The Prodigal Father

“Mommy, Where’s Daddy?”

Theresa looked down at her innocent little girl, just barely out of diapers.  She swallowed hard, smiled, and then told the same lie she always told her children.

“Daddy’s still at work, honey.  Now let’s get you ready for bed so there’s time to read a book.”

As Theresa called her other four children to start the bedtime routine, she wondered where her husband Paul really was.  Of course she knew it was a bar.  “But which one and where?  And when would he come home…or rather would he come home this time?” Then, a scary thought pushed its way into her thoughts.  “Maybe it would be easier if he never made it home…” But Theresa immediately stopped herself.  “No,” she determined, “I won’t think like that.” And then Theresa did what she did every night.  She prayed.  “Please God, bring Paul home safe and please help him to get better.”

Theresa had been praying such a prayer almost since the day they were married in 1976.  Besides praying and taking one day at a time, it seemed there was nothing more she could do.   She was determined that her children would not come from a broken home. Theresa felt that she had made her choice to marry Paul, and now she had to live with the consequences.   All the warning signs had been there from the beginning, but like most young people, Theresa was too naive to recognize them.

By anyone’s estimation, Paul and Theresa were the classic odd couple.  Quiet, kind and serious natured, Theresa was the typical “good girl.”   She was from a large family, her grades were excellent, she loved school, and she was one of the few kids from a small western town who did not drink alcohol.  Paul was an only child who hated school, demanded to be the center of attention, had a mean streak a mile long, hated authority, and loved to party.

Theresa’s first memory of Paul is crystal clear.  She was in third grade and it was her first day at a new school.  Paul had bullied her to the point of humiliation.  “I hated him,” Theresa admits.  Ironically, Paul was not a typical bully.  Most of the frequent fights he engaged in were to protect the underdog against bigger, more powerful kids.  He’s not sure why he had picked on Theresa in grade school, but one thing was for sure, as he got older, he definitely wanted her attention.

“She was so pretty,” recalls Paul.  “By the time I was in junior high, I had a crush on her.”  Although Paul’s eye regularly roved to other girls, he always drifted back to Theresa.  He wooed her with gifts; many of them he made himself like religious carvings and boxes.  They both came from strong Catholic homes.

Theresa could not help but be flattered by Paul’s love notes and gifts.  The frequent religious theme of his gifts only endeared him more to her.  By sophomore year, they had begun dating each other exclusively.   At times they broke up and dated others, but were eventually drawn back together.

Theresa was active in sports so she often left town for games and tournaments.  Those were the nights Paul indulged in his love of drinking.  Theresa strongly disapproved so he stayed away from it until she was away.   When she often heard of his partying later, she would stew for a day or two.  Her disappointment always lifted after Paul’s apologies.  In reality, Theresa thought she was the odd one since most everyone she knew drank.  She just did not like the taste or to see people get drunk.

After high school graduation, Paul stayed home to work on his parents’ farm while Theresa went away to college.  Absence made their hearts grow fonder.  Without Theresa, Paul felt empty and feared some other guy would win her affection.  For Theresa, being away from home and her boyfriend left her feeling lost.  They decided to get married.

Theresa’s parents expressed concern that she would not be happy in the country feeding chickens. Living in a trailer on Paul’s parent’s farm was actually fine with Theresa.  What bothered her was that once she married her true love, the romance ended.

“When I had that piece of paper that said she was mine, I did whatever I wanted,” says Paul.  “I knew she was naive and figured I could get away with a lot.”

Many nights, Theresa sat outside their trailer and listened to the sounds from town drifting in on the night air.  Hidden in the tall grass lest someone stop by,  tears poured from her eyes and released the pain.   Never had she felt so alone.  “I wanted to be with Paul, but not in that environment,” Theresa explained.  In the beginning she went with him to the bars but it was always the same humiliation.  Sitting alone at a table, she’d watch Paul circulate through the bar and get drunker.  He’d occasionally stop by the table or send someone over to baby-sit her or perhaps ask her to dance.  Meanwhile, the liquor would sharpen Paul’s mean streak, making him unpleasant to be around.

Without an element of religion, Paul had little conscience and saw no reason not to satisfy his own desires.  “I just figured we were two different people,” says Paul. “ She was a good wife but I saw her refusal to party as a big flaw.”

Theresa clung to the faith of her youth and never missed Mass or stopped praying–especially for Paul.  When he was not drinking, Paul was a loving husband.  His promises to stop would fill Theresa with hope, but  it was always just a matter of time before Paul slipped back into drinking.  Still, Theresa kept praying and hoping.

