My mother expects that, sooner or later, my brother will come to his senses and remember how much he loves them.
My younger brother has been estranged from the family for ten years, and so I’ve been reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Reading it less out of religiousness than for the company of shared experience. Reading it in search of a resolution that so far eludes me, as if by close inspection I will glean the answers that will help me tie up its loose ends. My loose ends. My family’s.
The parable gives us a chance to identify with both sides of an estrangement, with both sons. You know how it goes: the prodigal son, having squandered his share of the family farm in a distant land, returns home, humbled and hungry, and professes his unworthiness to his father, and we, on first read, worry, as he must. With punitive floods and pillars of salt on our minds, we wonder what the punishment will be for his wastefulness, his waywardness. But the father turns out to be in the mood to celebrate and summons the robe, the ring, the sandals, the fattened calf.
Then the narration draws poignantly near the perspective of the son who stayed: “Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.” From “out in the field,” we infer that he is working, perhaps has been working on the farm the whole time his brother was away. No one in his family has even thought to tell him his brother is back; it is a servant who fills him in. He gets angry; he doesn’t want to enter the feast. He points out to his father all the feasts he wasn’t given, all the young goats that weren’t killed for him. The father attempts to reassure him, the son who may be the truly eponymous son, the truly lost one. The father says, “You’ve been with me always,” reminding the son who stayed that he has been with God always, in a state of grace always.
Does this console the son who stayed? Or does he believe that the time he spent laboring on the farm in his brother’s absence is not the same as being given a feast, much as some of us readers may find farmwork an uneasy analogy for grace, not entirely convinced that hauling rocks, shooting gophers, and shoveling manure would feel quite like a sacrament or a privilege?
It’s unclear; after the father’s entreaties, that’s it. The parable ends, a cliffhanger. Does the son who stayed enter the feast? As the child who has stayed, at least in spirit, it feels important for me to know this. I see him through the window, looking for his returned brother in a crowd of dancers, but I can’t see what he does next.
I went East; my brother moved to L.A., in love with the palm trees and the possibilities, and perhaps even feeling some ancestral yearning for a more verdant and temperate coast.
The story from Luke is also called “The Parable of the Lost Son,” foregrounding the son’s disappearance, but the son’s prodigality was what got the emphasis in the religion class at the Catholic school my younger brother and I attended, where my mother taught, and at Mass to which my parents shepherded us on Sundays; more than one priest made sure that we knew that “prodigal” meant wasteful, reckless, indulgent.
Prodigality was a special sin in the North Dakota of my youth. Farm families are frugal, and my brother and I, growing up in Bismarck, were only a generation away from the farming community of Napoleon, named not after the French emperor who adored glittering opulence but the local realtor and shopkeeper who had sold off that austere patch of prairie in the 1880s.
Growing up, I imagined the Biblical farm the prodigal son left to be something like the one in Napoleon that belonged to my great grandfather. He had a small dairy and grew alfalfa, barley, sunflowers, corn: whatever could be won from the windswept land where rocks were plentiful and trees scant, where winters were bitter and summers scorched. His parents, among the Germans who fled to North Dakota from a Russia that had revoked its welcome, found a land unlike what they had imagined. They had left behind, in Odessa, woods and rivers, grapevines, a sea. Their new home, which had none of these things, took some getting used to. Took creativity, and prodigious parsimony. To save money on gas, my great grandfather turned off his engine and coasted downhill in neutral, gliding through every stop sign, making every journey in slow motion: you could walk alongside his Ford truck and keep up a conversation. My relatives told stories: while he inched out of their driveways, they’d wave goodbye, and keep waving.
My grandfather, unlike his father, was not a farmer; he was too far down in the birth order of ten siblings to receive a slice of the family farm and had to make his own way. But like his father, he held on to money tightly, to his post office salary and, later, his post office pension, each dollar hard-earned. “There was no snow plough. I was the snow plough!” he liked to say. There was an extravagance of blizzards when Grandpa drove the 50-odd miles of his rural route alone in his war-surplus Jeep, and what he remembered were not the sausages left for him in mailboxes in appreciation for his efforts, but the stress of shoveling out from the snow, fearing above all that he would let someone down by delivering their mail late. On his worst days, he came home and threw up blood in the kitchen sink.
