This is the latest in Spectre’s ongoing series of contributions from incarcerated writers and artists. Thanks as always to Empowerment Avenue for facilitating the exchange.
I barely registered Stephanie squeezing my shoulder as she passed by on her way to her room. Sitting with the phone pressed to my ear, I stared blankly at the white cinderblock wall as tears slid silently down my cheeks. I could hardly comprehend what my sister Silmarien was saying.
Our dad was dying.
Three months earlier he suffered a massive stroke, triggering an onslaught of ministrokes and seizures. Then he contracted Covid and fell into a nearly catatonic state.
Silmarien made a strangled sound, and I shut down my feelings. I refused to add to her stress when she was in this unthinkable position. As Dad’s next-of-kin, his doctor had advised her to “think carefully about his quality of life.” Silmarien, who works in the medical field, explained that it meant that she needed to decide whether to give a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.
Swiping my free hand over my face, I swallowed and forced my throat to work. I don’t remember what I said—I was too focused on controlling my voice—but she soon calmed down. The conversation turned to other things: work, bills, kids.
When we hung up, I walked stiffly around the top tier of the housing unit to Stephanie’s room. Feeling brittle, I tapped softly on her door, croaking when she looked up, “Are you busy?”
Stephanie closed the book she was bent over. “I’m doing homework, but I can put it down.”
I entered, closing the door behind me, but I stood awkwardly, taking labored breaths and wrestling with my composure.
“Is it your dad?” Steph knew about his stroke, so it was an easy guess.
Gulping shuddering breaths, I nodded, but couldn’t speak around the hot knot in my throat.
“Want to sit down?”
I moved woodenly across the small space to collapse upon the stool she offered. Turning toward her, I shattered. The tears burst free, and I crumpled, folding over my lap with the weight of emotions I could not yet name.
Stephanie spoke softly to me, drawing me out. She listened attentively as I haltingly untangled the mass of feelings I’d carried for twenty-odd years since he and I had a relationship: hurt, sorrow, and longing compounded by the guilt of refusing his overtures of reconciliation years before, the powerlessness of being in prison and unable to do anything for him or Silmarien, and the fear of losing him before I get out.
I was struck by the heartrending realization that I may never get to hug him again, let alone say goodbye. I never thought that final chance would be taken from me. I guess a childish part of me still believed he was invincible, immortal. I couldn’t imagine my daddy dying.
It wasn’t fair, and I railed. I’d been incarcerated for fourteen years with only three left. I was so close to going home. Couldn’t he hold on a little longer?
When the torrent of my impotent anger subsided, Stephanie looked at my tear-slicked face and passed me a roll of toilet paper. “Thank you,” I mumbled, blowing my nose and slumping on the stool. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My brain felt numb. Exhaustion and the precursor to a massive migraine rapped at my temple.
Reading the pain on my face, Stephanie wrote a Post-It note for my door and ushered me back to my own room, shielding me from curious glances with an arm around my shoulders. I felt like a child as she saw me settled, fetching Tylenol from a friend a few doors down and refilling my water glass. Before locking the door, she paused. “You know where I am if you need me.”
I nodded. As the lock clicked, my gaze flicked over the small pink square stuck to the window—my armor against unsolicited, if well-meaning, concern. I shifted onto my side, putting my back to the door and swathing my heart in a sweatshirt. Soon I fell into a heavy sleep.
It was after lockdown when I awoke. My limbs felt leaden and clumsy as I stumbled to the bathroom. Seeing my reflection in the scratched metal rectangle that served as a mirror, I thought again of my dad, who I strongly resemble. I struggled to reconcile the image of the jocular giant of my childhood with the frail old man of the present. The man whose brutal strength has nurtured in me love and fear in equal measure was reduced to helplessness.
In the following weeks, Silmarien made several trips to see him, allowing me to speak with him on the phone when he could manage. Sometimes he didn’t know who I was, but occasionally he slurred a response, calling me “Pup-pup” as if I were still small enough to hold on his lap.
