On Sunday we drive to prison. I have packed snacks for the children. They have charged their phones. We start early, when the roads are empty.
I used to cry on this drive. Now I don’t. I don’t seethe anymore, either. And I’ve stopped hoping. Everything that could go wrong already did. No more detours are possible around the scorched landscape of our life. All I can do is witness. Every bump in the road. Rain, splashing on the windshield. The rhythmic swishing of the wiper blades. I am barren of feeling beyond the resistance of the gas pedal, the smooth surface of the wheel, and the ache in my lower back that will grow as hours of driving go by.
My oldest, Maryanne, is bopping her head to the music in her headphones. When the disaster struck, she was ten. Old enough to comprehend, not old enough to process. Now, three years later, she is the wisest teenager I know. She is my rock.
In the rearview mirror, I see a fragment of eleven-year-old Theo’s face, a male version of my own. He’s like me in other ways, too: quiet, ruminating, ambitious. School and sports are his fallout shelters. He’s not one to share feelings. I hope he’s okay. I hope he will be.
Next to him, Ricky is building a city in Minecraft. His face, so cute I want to squeeze it in my hands, has already lost some of its cherubic softness, and his hair has darkened from straw color to heather. Three years ago, he still slept in his crib and smelled of milk and honey in the morning. To him, Papa is working. We go visit Papa at his workplace. When Papa’s done with work, he will come home.
This is what I’ve been telling him. He suspects something is not quite right with Papa and his work; I see it in his eyes. But he doesn’t ask, and I don’t tell him. That’s one thing I’ve learned. Don’t rush trouble. Trouble will come on its own time.
“How long till we are there, Mama?’ Ricky asks.
“About three hours.”
“Oh. That’s not that bad, actually. Right, Mama?”
“That’s right, honey. It’s not that bad.”
Close to 11 a.m., we get to the small sign marking the road to the correctional facility. Rolling hills, woodsy mountains in the distance, families of geese plucking fresh grass—this does not feel like a setting for a prison. Except it is. The serpent of razor wire and armed guards manning watch towers are part of the scenery. This is our reality: the neighboring of the normal and the not-normal.
We are allowed to bring in a clear plastic bag with change for the vending machines and the car key. Everything else stays in the car. Rain slaps our faces as we run for the door.
Inside, it is once again normal: a spacious hall with a front desk and a waiting area. We sign in. In front of us, a woman is arguing with a correctional officer. “What do you mean, these won’t do?” her voice climbs. “What’s wrong with them?”
I crane my neck. She’s holding her shoes: black clogs. No go.
I’ve made my share of mistakes like that: a green shirt once; a sleeveless dress another time; my son had had a hoodie on; my daughter had worn tights. Here, they don’t care if you cry or beg. Drive to the nearest Walmart for a different outfit, if you can afford it. If you can’t, you’ve just wasted a six-hour trip. Once, I saw an older gentleman turned away because he was wearing olive-colored pants. He kept asking why they weren’t allowed. That’s useless. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, or whether there is one. It is what it is. The less you resist, the less it hurts.
Finally, they round visitors up for a hand stamp, and lead us outside in a long procession. Under the rain, we crowd at a red line on the ground, waiting for a ruddy, heavyset correctional officer to shuffle to the next line, some twenty yards ahead. We are wet and cold.
Wet and cold, that’s what humility feels like now. I used to feel the burning heat of humiliation. Not anymore.
The visiting hall is a large space with windows along two sides. Opposing rows of plastic blue chairs are bolted to cement floor. Knee-high tables separate the rows. Another correctional officer checks our hand stamps, and points to a table at the far corner. That’s where we are to sit. One of the chairs has a number on it. That’s for the prisoner. I can’t sit next to him, only across. The children are allowed to sit next to their dad, although they’ve kicked both Maryanne and Theo off the side chairs before. For being too big, maybe. I don’t know. You don’t argue here. It is what it is.
I give the kids money for vending machines. This might be the most exciting part of the trip for them, junk food they don’t eat at home. We never know what will be in those machines. All I know is the food is horrible, and horribly overpriced. A hot dog made of soy is four dollars. An iced tea is four dollars and forty cents. Whoever runs this business has it made: we are stuck here for hours, a captive audience with no alternative.
Today, Ricky is out of luck. He’s allergic to dairy and soy. Sometimes they have pretzels or PB&J sandwiches. But not today. He can’t have anything to eat. The corners of his mouth drop a little, but he doesn’t say a word. He knows there’s nothing we can do. It is what it is. A juice is great, too.
“That’s right, honey.”
My husband comes out of the “Inmates Only” door, smiling, spreading his arms wide for hugs even before he reaches our chairs. He’s always been the optimist, focused on the bright side of everything and everyone. To his downfall.
Rick jumps into his father’s lap, nuzzling his neck, playing with his hands. Maryanne sits to the right. She ruffles her dad’s hair before she throws her arm around his shoulder. She looks just like him, and has that same jovial air about her. Same long limbs. My husband used to take up so much space––at the table, on the couch, in life. Now, he’s curtailed. Prison does that.
I have to push Theo to sit by his father.
