Who would say it’s your fault to your face? But then you get hints. You hang back as people talk about how they would never let their kid hang out with So and So.” And yet that is her own journey, to wonder aloud where he went wrong, where she went wrong, to question whether God’s providence will pull them back into the land of the living.
Drawing on her harrowing experience, James illumines the pathology of addiction. She enfleshes the whole person who finds himself with a needle in hand, facing the reality that the drug is no longer a choice. It rules him; he cannot live without it. The numbers regarding heroin abuse are staggering. They transcend all demographics—race, gender, economic status. James transforms the senseless horror of the statistic into a single soul, the son she calls “Sweetboy.”
As the story takes shape, James includes the companions of her suffering, the friends and acquaintances of her son, to whom she and her husband opened their home. James calls them The Lost Boys, a kaleidoscope of teenagers drifting along through their lives, searching for God and for help, each caught in some form of addiction, loneliness, or confusion. “They flattened themselves in the shadows of the world,” she writes, “and yet they wanted to be noticed. . . . The Lost Boys blended with each other in one long percussion of sound that, over and over, beat out a rhythm: we are.”
And yet—and this is James’s genius as a writer—the pages turn, and she reveals that she is the lost one, the one whose whole world unravels. From the anxious wonder over the statistics correlating birthweight with certain kinds of addiction, to her mental illness, to every parenting misstep, to her enabling choice of buying Sweetboy cigarettes, hoping they would keep him from running away from her, to her naive ignorance about the world her son had entered, she articulates her own defeat, her own pit of destruction. “The humbling that parents experience when a child is lost in drugs is a precious thing,” she writes. “The humility of everything falling apart, of every loved thing you have veering away like a meteor slipping from orbit, reveals your true state of affairs.”
Ultimately, James’s story has a happy ending. Her son, after the second overdose, is scared enough to walk away from heroin. In the final scene, the warmth of a Christmas fire glows on the page—she is surrounded by her restored, healthy, whole children. She herself is reconciled to life. And yet, what could be the use of so much suffering? “Near the end of the Gospel of Luke,” she writes, “Jesus tells Peter he will deny him. Jesus knows this will happen, and could have ‘fixed’ Peter, but chooses not to because fixing him would not have allowed for the difficult circumstances that ultimately shaped Peter’s faith.” In the final hour, the sovereign providence of God is stronger than the deepest pit, the most profound loss. For the parent, and child, who encounters such a truth firsthand, there is almost no greater gift.
Anne Kennedy is the author of Nailed It: 365 Sarcastic Devotions for Angry or Worn-Out People (Kalos Press). She blogs at Preventing Grace on patheos.com.
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