On each visit, I check in with the front officer. After he verifies my ID, I ask for permission to embrace my father. Often my dad chokes up when we hug. His voice breaks when he says, “Son, I love you. I’m happy you came to visit me.” Tears always appear as I listen to his voice and then look into his eyes. Every visit he looks different, more aged, beaten down. Bow bent. Though his eyes remain the same when he is looking at me, his eyes change when he stares into the wall, lost in his thoughts. There seems to be tremors of something unknown.
We wait for the officer to write our names into the log book, assign our seats and release us. Sometimes we sit next to one another, sometimes across and sometimes diagonal. Seating is controlled.
Visiting rooms are always severely finished. The floor is of the simple cold government tile that ages and dirties over the years leaving a sort of brownish tint. Vending machines line one end of the room. At the other end is an old worn poster, a depiction of a barren tree and a plain green field. It’s there for Polaroid pictures. For five dollars, families purchase a picture with their loved one. These background pictures have a fake institutionalized look about them. I have one. The backdrop is cheap and plain and fools no one. One person is dressed in state-assigned clothing, the other in street clothes.
Over the poster hangs one of those universal black and white clocks that you see in most state buildings. It ticks and tocks. It echoes through the mausoleum.
I bring my bag of coins. It’s junk food time. I go back and forth to the vending machines getting my dad whatever he wants. It’s a time to get all the treasured snacks restricted on the inside. There is something satisfying in buying these goodies.
There is always a race to the vending machines. Packaged food is gourmet to famished men. I have a hard time getting these fine foods before they are taken. It’s sort of like Black Friday. With such hope, you race to the lines. It is said, “Let us do small things with great love.” 12
We take our seats and catch up. It’s always a little awkward starting the conversion. Where to begin? We talk about family, what’s going on the outside, what’s happening on the inside. I try to make jokes to see him smile and to ease tension. Then I move toward the new things happening in life. I remember when I first told him about volunteering in prison and how that was changing my life.
We talk about our lives, but more importantly, just ‘be’ together. Being is better than doing.13
There are certain topics that come up every visit. He is interested in our family tree so I study our history and tell new facts concerning our lineage. At certain points during our conversation, I think of new questions to ask and new topics to explore, wanting to know him better. He always talks about the case, the latest insights, and how his lawyer will get him out soon. He always hopes. I like that in him.
Then there is the moment when he faithfully asks the same question. And faithfully I give him the same answer. Every time we visit, he asks: “Son, do you believe that I didn’t do it? That I’m innocent?”
To which I always responded with, “Dad, I know you didn’t do it.”
It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to have my own father look into my eyes for approval. It’s impossible to explain what it feels like when he looks into my face to see if he is okay. It just shreds me. He looks deep into my eyes for love. “Am I alright, son? Am I still loved, still valued, son?” There is a certain weight in the universe he gives to a response. In that moment it’s as though he finds acceptance from more than just me. Perhaps my face somehow represents the face of others. I’m the only connection to outside life. There is a sort of consent to move on that seems to come through me, his son. It’s a reversal of the natural order. It hurts.
On visits, over the phone, by mail, my answer was always the same: “Dad, I know you didn’t do it.” Ten long years of longing approval, longing hope.
But this changed as I changed, as love for the broken changed me. Love is often submerged, often beaten, often darkened, and often tired. But innocent love sometimes gleams in the fragments of hell.
This went on until one day when we were talking over vending machine cake, cake warmed by a broken microwave. We were talking about cars, one interest I inherited from him, when he looked off at the wall. Lost, seeing into the unknown, he turned, looked at me with those familiar eyes, longing eyes to be loved, to be reconciled, to lift the shame and the despair and to complete the broken self. He said, “Son, you don’t believe that I did it, do you?”
This time I said, “Dad, whether you did or didn’t, I love you the same. I know you didn’t, but even if you did, it doesn’t change my love for you. I love you the same either way. I love you because you are you, not because of what you do, or didn’t do.”
In silence, he looked at me; I looked at him. From our eyes we saw “what passes from within.” For a moment time stopped and we each saw the person we loved.
We only looked into each other’s eyes. What did his eyes say? What did my eyes say? Loving eyes, bare, real, vulnerable eyes. We looked and said nothing. I looked past my pain and saw his. He looked past his and saw mine. Our eyes said, “Into me see.”
Finally, he smiled and spoke: “Son, I love you.” And healing blessedness twice passed over our faces. 14
That was the last time he asked.
**From the book: Opening Happiness