My dad is in prison. I don’t think I’ve ever said that in any public capacity. It’s not like it comes up organically in conversation. How do you bring that up?
“What did you do this weekend?”
“Oh nothing much. Laundry, grocery shopping, went to see my dad in jail. You know, the usual.”
But that is my usual. I wait for his weekly phone call, and we go see him as often as we can. Which isn’t as often as I’d like, but he’s almost 3 hours from us and I have to coordinate to be sure other family members aren’t planning on going the same day. Sundays are his visitation days and only 4 people can be there at a time. In the beginning, my sister and I would drive the 3 hours with our grandparents, get to visit for a few hours, and then drive the same 3 hours home.
My dad was probably going to jail. The next night, I stayed up, reading the inmate handbook.
For the first year and a half, my husband didn’t go and I didn’t take our kids. We never planned on him being gone longer than that, so we didn’t think it necessary. After he went up for parole and was denied, we made the decision to start taking them. He’d already missed so much. Kids change so quickly and we felt like it wasn’t fair to not take them. We never actually told them that Grandpa is in jail. We just call it Grandpa’s house. When he moved facilities, he was moving to a new house. Since they’re still young, they haven’t really asked a lot of questions. When they do one day, I’ll explain it all. One day.
The first big get together we had at our house after he was in jail, people wondered where he was, but no one ever asked me. It was the elephant in the room to me. As time has gone on and I’ve told some family members, the tension has eased a bit. I wonder if the ones who don’t know where he is think we’ve had a falling out. He’s called when we’ve been at events and I jump up and run to another room. No one questions it. I think about what they think.
We never actually thought that jail time was even an option. Probation and a slap on the wrist and he’d be done. For nearly two years, that’s how we operated, not knowing what was awaiting us. His lawyer finally told him that the other side wasn’t willing to settle for that and were pushing for jail. We still didn’t think it would happen though. The night before he had his last court date, I cried myself to sleep. My dad was probably going to jail. There was nothing that I could do about it.
The next night, I stayed up, reading the inmate handbook. Learning everything I could about the process, and the options available to us.
My kids, at such a young age, have been to two prisons.
The first holidays were the hardest. We waited, phone in hand, to be able to wish him a happy Thanksgiving, birthday, Christmas. To share with him our fun filled days, and try not to feel the guilt creeping in. My dad was always the first to call me on New Year’s Eve. At 12:01 I could count on looking down and seeing his name come up. I haven’t gotten that call since 2013. Lights out prohibits it. He also liked to call me on St. Patrick’s Day. “I’m the leprechaun!” he’d say in a voice that mimicked the cult movie character. A movie we watched too many times to count when I was growing up. He’s got to save his phone time, so that’s gone too.
Each visit is about 3 ½ hours. The handbook says 4. It starts at noon, but then you have to wait in line to go through security, and then for them to be notified of visitors and to get to the visitation room. Then the officers flash the lights at 3:45 and that signifies the end. There’s never enough time. You have so much to tell. But, at the same time, you feel immense guilt. Birthdays and holidays and school programs. Things every parent and grandparent are part of. Except mine. There isn’t a good description of the piece of me that is missing, that misses him. That is angry that he was taken from us for so long. That my kids only get to spend a small window of time with him. Time that has rules and regulations to it.
When he came up for parole, family wrote letters on his behalf. Even my mom wrote one, and they’ve been divorced for nearly 15 years. She has seen the pain and hurt that my sister and I have gone through. And she hurts too, for us and for him. For the time that he’s missing with his grandchildren. We didn’t tell my mom anything was going on until we had to. We kept everything a secret from her until the day after he went to jail. And then she was in shock. While their divorce was ugly, she has been an unwavering support for him since he began his sentence.
Today was visitation day. The drive isn’t awful, even with kids. They’re just excited to get to see Grandpa. They treat going through security like a game. They thinks it neat that there are corrections officers everywhere. To them, they’re just regular police officers. They don’t realize that it’s for our protection. The pictures of them on the visitation pass, they note, are from Grandpa’s old house. His old facility. My kids, at such a young age, have been to two prisons. They always want to bring things in for him, and each time we tell them that they can’t. They ask about his room: what it looks like, what all he has in it. They think it’s cool that he lives with a lot of people, that he gets to stay with friends all the time.
My dad asks me to research things he’s heard about from other inmates. Rumors of programs changing, things to help the parole process, government pardons, anything that might help him come home sooner. Most of the time, they’re just rumors. We’ve learned to not get our hopes up.
When he comes home, we’ll put up the Christmas tree, hunt Easter eggs, and wear birthday hats.
Growing up, my relationship with my dad was near perfect. No major fights, no hating each other. But when he and my mom got divorced, we went through a rough patch. I refused to talk to him for a while. It was mostly my fault. I was angry and didn’t know where to place it. My grandmother died 6 months earlier, and I was dealing with that on top of him breaking up my family. It got better once my kids were born, but when he finally told my sister and me what was going on, we were finally able to fully heal. In the months leading up to what would be his final court appearance, he spent as much time as he could with us. Some days he’d call around lunch time and ask if we had any plans that night, that he just wanted to see us. He was trying to soak up every little bit of time that he could.
“Do you miss him?” people who know where he is ask. Of course I do, why wouldn’t I? He’s my dad. “Are you mad at him?” I imagine them asking also. No. I know that he made a mistake, but I’m not mad at him. It’s in the past and over and done with. I just want him home. What do you tell your kids? Nothing? They’re too young to even grasp where he is, much less the whys that led up to it.
He’s halfway through a four phase program. We’re hoping that after he completes it, he’ll get to go in front of the parole board again and they’ll let him come home. We’ve heard some promising things, but again, we try to not get our hopes up. When he comes home, we’ll put up the Christmas tree, hunt Easter eggs, and wear birthday hats. And I will be whole again.