Katherine James, award-winning novelist, missionary, faithful follower of God, endured a nightmare no parent ever asked for. And she and her family came out of it with more hope than ever before.
In A Prayer for Orion: A Son’s Addiction and a Mother’s Love, James poignantly, honestly, heart-wrenchingly, and faithfully recounts the story of her son “Sweetboy’s” heroin addiction, his near-death experience from overdose, and his recovery, and she convinces even the faintest of heart that they can endure anything in the love of Christ.
When our children are first made known to us in utero, most of us start picturing the life we hope they will live. Whether those hopes are high—they’ll be an astronaut, discover the cure for cancer, write the next great work of fiction, invent the next greatest thing since sliced bread—or more down to earth—they’ll be a loving friend, spouse, parent, contributing member of society—they probably don’t include “they’ll become addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, almost die, but live to tell about it.”
Nobody wants that for their children.
But that’s exactly what James and her husband experienced.
A Prayer for Orion is written in James’ non-linear, almost stream-of-consciousness manner that takes some getting used to if you like your memoirs neat and tidy, but the beauty of her words is worth the sometimes-ethereal, where-are-you-going-with-this-story feeling.
Sprinkled in with the story of Sweetboy is James’ own story of her journey with God. Told in flashback manner, the story can seem to have no tie, yet her experience of a saving faith is the thread weaving every story together. Like this one:
After Lauren and Hope left my cramps started—mild at first then the tightness increasing until the familiar waves of pain began and I started whispering my mantra again, begging God to make them go away and telling him I was sorry for drinking too much and if he’d only heal me I’d stop. But this time, like a kind of spiritual hiccup, it occurred to me that the God I was begging might not even exist, and I suddenly felt a massive, heavy glob of some sort rollover on top of me and begin to erase every prayer I’d ever prayed. It suddenly occurred to me that if God didn’t exist, then I was free; without God, people could do whatever they wanted, and like little Sputniks flying around on the verge of expiring we could orbit anything—and even though I’d have to give up on prayer, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe my life would be easier if God didn’t exist. It wouldn’t matter whether I drank, or missed class, or never went to church again. (31)
Like a novel, Prayers for Orion contains quirky characters that play leading roles in the downfall and upheaval of Sweetboy’s life. James says,
“Even now I’m not sure how or when the first boy ended up in one of our spare rooms, tucked in at two in the morning, snug in the winter as the heat kicked on or with windows open in summer, the early barks of dogs in the morning.
“I called them The Lost Boys because they reminded me of the boys in Peter Pan looking for adventure and endlessly fighting the ugly, wooden-legged Captain Hook. I grew to love The Lost Boys, every single one of them.” (63)
We meet Sam and Max, Christopher and Jeremiah, Stephan and Jack. And the big guy she never names who drank too much one night, flipped his car, and died.
Along with her prose-like description of events, James also delves into the phenomenon of opiate addiction in America and gives fact-based editorials on the tragedy overwhelming so many places in the world. Admitting that she now knows way more about all these things than she ever wanted to, James warns everyone, don’t think it can’t happen to you.
In what seems a non-sequitur moment, right after describing a skateboarding accident of one of Sweetboy’s friends, in a paragraph ending in “I loved all these kids. I didn’t want anything to harm them,” James jumps to this terrifying description:
Stamped with Mickey and Snapple and Prada and Myspace, in their nebulous glassine bags, heroin is tucked into the wheel wells of cars in slow moving lanes, in the hulls of boats and hulls of airplanes, through tunnels and bolt cut fences—and enters the land of opportunity. They’re hated like plastic explosives and loved like favorite uncles. Dealers sneak around corners in silver Hondas with smoked glass windows appearing into scenes and back out, stuffing bills and thumb-sized bags of junk, dope, horse, smack, shot, H, wrapped and stamped to indicate the distributor. They step softly into bedrooms and tuck their children in; all is well and all will be well because I love you to the moon and back. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” (69)
As parents, maybe as mothers in particular, we think our love and commitment to our kids can save them. We do the best that we know how, despite the brokenness in our own souls. When they struggle, we pray and wonder what more we can do to help them. When they wander, we wonder what we could have done better.
James struggled with that concept, but comes to a riveting conclusion.
“When we mess around with ‘if onlys’ and ‘what ifs,’ oddly and irrationally, we’re trying to stamp our present knowledge onto our past ignorance as though what we know now can retroactively heal all things. . . . that peace that I experienced in the elevator as we ascended to the CCU came with a sudden revelation that caused my ‘what if?’ to become ‘even if.’ Of all of the mind games a parent—or anyone who loves an addict—can play, ‘what if’ is the worst of them. We roll the dice but we don’t want the ones, and there’s always a moment where the breath holds still before the dice lands. . . . My peace came when I realized that snake eyes or no, everything would be okay.” (203, 204)
Can we honestly say that we’d be okay if our child died of a drug overdose, or ended up in prison, or never decided to follow Jesus? One of the most profound words I have read in quite a while come from Brenda Yoder, mental health counselor and author of Fledge: Launching Your Kids Without Losing Your Mind. She said, “We aren’t called to raise godly children. We’re called to be godly parents.”
Katherine James and her husband, Rick, embody that principle. They love and keep on loving, pray and keep on praying. What God did in Sweetboy’s life wasn’t because of their great godliness and doing everything right. James says,
“God used Sweetboy’s addiction to teach me to seek him in a way I’d never had to. And as I called out to God, I began to see him everywhere. God’s effect is in the sky, the season, rocks, turtles. Waylen, Stephan, Sweetboy, love. These are the things God used to show me he was way close to my broken heart.”
A Prayer for Orion will make that abundantly clear for you, too.