“Come on, Theo.”
He doesn’t want to, but he doesn’t want to argue, either. He moves across the row. Theo is incapable of small talk. He doesn’t like putting on a fake smile. I know how he feels.
Sometimes we can get cards from the guards. Then we can play UNO, laughing, teasing each other. A tiny bit of normal amidst the non-normal. But today the cards are all checked out. The kids eat the junk food and drink their juice and iced tea. We spoil their dad, buying him two ice creams, one after the other. A tiny bit of normal.
The room grows noisier. Babies cry. People speak louder. A thunderous cloud of sound presses down on me, vibrating in my ears. I try to imagine it’s the ocean, try to let it settle around me without drowning in it. But, little by little, I run out of air.
Like Theo, I have too much to say and not enough time, not enough space, to say it. The words stick to my throat, clotting, swelling into a knot that threatens to squeeze tears out of my eyes. I swallow hard and blink. I’m fine. I have to be.
Once, a long time ago when I still had hope, I cried in the visiting room while I waited for my husband.
“Miss?” The voice rose to the surface of the sea of sound. Two chairs away from me, an inmate reached a spade of a hand in my direction, long brown fingers loose.
“Are you okay, miss?” he asked. “You alright?”
I wasn’t. But he knew that. He wasn’t really asking. He was acknowledging. Not looking away. Witnessing. I had realized then it can be enough.
I look at my husband now. He’s lost a lot of weight over the past three years. He pinched a nerve in his neck, and now he can’t turn his head, so he moves by pivoting his entire body instead. He’s also had an eye infection for months. The eyelid hangs low, pink and bumpy. There’s no medical care to speak of here, unless it’s a broken bone or an open wound. I hope he doesn’t lose his vision in the infected eye. I hope his neck recovers. I can’t help. I can only witness.
The plastic chair is killing my back. It’s too loud to carry on a conversation, and Ricky is getting tired and cranky. He whines, Maryanne snaps at him, he yells back at her. I grab Ricky by the hand and pull him, balking, away from his dad for a stern talk. He wraps his little arms around me and weeps.
“Can we go home, Mama, please?”
I want to cry, too. I stroke his hair and kiss his wet cheeks.
“Soon, honey. Just a little longer.”
I catch my husband’s pained gaze. But there’s nothing we can do.
When the visiting hours are over, the inmates line up at the far wall while we wait to be escorted out. Ricky has that lost look again, like he knows something is wrong. He turns his head side to side, then mutters, “This place.” And, louder, “Mama? This place. Is it a prison?”
I peer into his winter-colored eyes. I nod.
“Papa’s in prison?” His eyes fly wide open. “For what?” His crystalline voice rings high over the low rumble of the hall. People’s heads turn.
I bend down, and hug him. “I will tell you everything when we are home. Okay? I will answer all your questions. I promise. Let’s just get home, honey, please?”
On the way back, the children fall asleep. Miles stretch like a long, gray rubber band. A slow fire in the small of my back spreads to my shoulder blades, digs deep like a dull blade. Every car ahead of me is a minute longer before I can lay down. Every road construction is extending the misery.
The pain is all I can think about.
Thank god for the pain.
As we pull in to the driveway, I envision opening the door, walking into the house, finally stretching my back. I can see myself plopping onto the couch and throwing my feet up.
“Mom, can we eat?” Theo yawns in the back seat.
“Seriously, Theo? Can we get out of the car first?” I croak, slamming the car door behind me.
“I’m sorry, Mom!”
“I have just driven for three hours, can I get a moment of rest before I have to––”
“Mom! I’m sorry!” He hugs me, almost my height, thick chestnut hair down to his chin. “I can make myself food. You rest, okay?”
I crumble inside. They deserve a better mom than me. I fail them every day. They deserve fun, surprises and fireworks, amusement parks and movie theaters, and all I can give them is a tiny bit of normal. Sometimes, not even that.
“I’m sorry, honey. I’ll make food. Can you please take the garbage bins to the curb while I cook? Maryanne, can you take the dog for a walk, please? Ricky? Grab all that trash from the back seat and help Theo.”
The warmth and smell of home envelope me like a safety blanket. I’ve managed to keep this house. There was a point when I thought we’d lose that, too, but I bargained and begged, sold everything I could, and we kept it. Their childhood home. I send a wave of gratitude in some vague upward direction.
I boil water for pasta, and heat up the meatballs I made the day before. Thank god I can give my children good food. Thoughts about my husband’s prison diet knot my stomach.
I remember I haven’t eaten since last night. I should eat. But the tightness below my ribs balks at the thought. I will eat tomorrow.
“Mommy, I can put Ricky to bed,” says Maryanne. She throws long arms around me, towering a full head above. Soon I will be the shortest person in the family.
“No honey, I need to talk with him before bed. I’ll do it.” I kiss her. She smells of violets and rose water, and the skin of her cheek is smooth as a pearl. So beautiful, my girl.
“Want me to bathe him?”
“Oh, that would be great. Thank you.”
When the kids disappear upstairs, I make myself tea. The dog scratches at my thigh until I drag her onto my lap. She curls into a ball and buries her nose into the crook of my elbow. A long sip of the hot liquid rolls down my throat, down my chest, into my stomach. I take a deep breath.
