When a mother brings a beautiful baby boy into the world, she does not visualize her child growing up to be a drug addict, living on the street, or bouncing in and out of incarceration.
But in my case, that is exactly what happened to my son. Over the years, Billy’s succession of troubles took a great toll on him and our family. It culminated with a phone call in the middle of the night and the words “William is deceased.”
All I could do was shout, “Billy isn’t dead—you’re lying! Take it back. Please, let it not be true.” I laid on the floor in shock for hours, crying until I had no more tears. My world was shattered; time itself seemed to stop. For months, my heart felt like it had been ripped right out of my body. My beloved son was dead at the age of thirty-four, and I had no clue how I was going to go on living.
You would think I might have been angry with God, to whom I had prayed so hard for Billy over the years. But I was not. I knew that God doesn’t make mistakes and that I needed to trust him. But I also needed time to process and to come to terms with Billy’s death.
My Complicated Son. Billy often seemed like two different people as he was growing up. He was the teenager found smoking marijuana, skipping school, and getting into scrapes with the law. But he was also the teenager who attended Mass and lit up family gatherings with his sense of humor—and who, at age thirty, moved home to support me after my husband died. Billy held my hand and told me to trust God even as he himself struggled with alcohol addiction and other demons.
Throughout his life, family members tried to help Billy find work. We brought him to therapists and surrounded him with love and support. But despite all of our best efforts, Billy’s problems only seemed to escalate. We were not seeing any progress or improvement; he kept struggling with addictions, and we knew he was on the brink of deep trouble.
You may be wondering, “Where does God play a part in all of this?” My answer is that Jesus was with us since the time Billy was born. Jesus helped me figure out how to love my son, even when his actions confused me or when his circumstances were deeply painful for our family. When earthly help was not available and hope seemed to be gone, I turned to God. It was the only thing I could do!
Praying for a Miracle. For years, I begged Jesus to cure Billy’s addictions. I prayed and cried to the Lord daily and fervently on behalf of my son. My favorite Scripture verse was “Ask and it will be given to you; . . . For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8). I had faith that God would give me a miracle just like he gave St. Monica, whose prayers for her son Augustine helped him to be healed and return to the Church. But God had his own better plan. The miracle that came didn’t come in the way that I had expected. In fact, I didn’t even recognize it at first.
The situations in Billy’s life were getting worse and so were the consequences. He was incarcerated off and on for a slew of misdemeanors, and in 2017 he finally landed in solitary confinement. He described it as a living hell on earth—one that finally took him to his knees.
There in solitary, around Christmas (also my birthday, and a difficult time to have him away), Billy had an encounter with Jesus that moved him to change. At the time, he took pen to paper and wrote, “I have hit my bottom. But when I come out of here, I am going to be stronger than ever.” He wrote, “I needed this for my soul. I am not going to blame God or anyone else. God is done listening to my feeble excuses. He wants action.” He sent me a letter saying that he had felt the presence of God there with him in his cell and had started reading the Bible. Never once before this had I heard him say, “I’m going to try turning to Jesus as the answer—to Jesus as my friend.” This was a clear answer to my prayers!
A Brief Gift of Closeness. Soon after, in February 2018, Billy was released from jail. He had a new strength that was different. He finally felt a connection to God, and he seemed to be at peace with himself and with life. He and I talked on the phone or hung out every day. I took him to visit his nieces and nephew and watched his joy as he played with them and held them. God had visibly worked in his life.
Billy and I shared a new closeness as mother and son that I had always dreamed would be possible. And he told me that he wanted to be a better man. He even asked me to take him to church so that he could go to Confession! He wanted to make peace with God for the many sins he said he had committed during his times in darkness.
When Billy walked out of the confessional, he said that a huge weight had been lifted from his soul. The priest had been welcoming and nonjudgmental. He told Billy that God was rejoicing because one of his lost sheep had returned to the fold. My son seemed giddy with joy and peace. For the next three Sundays, he and I attended Mass and received the Eucharist together. Finally, I was granted the gift of being close to my son again.
God Sees the Whole Picture. On Billy’s fourth Saturday out of jail, I called him to make plans to go to Mass the next morning. I would pick him up, and then we would have breakfast together. He was watching his beloved Florida Gators basketball game and eating pizza. I was teasing him about their losing streak, and he was laughing and teasing right back. He ended the phone call with “I love you, Mom,” and I told him the same. I said that I would see him tomorrow.
Only I didn’t see him the next day. Billy died that night from an accidental overdose. Although he had sounded so happy, hopeful, and calm, my son was still struggling with the demons in his head.
I know in my heart that Jesus took my son at the right time because Jesus doesn’t make mistakes. He is a good God who loved my son even more than I did. In Jesus’ omnipotence, he saw the whole picture, and he decided it was time for Billy to join him in heaven. There was no mistake! My sadness is still very real, but I can see that I did what I was supposed to do. I put my son into God’s hands and let go.
The final miracle I got was not what I asked God for; it was actually better. He gave my only son the gift of repenting, receiving Jesus into his heart through the Eucharist, and dying in a state of grace. He gave Billy everlasting life, and now my son is in heaven with both of his fathers.
And me? I’ve become involved in a new Catholic Charities program called Welcome Home Reentry. We become one-on-one mentors for addicts who come out of jail and need a jump start in life. But most of all, we listen and try to be a support system so that they know they have not been left behind.
I hope that through this, I am honoring my son’s life. Through all of Billy’s ups and downs, his life still has a meaning, a message, and a purpose: to spread the hope that even in the midst of our children’s most pressing struggles, God has a plan. And often, we parents play a role that we don’t expect—but that is our road to heaven too.
Judy Wetzel lives in Virginia. To learn about mentoring prisoners as they reenter society, contact your local diocesan prison ministry or Catholic Charities.
Judy's Prayer for Partners
For ten years, Judy has supported Partners in providing free copies of The Word Among Us to build up the faith of more than 71,000 incarcerated men and women just like her son, Billy. That’s because she feels such deep compassion for mothers who go through the pain of watching their sons go to jail.
“I thought that if I could be doing just one thing, it would be praying for Partners and giving,” she said. We know that Judy’s prayers and her help to provide spiritual support to people in prison have made a life-changing difference.
Will you join Judy in her prayers for us? Please also consider becoming a Partner. So many more prisoners are waiting for a chance to experience God’s love through his word.
$50 sends The Word Among Us to four prisoners for a whole year. You can make a tax-deductible donation online at our secure website, waupartners.org. Or you can donate by calling 1-800-775-9673 or by mailing a check to
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