My father’s three siblings moved far from Napoleon, but my father stayed fairly close, moving just an hour away to Bismarck, and when my grandfather retired, he and my grandmother followed suit, finding for themselves a small apartment not far from the big brick house my newly married parents had bought in an act of impetuosity. My grandparents knew my father had bitten off more than he could chew and figured, correctly, that his improvidence was because of my mother; when they’d first met my father’s soon-to-be wife, whose legs toothpicked out from under her miniskirt, whose delicate hands never plucked a chicken or pickled anything, they said to him, “She’ll never fit in,” supposing she would want too much and do too little. Still, they did their best to help my parents cut down on the other expenses they could not have afforded on top of their mortgage: while my young parents worked, my grandparents painted our walls and planted a garden; they took care of me, and then, when he came along, my brother. We both preferred other babysitters, like my mother’s students, who were more fun. My grandparents didn’t play with us. My grandmother ironed, mopped, did dishes, all at once, in a flurry; my grandfather, of whom I was downright wary, untangled the chains of the cheap necklaces I stashed in clumps, told me stories of children drowning in grain silos, and picked off my scabs, telling me, “They’re ready to come off.” Under them: pink skin pinpricked with blood. I whined.
My father was tougher when he was a child. He worked. He shot gophers for a penny per tail from the Farmer’s Union and made a few cents more shoveling manure and heaving rocks from his grandfather’s farm. Later, when he had a good job in state government, it still pained him to spend money. He remains an inveterate coupon-clipper and a terrible tipper. It meant a lot that he sent my younger brother and me to college to study impractical things.
I went East; my brother moved to L.A., in love with the palm trees and the possibilities, and perhaps even feeling some ancestral yearning for a more verdant and temperate coast. After a lonely, desultory decade on the outskirts of the outskirts of the film industry, he became involved with an older, glamorous woman, who blogged about burgers and was the mother of a toddler. Unemployed, he pinned all his hopes to the scripts he would write with her. When my brother asked our father for money for them to move in together, for rent and deposit for a house with a swimming pool, my recently retired father gave it. And when my brother asked for a credit line attached to our father’s bank account so he could rebuild his credit, our father, horrified that his son should suddenly have terrible credit, gave him that, too. My father later would blame the medication he was taking then, post-knee-surgery, for all the questions he didn’t ask, but I think he was hoping to begin a new relationship with the son who, from early adolescence, had been surly, taking exception to efforts to pry him from the basement couch in front of the TV, who had not, after all, wanted to mow the lawn, blow the snow, or get a job at the mall.
The prodigal son may not have thought of himself as prodigal at all. One imagines he had a plan, however tenuous, when he asked his father for what was coming to him; perhaps he smelled opportunity, and imagined himself returning home someday as the son who made good, presents of silks and spices tucked under his arms, fattened calves in tow. Perhaps he assumed the distant land he was eying would accommodate him as readily as their father always had. And perhaps it would have if it weren’t for a famine. We feel for him when we hear, “[H]e would willingly have filled himself with the husks the pigs were eating but no one would let him have them.” He must have been stunned to find the world so unlike what he had imagined, so ungenerous, his position in it one of desperation.
My brother emailed him again to say that he and his girlfriend were eloping to Las Vegas and that Dad should look at the vanished money as their wedding gift.
Soon after those conversations with my brother, Dad, trying to buy a refrigerator, suffered what was for him the considerable embarrassment of having his application for a Sears store card denied and raced home to check his accounts. He noticed that the credit card he had given my brother had been maxed out, tens of thousands of dollars withdrawn. Since this was far more than the very low credit limit my father had agreed to, he thought there had been some mistake until his banker unearthed a recording of my brother impersonating my father and asking that the credit line be raised.
Dad left my brother voicemails, then wrote him emails asking him to replace what he had taken; my brother eventually wrote back in indignation, denying the theft and telling our father he was never a father to him, that all he had ever cared about was money. Not long after, my brother emailed him again to say that he and his girlfriend were eloping to Las Vegas and that Dad should look at the vanished money as their wedding gift.
