Only miles and bars separate a son from his father.
by J. Grant Swank
I just got home from visiting my son — in prison.
My wife and I drove the l000 miles one way, hitting the road last Tuesday morning. It was one interstate after another — not the easiest jaunt in the world, but with each visit, it becomes less burdensome. Maybe because we no longer dread the awesome front gate with its entwining barbed wire circles laced hither and yon. Nor do we feel intimated by guards standing like statues along the path to our son’s hug.
We have also passed the turn in the road when we used to hide the truth. It was no use — to us, to our son, to the world.
Since going “public” with the whole scene — our son’s incarceration for a crime he did not commit — we have come upon lots of parents who are aching beyond words. Their children too are behind bars, so they have built caring bridges toward us. We have responded with our empathy and understanding. It has turned out to be a refreshing exchange. Why? Because most of us are weighed down with too much these days. And we simply learn that we need one another now more than ever.
When I first made the trip to visit Jay in mid-state Pennsylvania, I thought I would melt before I could drag myself through that terrible front door. It was something that just was not supposed to happen to a decent family.
After all, he had been adopted into our loving hearts, brought up with birthday parties and holidays filled with cheer. Balloons, family get-togethers, laughter, goodnight prayers, and celebrations at every turn in life’s road had overwhelmed the home we provided for our children.
There was no abuse in our home, no alcohol, no threats — only warm and concerned parents with three children: Jay and his two sisters, one younger and one older.
Why then did we have to go through the hell he put us through? I don’t really know. But I do know that there are scores of other households stumbling through the same cindered corridors. And there will be too many more homes yet to undergo the dreadful scenes that we now flick across our memories.
Searching for answers
In our last visit, we talked over whether some chemical imbalance in Jay’s brain triggered this and that past violence. Could be. Jay thinks it may be so. I wonder. We dialogue about assessment and then treatment; could medication do the trick, bring a more peaceful “within” to Jay? Maybe.
Each visit to a prison house got a bit easier for the two of us. My wife and I would sit in our van on the journey — thinking, pondering, mostly comforting one another. Then would unfold those therapeutic slots of utter silence. We had no more words. Then we would let our hearts beat next to one another — quietly. Time would work it out; we’d live to see a better tomorrow.
More treks followed. There was the transfer from Pennsylvania to Ohio, then the facility in Michigan. Each trip got 250 miles more distant. But could we just shut down because there were more roads to cover, more tolls to pay, more gas to pump? No. We loved Jay. We love Jay still.
And I suppose that is most puzzling to me. I cannot figure it out, nor do I want to try. It is a chemistry known fully to God.
A troubled son
We have been so mistreated by this son of ours. He freely admits that, with tears flowing.
It was sometimes beyond what we could have imagined when first tucking our infant into that blue blanket for the ride home from the social worker’s office. Then how did that cuddly tot ever emerge into the monster we had to live with as he descended nighttime’s steep ravine in his mid-teens?
Why do I write Jay every day? Why do I clip out this article and that to slip into another envelope? Why do I run for the phone when I know it is his voice on the other end?
Because I love my son. It is a father’s way, that is, if he is truly a father.
The gift of help
I think back when I was not always what I should have been; my father was there for me. My mother, too. And more than that, the heavenly Father was with me. I know He was, for there is no other answer to how I came through some of the complicated experiences I created for my own young life.
So it is that there is something marvelous in each of us. It comes as a gift from heaven. It is that possibility to help a child in need. If we nurture that gift, it grows on us. And it becomes a flowering plant that can yield its own sweet fragrance of life.
Dreading the future
This last visit was a gem. We laughed. We ate food from the machines. We reminisced. We exchanged notes on inside prison and outside community. We talked about the hopes of tomorrow. We planned. We charted. We prayed. We embraced and then cried way down deep inside as we bade our farewells.
“Do you want to know what I dread the most about what is ahead?” Jay asked the two of us.
“No, what is it?” I asked impatiently.
“It is that one of you will die before I get out of here. I won’t have the chance to prove to you that I can be better than what I have been.”
I assured him that his mother and I are healthy, that we are going to live a good, long time. Of course, this guarantee no mortal can make; we three knew that. But I had to say it anyhow. And he received it with the father’s love in which I offered it to him.
We chatted more, about incidentals, those items that don’t really matter much. It cannot be all deep, introspective converse when visiting a son in the prison visitors’ room. There is a balance in all things, even in the talk that goes on inside those confining walls.
Love in person
“Time’s up,” the guard called out to us all.
Yes, in fact, time was up. We had visited our seven hours, and now it was time to separate from one another again . . . again . . . again.
“You are the only son I have,” I finally whispered into his ear as we embraced to leave.
“One of these days I will prove to you that I am a successful son,” he replied softly.
“You are a success to me right now,” I answered. “You love God with all your heart. That is all the success I need from you, now and ever.”
It is always a long walk from the prison entrance to one’s vehicle, no matter how close the parking lot is to the building.
Then as I slipped behind the wheel for the 1000 mile drive back home, I thought, Another visit, come and gone. Another chance to love my son — in person. May it always be so — always.
About the Author
J. Grant Swank is pastor of New Hope Church in Windham, ME, and a social worker-counselor in Portland, ME.