Shortly after their third wedding anniversary, their first child, a son,  was born.  Theresa was thrilled:  “Becoming a mother meant everything to me.”  Unfortunately, Paul’s alcoholism marred this happy occasion.  He had quit farming and got a job working on oil rigs across the prairies.  Theresa had called Paul at work to let him know she was in labor.

Paul was already dark when he got the phone call.  He had worked midnight to  8 a.m., then went out drinking whiskey in a local bar with friends.  By noon, he was drunk.  A friend found him in the bar and brought him to the hospital where he promptly passed out. “

Theresa’s sister was at the hospital.  Since Theresa had never said a word to anyone about Paul’s drinking, her sister just thought it was “one of those things” and filled him with coffee. Paul’s own parents understood their son had a serious problem but they felt helpless to do anything about it.  They just kept praying for him. Theresa was too excited about becoming a mom to dwell on another of Paul’s drunken bouts.

Fatherhood added a dimension of love which softened Paul.  “I wanted my son to have a mom and a dad,” he says.  “I knew that being a better husband to Theresa would also make me a better father. I knew a person could only take so much, so I checked myself into a treatment program.  I did it for Theresa, not for myself.”

A year of sobriety brought Theresa great peace.  She and Paul discovered how much they both loved parenthood and enjoyed one another’s company.  It warmed her heart to watch Paul laugh and cuddle with their baby. But one day, while on vacation, Paul had a drink.  From that point on, he returned to the vicious cycle of getting drunk, sobering up, apologizing, and then eventually getting drunk again.   At least he vowed to keep alcohol out of the house so he would not ever drink in front of his family — a vow he would always keep.

Four more children followed in quick succession. Paul delighted in his family when he was with them.  “Daddy’s home!” the kids often announced  with glee when Paul walked through the door.  He played with his children and taught them many things.  But Theresa could never count on the good times.  She protected her young ones from the truth by telling them Daddy was still at work whenever he failed to come home.  There were never any fights or emotional scenes when Paul returned either.  Theresa would take Paul aside, away from the children, and quietly plead for him to stop. The tears began to make Paul feel guilty, because he knew he was letting his family down.  But rather than stop, Paul drowned his guilt with booze.

While at work, Paul had progressed to almost every kind of drug short of heroine.  During that time drugs flowed freely among guys working on oil rigs.  Yes, there was a high rate of accidents and even deaths, but Paul could not keep from indulging.  Drugs were actually only an aid to his drinking.  Uppers, like  cocaine and speed, enabled him to go out drinking after work.  Then, when he had to turn around and work another shift, the drugs kept him going again.

While Paul continued his dark descent, Theresa began to find self respect.  “As my children grew and I got involved in their lives like coaching and teaching CCD, I  realized that Paul was the one with the problem, not me.   Theresa derived great pleasure from motherhood.  “I felt so alive with my kids.  Since my husband preferred drinking to me, I did not feel like a good wife, but I knew I was a good mom.”  Through teaching and coaching, Theresa discovered she worked well with children in general.  Her teams often won tournaments and titles.  Once her youngest was in school full-time, Theresa returned to college for a teaching degree.

Theresa’s patience with Paul grew thin. Often, while delighting in one of the kids accomplishments, a wave of resentment would wash over her.  “Paul has a loving wife and beautiful children, but he’s throwing it all away,” she would think. Finally, Theresa told Paul that by the time the youngest graduated from high school, if he did not sober up, she would leave him.

Paul’s guilt grew but then, so did his sin. While Theresa attended college, Paul began a long-term affair with a lady in town  For Paul, this was the first time his adultery was not a case of two drunks going to bed.  “I knew Theresa could do better than me, yet I finally realized that I loved her and I did not want to break up our family”  Paul confessed believing that if he told the truth, he would never  be tempted in this way again.

Halfway through the marriage Theresa began to realize that Paul’s behavior was often adulterous with one-night stands when he was drunk. This affair, however, cut through the numbness of her heart to where she could still feel pain

“Haven’t I suffered enough?” she cried.  “Lord, please help us!”  Theresa kept praying.  There was nothing to do but hold her head high and continue living life as best she could.  Theresa was now a sixth grade teacher and a winning coach.  She was determined to continue working hard to be a good mother and wife.  By now, however, Theresa was convinced that it was just a matter of time before she left Paul.