My fiancé and I found this out when we picked my parents up at the airport; they were visiting us in Maryland, where we were about to get married. I had thought my brother was coming; Of course I’ll be there, he’d said, but had suddenly dropped out of contact, even disappearing from Facebook. My parents had told me a few days before that he wouldn’t make it, but not why. Now they sat in our backseat like our children and told us everything on the way back to our apartment. While my father wept on our couch, the first time I could remember seeing him cry so generously, we found my brother’s new wife on social media. She had indeed changed her surname: she now had the name that was mine for one more day, my father’s last name, and his father’s. Her giddy posts revealed a bit about where the money was going: a big diamond ring, a new car—in the backseat of which the child, the “sleepy ringbearer,” had dozed on the drive back from Vegas, just the day before. And my brother, scripts unsold, was still in the house he could not afford on his own: on the day my brother had written, “You were never a father to me,” he was floating in an inner tube in his pool, drinking a pink mixed drink, the fronds of palm trees fluttering carelessly behind him.
I thought of the little brother whose soft buzzcut I brushed with a paddlebrush looped around my middle finger; the little brother who, pretending he was He-Man, climbed to the peak of a pine-tree, then fell, stomach raked by branches, to the ground; the little brother who ran around the house doing impersonations, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hans and Franz, so pleased and proud if he could make anyone laugh. My brother then and my brother now were two different countries, an ocean between them.
My parents dodged the issue of my brother at my wedding, trying not to cast a shadow, but also deeply concerned about what the relatives would think. And though the role of father-of-the-bride proved a good camouflage for his daze, I knew what Dad was feeling and why. When it came time for him to give me away, unable to bear the vulnerability in his soft hand under mine, I raced up the aisle in my hurry to escape. Later, at the reception, one concerned uncle told my parents he had just received a call from my brother asking for a large sum of money to be wired immediately. My parents, to their great shame, had to tell their family that their son was not to be trusted.
My grandfather, whose longstanding leukemia was worsening, whose powdery skin was increasingly marked by continental bruises, had not been able to come to the wedding, so it was later, in a conversation I was not there for, that my father told him about my brother, who by then had shut them out completely. My father would have had to shout: my grandfather would not wear the hearing aid he needed, saying, “People just fiddle with ’em.” I’m sure my father cried, as he was beginning to do more often, and that my grandfather, never one to be shocked by bad news, said, “You were always too easy on him.” My grandfather was not easy on his own children, including my father. He had beaten them with a belt and sent them away to boarding school at an abbey. Though he wasn’t close to all of them, none had stolen from him, none refused to talk to him. The conversation would have moved on, and doubtless my grandfather talked about his health, the very real aches and pains that had become, in his last years, his world.
In his homily at the funeral, the priest, a cousin, made a point of saying that he didn’t know if my grandfather was in Heaven.
My parents got calls from creditors looking to repossess my brother’s new car, from landlords owed money on apartments he suddenly vacated. My parents told these callers, and many others, that they didn’t know where my brother was or how to get in touch with him. That was and is true. He has been both prodigal in both senses, spendthrift and lost. His phone number belongs to someone else now. Emails to him, messages to his wife, go unanswered. The gravity of estrangement became clear after a little more than a year, when my grandfather died; my parents wrote to my brother to tell him, and he did not reply and he did not return.
I was living in Pennsylvania then, in farm country, and my husband and I came back, as did my father’s siblings. Before the funeral mass, in the sacristy, the priest, once one of my brother’s teachers, unwittingly delivered another blow by asking my father where my brother was. My father answered as if strangled, “In L.A.,” the shorthand he and my mother had come to lean on as if it were an explanation. And maybe it was: its luxuriously soft air, its qualmless palm trees, its pretenders, its places to go. The prodigal son did not seem to have considered living a life of reckless extravagance on or near the farm: he went to “a distant country.” Perhaps in a different country he would have become a different man.
