About ten years ago I was a Sunday School teacher. I was always looking for ways to make Bible stories more meaningful to my students. I often retold them in modern language comparing them to how they might be told today. So one day on a business flight, I wrote a modern version of the parable of the prodigal son.
I am no longer a Sunday School teacher, nor do I even attend church. The best way to describe me might be agnostic or even atheist. My religion is kindness and compassion, so the parables of Jesus still touch me deeply. I took a creative writing course last year and picked up that old short story and worked on it some more. Now I feel like it is finally ready to share. I hope you enjoy it.
It started my senior year of high school. I was tired of school. A lot of my classmates felt the same. We called it “senioritis”. For me, college was out of the question. I was done. No more living by someone else’s rules. I wanted out.
Unfortunately, my dad had other plans. He’d been saving since before I was born to send me to college. You see, despite being a successful businessman, he had never attended college himself. And sending me was the dream he’d been saving for my whole life. And I was about to kill that dream.
I stood up from my bed, walked out of my room and down the stairs to my dad’s home office in the front of our house. As I raised my had to knock on the door, I paused to take a deep breath. I mentally ran through the arguments I had been rehearsing for weeks and rapped on the door.
“Come in,” my father responded. I reached down and turned the cold brass French door handle, entering his office. He sat behind a large desk facing the door. As I entered the room, he stood with a big smile on his face. “What can I do for you, son?”
“Do you have time to talk? I know you’re a busy man.”
“Of course. What’s on your mind?”
My father and I both sat down. The office was L-shaped and in front of the bay window there was a coffee table with two facing couches. We sat across from each other.
I decided to just rip the band aid off. “I don’t want to go to college, Dad. I’m tired of being trapped in a classroom. I want to experience life, live it, not put it off for another four years.”
“You seem to feel strongly about this. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
I took a deep breath. “I know that my going to college is a big dream of yours, but it isn’t for me. I’m more like you. I’m a hands on kind of learner and doer. I hope you can understand.”
“I never want you to feel like you’re living my idea of your best life. At the same time, I want to make sure you are thinking this through. What will you do if you don’t go to college?”
“I plan to start my own business. I even have my business plan here. You taught me well.” And I handed him the folder I had brought with me outlining what the business was, including how and when I would become profitable. “I only lack the start up capital. I was hoping I could use my college fund for that.”
Silence hung in the air as my father reviewed my paperwork. I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. My heart raced as I waited for him to respond. Finally, he closed the folder and looked up.
“Everything here looks good. Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“Absolutely, Dad. I’m sure.”
“Then I will give you a check after you’ve graduated from high school and you can get started. I think you have a good shot at succeeding. I’m proud of you. This couldn’t have been easy for you.”
I was speechless. It can’t be that simple. He didn’t argue. He didn’t seem angry. He’s proud of me!
He stood with his arms out as he approached me on the other sofa. I fell into the offered hug. “Thank you, Dad. This means the world to me.”
* * *
Dad was true to his word. During my graduation party, he handed me an envelope with a check. It was more than enough for me to start my business. Shortly after, I said good bye to my father and older brother and left home for the city where I established my business.
Surprisingly, it was highly profitable almost immediately. The company grew from just a few employees to hundreds within the first few years. And I was reaping all the benefits. I spared no expense for myself. I had a penthouse apartment, parties nearly every night. Booze. Drugs. Women. Whatever I wanted.
And I completely forgot my family. I didn’t call once. Any time my dad phoned, I had some “urgent” business to attend to and cut the call short. Eventually I just stopped answering his calls, and he stopped calling.
Eventually, the business leveled off and stopped growing, but my spending habits didn’t. It started to put a strain on the company. I laid off some employees. Then the economy collapsed and the business failed completely. I lost my apartment. In a few short months I went from respected business owner to unemployed, homeless, and hungry.
I was living on the street when I came to my senses. I could go home. Given the way I left and ignored my family I couldn’t just walk in the front door and announce my presence. I couldn’t imagine that going over very well with either my father or my brother. I was completely humiliated and pride almost kept me away. But in the end I was so hungry I decided to return.
I didn’t expect my father to receive me as his son. In fact, I was pretty sure he had completely disowned me. But I couldn’t know that because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I rehearsed my speech in my head over and over.
