Two years after my brother’s crippling car accident, I graduate from the eighth grade and find myself approaching another church stage. Only this one is in a different city.
My dad calls me one day to inform me of his wedding plans, which happen to be the same weekend as my basketball tournament. I argue that I can’t attend his wedding, but my dad demands for me to be in his wedding. I manage to get out of Friday’s rehearsal dinner, though, on account of the first tournament game.
On the morning of his big day, he doesn’t ask me about my game the night before. We ride in silence from the small town we once shared to the city where he now lives.
When we cross the Sacramento River, I search below the bridge for any signs of life. To one side, there’s a clearing where a few picnic tables reside. Our church used to come here for annual baptisms.
As we pass over the water, I look to the spot where my father once baptized me. And while I knew what it meant at the time, I’m beginning to question all of it now. Nothing makes sense anymore.
I’m 14, and my dad rarely comes around anymore. He’s different. He’s grown a beard and smells of cigarettes. He’s also been living with a woman I’ve only met once.
Like the prodigal son, my father expects to receive an early inheritance — the inheritance we are promised as joint heirs with Christ — to be restored in body and soul for all eternity.
Naturally, any parent would pray for God’s healing for a child. But when my brother isn’t healed, my father leaves. He leaves the church. He leaves his family. And he leaves town.
The river is behind us now. And so is the feeling I had when my father baptized me. Whatever I experienced that day, while wading deep into icy water, has dissipated like the river fog.
When we arrive at the church, I’m thrust into a room with a lady in ivory lace. There’s also a group of women wearing the same royal blue dress as me. The shrill noise from their cackling pierces my ears and continues to grow louder with each toast and clank of their champagne glasses. So I try to stay out of the way and wonder how my basketball team is doing.
Moments before the ceremony, I’m paired with a man wearing the same royal blue jacket as my brothers. When the organ music begins, I step through the church doors and see my father at the front. Only he’s not behind the pulpit. He’s beside it. Wearing a gaudy white suit.
Nothing looks right. I search the pews for a familiar face but find none.
How does my dad know these people? Who are they? And who is my dad?
It’s as if an impostor has taken over.
The prodigal is supposed to come home, with the family waiting and watching for his return.
Everything about this place feels wrong. The march down the aisle feels as though I’m walking a ship’s plank, about to take a leap into a dreadful unknown. And suddenly I’m frightened.
I look to the only person who can fix this, who can make it all stop. I look to my father. But he isn’t looking at me. I can’t tell for sure, though, because my eyes are getting blurry.
A sickly feeling churns in my stomach while nausea clamps my throat.
Oh, God, not this. Not now.
As I reach the stage, one of the women in a royal blue dress glares at me. With squinted eyes and a menacing scowl, she points to where I should stand. But her hostility confuses me.
That’s when I notice my nose is running, and my face feels hot and wet.
God, please, not here.
I try to stand as motionless as possible. But my chin keeps shaking. And my eyes keep leaking.
Somewhere far away, I hear the words, “In sickness and in health . . .”
Without a Kleenex handy, I use my arm to wipe my nose.
“Till death do us part . . .”
God, what is happening to me? For years I tried to cry, but couldn’t. Now I can’t stop.
As soon as the organ plays again, I race off the stage. I run down the aisle and into a long corridor. Frantic, I search for a bathroom. After finding one the size of a broom closet, I collapse onto the floor, gasping for air. My body won’t stop trembling.
I lose track of time, but eventually, I hear my grandma call my name. I open the door for her, and she hugs me for a long time. There are no words.
Then she tells me the family photos are over. It’s time to leave for the reception.
At the reception, I sit near the back of the banquet hall and watch the festivities unfold. As the waiters fill more glasses, the dancing gets wilder. My oldest brother is on the dance floor too, popping wheelies in his wheelchair.
The wedding guests continue to offer me a champagne glass, so I finally agree to take one. Then another. And another.
With each glass, my anxiety ebbs away.
My dad’s new friends smoke unusual cigarettes too. But they look fake — just tiny bits of rolled up paper with dried grass inside. My dad even has one. When his friends offer me one, I take it and inhale.
By the end of the reception, my brothers deem me unfit to go home. So they take me to their apartment, where I think I fall asleep, but I can feel myself being dragged to their bathroom. The nausea is back. But for a different reason I don’t quite understand.
I don’t know why I keep ending up on bathroom floors, but at least with my brothers I know I’m safe.
● ● ● O ● ● ●
For the next three years, I have a different role in a neighborhood church. I have no connection with anyone. I’m only there because my mom goes. On Sunday mornings, I see a few teenagers from school. Most of us were together the night before. At a party.
The prodigal father begets the prodigal daughter.
But through it all, the arms of the Almighty would protect me — His Mercy waiting in the wings, waiting for me to turn and come home.
Have you ever sensed the arms of the Almighty
protecting you in the darkest of times?
Click here to read PART 4.