In his eulogy at the funeral, my father called my grandfather a “gentle man.” Next to me in the pew, one of my uncles made a sound just short of a scoff. He could have been remembering his father’s cruelties, his dissatisfaction, his tendency to laugh only rarely and mainly at the misfortunes of others, like the time his older brother with dementia took out the snow blower to mow the lawn. The uncle beside me had made a point of being unlike his father; he was a dentist who’d have his patients laughing so hard they spit fluoride all over their bibs, and when he told stories at family gatherings, standing to better enact his adventures with a trapped skunk or a stubborn tree trunk, he always had his back turned to my grandfather. But he was a dutiful son after he, too, moved back to Bismarck; he invited all of us over to his pool for holidays and on some hot summer days. My grandfather always seemed disoriented at my uncle’s house, out-of-place, blinking at the sun glinting off the chlorinated water.
In his homily at the funeral, the priest, a cousin, made a point of saying that he didn’t know if my grandfather was in Heaven; this bothered my father, probably just as much a Heaven would have bothered my grandfather. The wastefulness of the pearly gates and golden harps. The neverending dancing. If he did gain entry to such a place, I imagined he’d look the way he did in my uncle’s beautiful backyard: half-blinded by the brightness, vaguely disapproving of it all.
A Heaven more in keeping with my grandfather’s taste would be one more like the no-frills residential living facility into which he had moved after my grandmother died, not wanting to burden any of his children by moving in with them. It was a low, boxy structure, its architecture almost Soviet Bloc, like so many buildings in Bismarck, and a world unto itself, apartments and cafeteria and chapel all connected by long linoleum hallways so residents would never have to contend with winter. In all the common spaces were folding chairs and folding tables, and the walls were bare and white and gravelly, and everything was tidy.
We were there the day after the funeral to sort through his things, parceling out among us digital watches, flat caps, down vests, short-sleeved button-downs worn to translucency, the tight right triangle of an American flag. My father, in addition to the perishables in the fridge, took my grandfather’s shoe polish and reclaimed a pair of loafers he’d recently given him so he wouldn’t have to fuss with laces.
During this allocation, a neighbor came over, permed white hair tightly clasping her head, to ask for my grandfather’s electric can-opener; she’d visited him daily to open the can of soup she had for lunch. Before she left, holding the can-opener close to her heart, she told us he read the paper each morning, then passed it on to her to save her the expense of her own subscription. It was always waiting for her on her doormat by six, laid out neat as can be, only some coupons missing. He’d apparently saved the rubber bands that came around these papers: I found balls of them in a drawer in the kitchen. I took one off; it crumbled to blue dust in my hands.
My aunt and I walked back and forth down the long hallway, bringing the things we thought other residents might want to the cafeteria where there was a buffet table reserved for this purpose, a non-stop, free rummage sale courtesy of the recently-deceased. Every time we returned, even after just a few minutes, something of my grandfather’s was gone—the Brylcream, the compression socks, the boxed puzzles, the circle-a-word books, the paint-chipped bride and groom, from someone’s long-ago wedding cake—but no one was ever in sight.
In our story, my father, less like God, is the one I worry about most.
Though we feel for each of the parabolic sons in turn, we may not worry about the father overmuch. As a stand-in for God, he must be omniscient. He knows what will happen even as he is dividing the estate, knows his son will waste what he’s given, knows too that he will come back and when. As far as we know, he does not cry on the couch. He does not get old. He does not lose his own father. He does not start to avoid the world because it is full of priests who ask him where his son is. He does not mix too many pain pills with too much brandy.
In our story, my father, less like God, is the one I worry about most.
Though my grandfather was not celebratory, was parsimonious with praise and shows of love, he made my father the executor of his evenly proportioned will. It was clear that, to my father, being entrusted this task by his father felt like an honor, felt like grace. He dealt with the details of his father’s affairs with great care, tying rubber bands around the loose ends of his life.
But after this was done—having no son and, more definitively, no father—my father became suddenly more like both of them. Grimmer. Like my grandfather, he became preoccupied by pain—his knee, then back, then shoulder hurt—and sometimes he would get bruises and cuts that he couldn’t explain, though these generally followed prodigious mixes of opioids and alcohol my grandfather would never have condoned. My father, clad in Spiderman T-shirts he bought on sale, took to spending most of his time in the basement, like my brother used to do, bathing in the lonely, sea-blue light of the TV.