“Dad, I really messed up. I don’t even consider myself your son any more. I don’t expect something for nothing after the way I’ve treated you these last few years. I’m only hoping you will hire me at one of your companies. I am completely broke, homeless, and hungry. I’m desperate. I’ll take any entry level position available. Please, I need your help.”
With this speech tucked away in my mind, I set off for home. Being penniless, I walked the entire way. It took me three days to walk from the city where I had my business to my family’s home in the country. I ate little and slept where I could find shelter from the elements. By the time I could see my family home in the distance, I was a complete wreck. My feet hurt. I was filthy. I am sure I must have stunk something awful. My clothes were hanging in tatters and what was left of my shoes was duct taped to my feet.
As I slowly and painfully made my way up the hill, I started to make out a car in the distance coming toward me from the house. As it got closer, I recognized the car and the driver. It was my father. I figured he was just on his way to do some business in the city, but as he got closer, the car slowed down. Suddenly, the car stopped and my father jumped out of the driver’s seat. Despite my filth and stench from my long journey, he ran up to me with a big grin and shining eyes and threw his arms around me in a giant bear hug that lifted me off the ground. He held me for what felt like five minutes, nearly crushing the air out of me. When he put me down, he held my shoulders and looked me up and down. It was only then that I noticed the tears on his face. Figuring they were tears of bitter disappointment, I launched into the speech I had rehearsed so many times.
I was so ashamed, I couldn’t even look him in the eye. As I stood there trembling, waiting for his response, I stared at his shoes. At first I only noticed how nice they were in contrast to my worn out dirty duct tape shoes. But in the continued silence, I noticed that his shoes weren’t tied. He must have thrown them on in a hurry and not bothered to tie them. It was then that I looked up into his eyes. They swam in tears that had not yet fallen. His face was contorted in an attempt to hold those tears back. Heedless, the tears began to slowly trickle from his eyes onto his cheeks.
This was not the greeting I expected. I thought he would be angry. But these were not tears of anger. The look on my father’s face was… unreadable, at least to me. What was he thinking? The silence seemed to last forever. As I stared at him blankly, trying to understand, he said to me, “Son, I love you. Nothing can ever change that. When I hadn’t heard from you in a year, I started trying to find you, just to see if you were OK. I found you, but I didn’t want to insert myself into your life uninvited. After the crash, I lost track of you. I feared the worst. I thought you might be dead. After dressing this morning as I looked out the window, I saw you in the distance. Sure, you were dirty and looked nothing like I remember, but I somehow knew it was you. I threw my shoes on and ran downstairs to my car. I have never run so fast in my life; I almost fell down the stairs! As I approached you, I started to think it might not be you, that maybe I had made a mistake. But no, it is you! You are alive! Thank God!” And with that I was buried in another giant bear hug.
I was stunned! The next thing I know, my dad has put me in the front seat of his car and driven me home. Once there, he calls all his friends, neighbors, employees – heck, everyone he knows – to come over, and he starts a big neighborhood block party in my honor. I didn’t really understand what was happening or why. I was just grateful to get a shower. Granted, I had no idea what I was going to wear when I was done since the only clothes I owned were literally rotting off my body. I must have been half an hour in that shower enjoying the drum of the water on my back as it massaged the soreness out of my muscles. The steam filled my nostrils, as did the smell of clean as I washed my old life down the drain with the dirt and the blood. I still wasn’t sure what to expect from my father, but I was sure that I was going to do my best honor to him and all he was doing for me.
When I finally got out of the shower, I discovered a set of the highest quality, most comfortable looking clothes I had ever seen. I put them on slowly, enjoying the way their softness enveloped me, reminding me of a gentle version of how my father had held me in the street not an hour ago. When I finally left the bathroom, my dad was waiting for me. He whisked me out to the party bellowing for everyone’s attention. “Excuse me, excuse me! I apologize for the interruption of the festivities, but I have something very important to say. This is my son, missing all these years! I thought he was dead, but he shows up out of nowhere today – alive! Let us celebrate!” And we did.
When I left my father’s house to start my own business all those years ago, I thought that was the best day of my life. I was wrong. My homecoming was.
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