Once the kids were in junior high and high school, they began to see their father for what he really was — a drunk.  They still loved him — he had been a loving father — but the relationship grew cold.  Paul also began to challenge Theresa’s efforts to raise the children with her Catholic faith.  If the kids had stayed out late due to sports, Paul insisted that Theresa not force them to get up and go to church on Sunday.  Being teenagers, they usually sided with their dad’s argument.   Paul did not just deny the existence of God, but he often unleashed anger at the mere possibility of a God.   Paul was walking and sleeping with the devil and the devil was working hard to close the deal.  At the rate things were going, Paul was within his grasp.

The remaining shreds of Paul’s life began unraveling.  A  sideline business he had operated for many years, completely failed.   His kids, now mostly in their teens, no longer looked up to him.  He was kicked out of high school coaching and he’d been warned that if there were any more angry outbursts at sporting events, he would be banned from even attending.  Often, he wished he was dead but did not have the guts to do it himself. There were other times when he was angry enough to want kill others that he felt had offended him.  Only the threat of prison stopped him from becoming a murderer.

One summer afternoon, Paul appeared in the center of town ranting and raving at anyone who could hear him.   “Something happened to me,” Paul remembers.  “I was going off the deep end.”  After shouting threats at the world and bragging how great he was, Paul got into his car and recklessly sped through town and neighborhoods.  The police chief, a friend of Paul’s, later showed up at his house.  Paul sat outside, sobering up away from his family.

“You’re in trouble this time,” the chief said. “We received twenty-one complaints, Paul. That’s a record.”

“Did anyone give  you a license plate number?” Paul sneered.

“No,” the chief admitted.

“Then you have nothing on me,” Paul laughed.

Amazingly, no charges were ever pressed.  In all his years of drinking and driving, Paul had received warnings but not a single arrest for drinking under under the influence. The town’s people needed no license plate number to prove Paul’s guilt.  They all knew it was him and they were furious. Some threatened him and others gave him the cold shoulder.

As the mountain Paul imagined he represented began to crumble, he thought everyone was against him.   “It never dawned on me that it was 100% my fault,”  says Paul.

“Then,  working on an oil rig in Canada, I was near the end of my rope, physically and mentally.   I was deeply depressed.  For three days in a row I woke up with fierce hangovers.  On the fourth day, I thought to myself:  ‘I am so, so tired of this life.’ “

An Evangelical Christian at work had been regularly telling Paul to read the Bible.  Paul  resisted but finally asked what book of the Bible the coworker would recommend.  The book of Matthew was suggested.  Sitting in his dimly lit motel room, Paul dug the Gideon’s Bible out of a drawer. Once, many years ago,  he had tried to read the Bible  and found it to be a bunch of mumbo jumbo.   Holding the Book in his hands, Paul let out a disheartened sigh.  He knew that  the only one who could help him, was God.

Beginning with the birth of Jesus, Paul began reading.  Immediately the room’s dim light seemed to brighten and illuminate the words.  And the words themselves went down with crystal clarity. He was spellbound.  Paul felt the love of Jesus and felt His Divine presence beside him in that very motel room.  Every word seemed to pierce through the cloud of his life and bring light to his being.  Through a flood of  repentant tears, he read on.

“I understood it all,” Paul’s says. “That God loved us so much that He sent His only Son, the teachings of Christ, the miracles, the casting out of demons, all the parables, the Passion and Crucifixion, His Resurrection and His final commissioning of the disciples where He leaves them by saying:  ‘And behold I am with you always.’”

No drug or drink had ever given Paul the high he experienced through Christ.  “Jesus was there with me,” he explains.  “It was as if He was saying: ‘Accept me and I will save you and lead you down the path of love.’”

Paul accepted.  The deep, penetrating love of Christ blazed through him.  Paul literally began to feel the slime of darkness drain from his being.  It did not happen in an instant, but seemed to last around half an hour.   As the stink of sin and darkness left, the warmth of love and light began to fill in the spaces.  Paul could not feel more ashamed for the sorry state of his soul and yet, as the cleansing love of Jesus washed over him,  he never imagined such euphoria.

Jesus had come to Paul and led him by the hand away from evil.  “My health was failing and death would have been around the corner.  If I had not accepted Jesus at that moment, I might be in hell right now.   Jesus had always been there for me, but I had to be the one to make the decision to turn to Him.”  In the aftermath, Paul was left with a profound peace that his life would forever be in God’s hands.  There would be no more drugs or alcohol or women.  He  would seek to serve God  and turn from sin.  He spent the day in thanksgiving and prayer.  In the morning,Paul awoke refreshed and still on fire with love for God.