Yet, I would argue that my father is heroic, more heroic than the father in the parable, because he is not omniscient. He does not know if my brother will return, or when. The not-knowing is hard for him. My brother is a loose end.
I can almost see him, the son who stayed, still standing outside the feast.
During his brother’s absence, some days his body ached from doing the work he shouldered alone, and he was resentful. He thought to himself a thousand times, “I’m glad he’s gone; good riddance.” They didn’t always get along, and, by leaving, his brother had showed how little he cared about all of them. Of course he hardened his heart; it was practicality: one did not plant kernels of corn in soil that would just blow away.
Yet, upon his brother’s return, if their father had raised the switch instead, determined to punish the prodigal for his ingratitude, the son who stayed might have thrown his body over his brother’s to protect him. And if the son who stayed had heard his lost brother’s apology, he might have given him his own robe and ring. But their father was overjoyed, and the son who stayed missed his brother’s pitiful words, and now, through the window, he is seeing his returned brother for the first time, there, dancing with abandon in his new robe, new rings, new sandals. Of the calf, all that’s left are bones.
The brother who stayed leaves.
Or he waits and sharpens his knife. It’s a possibility. We know some Biblical brothers are unsentimental.
The parable doesn’t tell us how long the lost son is gone; he comes back when he is hungry. My brother is not hungry. A little like the father who sees his son “while he was still a long way off,” we can see my brother and his wife on her social media pages; even as calls from creditors have waxed and waned, the two of them have remained smiling, stylish, photo-filtered to look as smooth and plump-cheeked as babies. They go out to eat at trendy restaurants, drink craft beer or umbrella-speared cocktails, lift burgers dripping juice or poise their forks and knives above steak. My brother used to be a vegan.
“It’s his wife,” my mother likes to say. “She changed him.” My mother knows the power women have, perhaps because she herself has been my father’s guide, throughout his life, but especially now, and so she is able to see my brother’s actions as not being his own. In the parable she would tell, the prodigal son is an innocent, led astray. And maybe she’s right. What prompted the son who left to demand, on that particular day, his share of the estate? To leave everyone he knew? One wonders if there was a woman involved.
Though my mother proved herself a hard worker, even returning to work after retirement to replace what my brother had taken, she never did fit in with the farming side of my family, in part because of her optimism. My mother expects that, sooner or later, my brother will come to his senses and remember how much he loves them.
Both my parents are still eager for any sign that my brother may be ending his self-imposed exile. Recently, when I visited, my father received a birthday present. “California?” he asked, looking at the return address. His hope was apparent, but the gift was not from my brother; a friend had sent chocolates from a California company. My father tried to hide his disappointment, but my brother’s shadow had crashed down over the night. Once, my mother called me when she saw a post from my brother, something like, “Being a father is a lot like being a butler.” My mother was ecstatic: maybe he was on the verge of reaching out to them; having come to know for himself, as an adoptive father, the challenges of parenting, surely he would be more understanding of what he perceived as their failures. But, nothing.
Their continued vulnerability pains me. I want my brother to come back so that they can be happy, but I’m not sure I can ever forgive my brother for what he has put them through, for prolonging their suspense this way. Most days, I don’t know if I could ever be in the same room with him, let alone look him in the eye.
Of course I wish my presence were enough to eclipse his absence, and of course it’s not. It’s the lost sheep that nags, the lost coin that beckons.
O father, who was a good son, who stayed close to his own father; O father, who with his children, erred on the side of generosity and trust and is now unmoored.
But maybe there were many days when, his whole body sore from doing the work of two men, the son who stayed couldn’t help longing for his brother to return and help him on the farm. Maybe there were even days when, caught off guard by the light, just so, or the scent on the wind of faraway grapes, his heart came unhusked and he missed his brother badly. At these times, he saw in his brother’s departure the seeds of bravery and imagination and curiosity, and a faith greater than his own in the bounty of God and the goodness of the world.
