Father’s Day in prison is disheartening. Far away from a “rainbows and flower pots” type of celebration. Far away from festivities where your children give you gifts and tell you how much they love and care about you. Being a father from behind bars is utterly impossible, something unattainable. The 15-minute phone calls hardly do justice. The number of letters you can mail in and out are few. The prison visits, unbearably short, often cause more pain than joy.
Year after year, sadness has been my amigo número uno — frustration and depression my constant companions. I have unseen my sons grow into young men, wishing I could’ve been there for them. To comfort them. To love them. To teach them about the rules of life.
Sadly, I’ll never be the father I want to be. The slammer has robbed me of such unfulfilled dreams. It ensnared me with its powerful tentacles, squeezing as tight as it could, until my emotions were squeezed out of me like juice from a wine press; pressing, pressing, pressing, until the trauma became real, until the longing for my children became numbness.
I remember my first Father’s Day inside the belly of the beast. There I sit on the 26th day of my arrest (June 21, 1998), in a cold, dimly lit room the size of a gas station bathroom, cinched in a straightjacket of loneliness and depression, bound by life’s circumstances, too illiterate to comprehend. Three weeks have passed. Three weeks waiting for a phone call. Three weeks wishing to hear my sons’ voices.
Dangling keys slam against my cell door. A hand sign from a jail guard outside the rectangular plexiglass window telling me the coinless, blue phone on the wall has been turned on. The first breath of air to my drowning state of mind. A Father’s Day gift.
“Dada, Dada,” Keanu says when he hears my voice, his crying voice pleading, “Come home, come home.” Tears roll down my face like hot lava. A burning sensation tries to suffocate me. I grip the phone tighter and tighter. “Dada, Dada,” he says, then begins crying senselessly. The burning pain causes me to lose my breath. I inhale air deeply. One time. Two times. Three times, trying to maintain my composure.
“Put mommy on the phone,” I say. Without warning, the phone hangs up. I remain motionless, phone in hand, repeatedly saying, “Hello? Hello?” No one is there. Just silence. Anger envelops me. My face feels hot. In the semi-darkness a hurtful, shrill cry emanates from the deepest part of my soul, “Why? Damn it! Why?” Hoping someone could hear me, wishing someone could help me.
I slam and slam the phone against its receiver, until the handle breaks into three pieces. I punch the wall with abandon, until my knuckles bleed. No one hears my sobbing and wailing. No one feels my agony and pain. I slowly sink down to the floor resting on my buckled knees, slowly muttering, “Why, God?”
After a while, I look up to see the barely legible pencil-written words I’ve been seeing on the wall for the past three weeks, “They left me among the dead and I leave a corpse in the grave. I’m forgotten I’m in a trap with no way of escape. My eyes blind with fear. Each day I beg for help. Psalm 88.”
From the last tenant. Presumably lost. Presumably gone.
Later, I’m lying under a burlap-sack-looking blanket. Somehow sleep comes easy. Profound. The jail guard hasn’t made its usual rounds. Likely due to my state of mind. The next day, I am awakened to a banging on the cell door. A jail guard slides a plastic tray with breakfast through the door slot. Then the days go on.
One more week transpires. I am moved out of suicide watch. By then, Father’s Day is a distant memory. More demanding things are taking preeminence: my pregnant wife living out in the streets with no place to go, with a three-year-old by her side, a lengthy prison sentence hanging over my head (which in the end transmutes into a 40-year sentence).
This year, Father’s Day in the slammer will just be another day. Just like the past 24 have been. With the same admonishment I give my sons, “This is no place for the living. This is a place for dying. Dark and lonely. Oppressive and emotionally numbing.”
Regardless, Nick, Keanu and Austin will continue to wait for their father to come home. For one day to hug him without shackles, without fetters, without prison bars; to take him places of their own choosing, without restrains, without rules, without prison guards.
But then again … hope looks bleak. It always seems pointless. For what the belly of the beast did not devour, the sunless joy scorched; what the sunless joy did not scorch, man’s years have annihilated. No matter what, the slammer has won. I am no longer the person I once was. The mourning laughter, the wrinkle-covered face, the graying hair, the scarred emotions, the illusion of reprieve, all define a life long lost, long gone, long dead. … I’ll never be a father again.
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