This moment, with the silence, the dog in my lap, a warm cup in my hands: I wish my husband could have it. I imagine his life now, day after day, with no comfort of any kind. I want to claw my chest open, and rip out my heart. But there’s no altar where I can lay it to make any difference. I can’t help.
“Mommy? Ricky is washed and ready for bed.”
I’ve dreaded this conversation for the three years after my husband ended up in prison, and for the years before then, when the likelihood of his imprisonment hung over our lives like Damocles’s sword. He refused to believe it, refused to even talk about it. But I lived in fear, painting scenarios, the worst of which came true. Here comes one more.
In his room, Ricky’s sporting his favorite dinosaur pajamas. He exudes the smell of bubble bath, his hair wet and tousled, his cheeks red.
“Honey,” I sit into the chair that rocked my three children through bedtime stories. “Today, instead of reading, how about we talk? You can ask me anything you want, and I will answer. Is that okay?”
He doesn’t meet my eyes, sinking into a beanbag by my side.
“You know now, Papa’s in prison.”
He bites his lip.
“You asked why. This is the truth, baby.”
I can’t do this.
I have to.
“Papa didn’t hurt anyone. He didn’t steal anything. He made a mistake. Trusted a person who wasn’t a good friend. And he gave money to a someone he shouldn’t have.”
Could I have stopped him? He never listened to me, not about his business, and not about his partner, the backstabbing lying creep. Still, I should have insisted.
“We’re just greasing the wheels, that’s all. It’s perfectly legal,” he’d said then. “Why do you always assume the worst? Everything will be great!” I loved that buoyancy, loved him. I trusted his judgment. That was my mistake. Now, this is my reckoning.
Rick looks up at me, his round forehead crinkled as he tries to understand. His lips tremble.
I break the suffocating silence. “But you know what’s good? Papa loves you very, very much. He thinks about you all the time. He calls every day. We go visit him. And I love you more than you can even imagine. And you have your sister, and your brother, and we have the doggy—we are a family, you know?”
I’ve learned this in the last three years. Find the good in the bad. Even if it’s a crumb, a scintilla. Even if it’s not there, keep looking for the good.
His eyes are wet, but he doesn’t cry. He listens intently, seeking an escape from the trap of this new knowledge.
“When will he get out?”
“Before you turn eight.”
Ricky jumps off the beanbag and runs to a calendar on his door. “Let me see,” he flips the pages. “So this is summer… And then my birthday…”
“Honey. It’s not on this calendar. It’s on the next one.”
His shoulders slump. “So, it’s going to be, how many months?”
I want to wake up from this nightmare where I’m breaking my child’s heart.
“A year and five months.”
He walks over and climbs into my lap. I rock him, back and forth, like I did when he cried as a baby.
“It’s actually not so bad. Right, Mama? A year and five months is not so bad. Right?”
I hate this. I want to smash something. I want to run away. Just end this, please. I’m pleading with some power that has long ago proven impotent or indifferent. Please make this stop!
I don’t expect a miracle, or an answer. There’s nobody out there. It’s just me, and I have to live through this, too.
Back and forth, I rock us. Back and forth.
“That’s right,” I say. “It’s not so bad.”
“Mama, you know what? I don’t want to talk about it with my friends.”
“I think it’s a good idea, honey. You can talk to me about it, and to your sister or your brother, if you want.”
Ricky’s furrowed brow relaxes at a new idea. He fidgets in excitement. “And when he comes out, can he walk me to the bus stop in the morning? And I can wave to him from the window?”
“Sure,” I say.
The truth is, ICE had put a detainer on my husband. Ricky may never walk to the bus with his dad. I don’t know what will happen, and I can’t worry about it now. It is what it is. There’s nothing I can do.
Ricky grins. He still has all of his baby teeth, though one is hanging at an odd angle, ready to fall out. “When he comes out, I can show him my new bed, and everything that I drawed––”
“Everything that I drew.”
“Yes, he would love that.”
“Well, it’s not really so bad then. And I hope nobody in our family gets deserved like Bryan’s parents.”
“Yeah, that’s really bad. I hope nobody ever does that and move away forever and stuff.”
“Me too, honey.”
I kiss him and squish him into a bear hug until he giggles. He is fine for now. For tonight. Tomorrow or in a few days he will want to talk about it again. I will worry about it then.
The house grows still. I turn off the lights and fill the bathtub. I’m cold, so cold I shake and shiver like a stray dog on a winter night. I lower myself into the hot water. I slide down until the water licks the sides of my face and my hair floats in a dark nimbus. All I hear is my heartbeat: knock, knock. Knock, knock.
God, help me.
Ricky’s silver voice echoes in my mind. “It’s not so bad, actually. Right, Mama?”
The pangs of hunger that clutched at my guts have lifted, leaving behind feathery lightness. The backache is gone.
“It’s not so bad, honey,” I hear myself reply.
Thank you, I think in a vague direction upward, and inward, and all around.
Knock, knock, my broken heart beats.
It’s not so bad.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.