Paul called Theresa and his mother (who had prayed daily rosaries for him for years)  to tell them of his experience.  He was not surprised when both seemed skeptical.  After all, there had been so many broken promises.   Paul was confident that this time would be different.

When Paul returned home, one of the first things he did was to see a priest  and receive the sacrament of reconciliation.  He began attending daily Mass and read the Bible for one to two hours every day.  Theresa was in awe. Paul was becoming transformed.    When Theresa looked deep into his eyes now, Paul looked back with love and caring.  And when Theresa spoke, she could tell that Paul was really listening to her.  The gut wrenching fear for Paul’s well-being gave way to trust, love and joy.

Then,  it dawned on Theresa that Paul was outdoing her in the religion department.  If her husband was going to start his day with God at Mass, Theresa realized she should be there too.  In spite of all those years of faithful prayers, she had never gone deep enough to fully experience Christ in her life.  Now, with the miracle of her husband’s conversion, Theresa moved from survival mode to joyfully embracing God’s love and power.

“Everything is so different,” Theresa explains. “Paul and I are so happy and very much in love. It’s like we’ve been married for four years instead of twenty-nine. We drove to a religious conferences recently and the whole time we talked about God and listened to praise music together.”

Theresa acknowledges that in today’s world, few woman would look at her life and think she was blessed.  But Theresa says she could not be happier.  “I’m happy I married Paul,” she says.  “Those were hard years, but none of it was wasted. I would do it again.”

One of the greatest joys that keeping her marriage vows brought Theresa, was the knowledge that her family stayed together.  As a teacher, she sees the pain divorce brings children.  Her heart broke one year when she read a Christmas letter from one little girl who asked Santa to please make her mom and daddy happy and keep them together.

Paul and Theresa admit that healing is necessary when the family has been through the turmoil they experienced, but they are deeply grateful that they rode it out.  Together, they can now experience the peace and love of healing rather than breaking the family apart.  The children, some married with their own children, see the dramatic difference in their dad through God’s saving power.  Paul has told his kids that he is sorry for all the hurt and is building a new relationship with them.

“”I’m so grateful for my kids and that our family made it,” he says.  “We stayed together and everyone is glad.  It’s a whole new family.  We sit around and love each other and visit all night long.  Instead of just stopping the hurt, the wound healed.”

On the day of his conversion, Paul knew that there would be hard work ahead but he was confident there was no turning back.  Through the priest that serves as spiritual director to both Paul and Theresa, he came to realize that the devil was going to fight his conversion.  Paul was tempted to feel angry and critical towards those that hurt him.  In the beginning he wrestled with the devil for days, thinking his prayers were not working and that he could never really maintain his new life. His spiritual director encouraged him by explaining that it was part of the process of his continual conversion.  The harder Paul fought back with prayer, Eucharistic adoration and Mass, the stronger he became.  “It took patience and my spiritual director helped me a lot,” says Paul.  “In the end, the devil is a coward and runs in the face of God.  The Lord is my defense.”

Paul realizes that he too was once a coward; putting up a tough exterior but lacking true inner strength. He cannot find the words to express appreciation for Theresa’s undying commitment and prayers.  “Our love grows every day,” Paul explains.  “It is so amazing.  I did not know real love until I knew the love of God.  Once you experience that, it’s unbelievable.”

Patti Maguire Armstrong

By

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She is an award-winning author and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on TV and radio stations across the country.  Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families and children’s book, Dear God, I Don’t Get It are both available now. To read more, visit Patti’s Catholic News and Inspiration site. Follow her on Facebook at Big Hearted Families and Dear God Books.

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  • patti

    This story is from the Amazing Grace for Married Couples book (Ascension Press) http://tinyurl.com/37hy6zw All the couples in the book had been through the rockiest of marriages and ended up surviving when no one gave them a chance–least of all the married couples themselves. The AMAZING part is that they all say they are more in love today than on the day they married–Now that is God’s amazing grace!

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  • http://prairiehawk.me PrairieHawk

    On the day I was born my father was in a bar and Mom didn’t see him for three days. They ended up divorcing and now, 41 years later, I can look back and safely say I’ve had a pretty rough time. But I wouldn’t trade one minute of it for an easy life, because through it all Jesus has drawn me closer and closer to Himself. Praise God, and bless all the Theresa’s and Paul’s (and their children) of this world.

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