“When are you getting out of there?” he once asked with heartbreaking clarity, sounding decades younger than his 67 years.
“Soon, Daddy,” I rasped around the emotions clogging my throat.
Not soon enough, it turned out.
On the morning of March 20, 2023, Silmarien was crying when I called. Our dad was dead.
After I hung up, I began to cry. Within moments, Dani was beside me with her arm around my shoulders, and Kelly squatted before me with her hands on my knees.
“My dad died,” I whispered in response to their concerned queries. They murmured soothingly, stroking my arms and shoulders.
“I’ll go get the counselor.” Dani marched to the intercom beside the wing entrance. When she returned, I stood, and flanked by my friends, moved toward a table.
We’d only taken a few steps when the counselor entered, calling, “Male on the floor.” He walked toward us. “Want to come to my office?”
Nodding mutely, I followed him out the door.
This began a hectic week, and my friends were there for it all. I illegally borrowed their pin numbers to call home when I used my allotted five calls per day. I emailed all my JPay contacts and requested financial assistance to help Silmarien cover the costs of the final arrangements. To her surprise (but not mine), several of my formerly incarcerated friends and their loved ones donated to the cause. I received cards and notes from all over the compound, and I often entered a room—the chow hall, the dayroom, the library—to find myself wrapped in a warm embrace.
As I tried to help my sister prepare for the memorial service, loving hands brought me meals and bade me rest. Nachos, soups, and wraps were set before me, and those who knew of my sweet tooth brought me cookies and snack cakes. Once after a particularly trying phone call, I turned to find Risk waiting for me. She stepped to the hot pot with a coffee cup, which she handed me as a I sat down.
“Thank you,” I sighed, scrubbing my face with one hand.
Risk rubbed my back for a moment, sat down, and asked, “What can I do for you?”
Struck, I broke down. “You made me coffee,” I sobbed. She simply sat quietly beside me, her calm presence a comfort.
At night I couldn’t sleep. “My dad is dead” repeated on an endless loop in my mind. I was flooded with memories: my dad squatting on the side of the Eku pool where we spent summer days, his broad, strong back warm beneath me as I climbed onto it and wrapped my short legs around his waist. Gripping his long braid like a rein, I held my breath as he dove in, transporting me to a wonderland where light streaked patterns over his suntanned skin as he moved gracefully through the water. Darker memories plagued me as well: coming home from school one wintry afternoon, I was met in the yard by a stranger. Two cops corralled my dad as he raged about betrayal. Confusion and terror coiled in me as, directed by the stranger, I gathered some clothes and was whisked away from my home to join my siblings at the Social Services office and enter foster care. I didn’t know that would be one of the last times I saw my dad.
Restless nights and harried days blended until time for the memorial service. I attended via Microsoft Teams, sobbing silently when the Bishop played The Beatles’ “Yesterday” on the cello and again when my niece read the statement I prepared. Afterward, I was permitted some time to visit with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, who I hadn’t seen since childhood.
When I returned to the wing, Erin instantly enveloped me in a hug. She and Sarah sat with me as I decompressed, patting my hands, knees, and shoulders supportively. Despite the loss of my father and all the emotions it entailed, I felt cradled in love.
No amount of preparation could’ve prepared me for my father’s passing, but I cherish the gift of reconnecting with him before it was too late. Hearing him in such a vulnerable, childlike state forced me to confront and discard my subconscious desire for an apology that will never come. It gave us a chance to forge a new relationship, unencumbered by guilt or resentment. Although that relationship was brief, it reaffirmed a bond between us that is unbreakable by distance, time, pain, or, ultimately death.
Since his passing, I’ve struggled with anger, impatience, irritability, and deep loneliness. But he raised me to be strong, to survive. I am not broken. I am healing with the love and support of my prison family—good friends like Stephanie, Dani, Kelly, Risk, Erin, Sarah, and many others.