A mother’s rollercoaster ride as her son returns to prison

It’s been about a year since Charlene Briner, an official in the Minnesota Department of Education, wrote one of the most poignant and accurate statements on parenthood I’ve ever read: “You’re only as happy as your unhappiest child.”

In an occasional op-ed, radio interviews, and medium.com, she’s done what few people have been able to do with the issue of addiction and incarceration. She puts a human face on it. Her son’s. Nick.

It’s been hard for people to dismiss or turn away from his story, which she began telling just before he got out of prison last year and she was weighing what to do. People pull for her. People pull for her son. And that’s just how it should be.

Out of prison and on parole, Nick failed a drug test five months ago and fled. He was picked up on the East Coast and, in her latest post on Medium.com, Briner writes that he’s now back in Minnesota and his fate is back in a judge’s hands.

“It’s not clear to me at this time whether it would be good for Nick or me for him to return to my home, or whether it’s even an option,” she writes.

It’s hard to believe almost a year has passed since I first started sharing this journey, and more than five months since Nick took off. In that time summer turned to fall, winter turned to spring, and the world continued its steady forward march toward summer again. For the little family unit that remained in Nick’s absence — Alex and Nathaniel and me — we three endure and persevere and thrive. We’ve gone to concerts and movies and on vacation. We’ve had colds and coughs and minor infections. We’ve voted and we’ve protested and we’ve turned inward and back out again. We’ve laughed with each other and gotten mad at each other. We’ve worked hard in our respective jobs or transitioned away to start something new. Through it all we’ve stuck together, all the while still holding space, each in our own way, for the brother and son who went missing from our lives again. In short, we keep on living. There’s a lot of life to be lived in the in-between spaces while we wait for something, anything to happen.

This story isn’t over, and the next chapters are being written even as I type these words. I won’t know how it all turns out until it’s time for me to know. I pray Nick will use this setback as a springboard toward a new life. As always, it is for him, not me, to choose the path he takes. I hope he chooses well. I hope he finds compassion and mercy along the way.

For now, he’s alive and as well as can be under the circumstances. His presence — and absence — from my life colors my days, as does the presence of so many more so very dear. Each of my people, and every new day, weave together a rich tapestry that unfolds to reveal the vibrant hues and unexpected textures of my life. I draw it around my shoulders like a blanket, equal parts wisdom and comfort, pain and love, and it wraps me in a cocoon of protective warmth as I strap myself in and brace for the next steep climb up and down and around the rollercoaster again.

Not giving up on kids is exhausting work.