My son broke my heart the other day. He had just finished reading one of my favorite books, The Yearling, and he was telling me how the closing scenes affected him. If you’ve not yet read this classic, I’ll spare you the main spoilers but suffice it to say, the young protagonist Jody Baxter experiences significant family strife near the end of the story. Furious and feeling betrayed, Jody runs away only to find that life away from his family is even more difficult than life with them.
As Jody begins his return trek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings tells us, “The world had discarded him… He wondered if he dared go home. Probably they would not want him.” Longing for his family, yet doubtful of his place in it, the wandering son’s reunion with his father, Penny, is a poignant scene:
He went to his father and stood beside him. Penny reached out for his hand and took it and turned it over and rubbed it slowly between his own. Jody felt drops on his hand like a warm rain.
“Boy— I near about give you out.”
Penny felt along his arm. He looked up at him.
“You all right?”
“You all right— You ain’t dead nor gone. You all right.” A light filled his face. “Glory be.”
It was unbelievable, Jody thought. He was wanted.
The whole book is remarkable, but this scene in particular has always stood out to me. The son’s inability to see his own worth comes face to face with his father’s innate ability to see only that. It’s beautiful. Or, as Penny Baxter puts it, “Glory be.”
Now comes the part where my heart breaks because, when my son read this scene, he identified with it. I encourage my kids to be empathetic readers, but as we talked it through I was unnerved by the ease with which he saw himself in the frustrations of Jody Baxter. Point blank, he told me he understood the fear of no longer fitting in with those you love most.
I love that he trusted me enough to say this, but it was still a gut punch. After a lot of listening, I think I get it. My son may know nothing of the hardscrabble life pieced together by the Baxters in that Florida wilderness, but Jody’s struggle to find a place in his own family was like a mirror to his soul. The oldest child in a large family, my son has a certain amount of responsibility thrust upon him, as well as a baseline expectation of selflessness. Like Jody, he carries the burden of having his growing identity consumed by the greater good of the family. He told me he felt used and underappreciated and I could hear in his voice that he was fighting the urge to run. I could see how Jody’s resentment struck him like a bell.
As hard as it was to hear all this, the conversation bore good fruit. We spoke honestly and I learned how to love him better. Here’s what gets me, though: my son had been carrying these feelings around with him (for how long?) yet didn’t know how to put words to them until he met Jody Baxter. This is the power of story. It helps us access the deep longings of our soul and, if we will let it, it can even point us to the True Story that provides the only possible satisfaction. My son’s experience with The Yearling taught me this because, as much as he identified with what caused Jody to flee in anger, he told me the part that felt most familiar to him was the father’s loving response upon Jody’s return.
My son broke my heart the other day. Then he pieced it back together and filled it up with these words: “Jody’s dad wanted him, and it made me think of you. Sometimes I feel like no one wants me and that I should run away. But you always bring me back.”
A father’s love will always welcome home the wandering son. The prodigal’s father will always run to embrace him. My son sees this in me even when I cannot. He knows that despite my many failings, I have an innate and fierce belief in his worth. He recognized it in Penny Baxter; he recognizes it in me. He knows that I treasure him, not because I’m particularly good at showing it but because even in my imperfect love there is an echo of God’s love for His own children. Penny and Jody Baxter helped him put it into words, but it was the Father’s everlasting love for us that made it real in his heart.
Featured image by Matthew Stoffel