Selfishly, I want my brother to return to make my own life easier: to talk with my father on the phone about his insomnia and his pain, to communicate with the addiction counselor we are relieved he has at last agreed to see, to see my parents on some holidays, to share the care for them as they come to need it. And I would like his companionship for what is coming, and after. I would like for us to write together the truest eulogy, the one only we know, the one we won’t be able to say in church:
O father, o tickle-torturer, o toy-assembler, o maker of canned-chili-and-noodle dinners, o pusher of the lawnmower we walked behind, o forwarder of emails, o watcher of news, o proud wearer of eight-dollar hoodies, o buyer of discount nuts, o avoider of cucumbers, o father who can stop his own hiccups via control of his duodenum, o teller of the too-long stories, of the inappropriate stories, o worrier over the cracks in the sidewalk and the wrinkles in the wallpaper, o re-reader of spy thrillers, o king of angry letters to the governor, o father who calls the police if a car is parked on his street for too long. Oh, father.
O father, who was a good son, who stayed close to his own father; O father, who with his children, erred on the side of generosity and trust and is now unmoored. And when he goes, I’ll hardly know where I am; I’ll be at loose ends. It would be nice to have a brother then.
In the moments when I muster the most forgiveness for my brother, it is because I wonder if he wanted to avoid all this, avoid the heartache of seeing our parents grow old. When he last talked to my father, my father was much more powerful, more sure of himself. A man with answers. My brother still gets to imagine that father waiting for him: a father more like God. A father who will never die, who will never need a eulogy, whose belongings will never be laid out on a table.
I can almost see the son who stayed catching his brother’s gaze through the window. Their eyes meeting. The returned brother stops dancing. His robe is too big on his gaunt frame; his fingers twirl his new rings nervously. And the brother who stayed sees feels a surge of protectiveness. He is sorry life hasn’t gone easier on his brother who left; he is sorry he didn’t stand guard and that there are some things he cannot stand guard against. He wishes the brother who returned would say something, but he can see how lost his brother is, can see this even through his own lostness, which he realizes at that moment, standing outside alone. And in that shared lostness he recognizes the children they used to be, and the ocean between them is nothing, foolishness is nothing, time is nothing, meanness is gone.
He enters the feast, arms wide as wings.
My brother is still a long way off. I have time to figure out what grace is.
I have time to figure out what he does, the son who stayed. My brother is still a long way off. I have time to figure out what grace is.
Maybe it wasn’t a mistake: by inviting a comparison between grace and staying on the farm with one’s father, maybe the parable is saying that grace is not always easy to bear.
Sometimes I think that grace is knowing that God understands what we feel, and understanding ourselves what someone else feels. Understanding perfectly, without trying or asking, what is written on another’s heart. If this is so, the parable itself is a sower of grace, moving us to compassion for both sons in their hunger and their anger, their discomforts ours for a moment. And maybe loving my father, and wanting things to be different for him than they turned out to be, and hoping they still might be, and knowing what he is thinking when he opens the box that is not from his son, when he polishes his boots with his father’s shoe polish, is a kind of grace.
This kind of grace is an unspoken connection, an undivided inheritance, a field we are given; not enough trees, wide-open, open to the lavish heat and the profligate snow, and it goes on and on. And there are more stones in it than you would think, and we feel all the work of lifting them, but we do not feel it alone. Look at the soft earth in the craters left behind by the stones. Look at the oceans we’ve already crossed, look down at us here, doing our best to make this new, unimagined field our home. Look at us, lifting our heads to listen wondering if that’s music. Wondering if tonight we’ll dance.
Amber Burke is a graduate of Yale and the Writing Seminars MFA program at Johns Hopkins University. She teaches writing and yoga at the University of New Mexico in Taos. Her creative work, some of it Pushcart-nominated, has been published in magazines and literary journals including The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Mslexia, Superstition Review, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Quarterly West. She is also a regular contributor to Yoga International, which has published over 100 of her articles and the ebook she co-authored, Yoga for Common Conditions.
Header photo by Greens and Blue, courtesy Shutterstock.