Parenting from prison

They locked him up and threw away the key. But, as I.M. GreNada writes, his stepkids found it

Through one-way security glass, I saw my wife and stepchildren before they saw me. They sat in their usual spot — the penitentiary visiting room. I imagined the kids’ smell: Juicy Fruit gum and summer-holidays hair. I smiled. Then, with a starter-pistol crack, the electric door in front of me snapped open, and I stepped into the ecstasy of a happy family. But as I walked toward them that evening nine years ago, I could see something was wrong. Hurt surrounded the three of them like a storm. “Taylor’s shoe rang for heroin on the ion scanner,” announced my wife, Mercedes. (I’ve changed all the names to protect my family’s privacy.) The crimson shadow across her face showed her frustration. So much for my weekly hug. “Taylor, I’m sorry, buddy. What happened?”

Our 12-year-old son shrugged like kids do when they’re not sure if they’re in trouble. “I don’t know,” he said. His eyes forecast tears. “I didn’t do nothing. The man asked me why I had hair, hair — I don’t know, something like that — on my shoe. I told him I don’t even know what it is, and he said, ‘Yeah, right.’”

Now the flood waters breached his eyelids. His 10-year-old sister followed on cue. Prison Parenting 101, I thought. Class now in session.

The path to prison

The path to prison began for me at five years old and didn’t turn the corner until my 28th birthday. During that unbroken stretch, school expulsions turned into breached probation, then removal from my home, repeated sojourns in jail and, finally, a life sentence for murder. I was a kid who just wouldn’t learn his lesson.

“Keep it up, boy, and they’re going to throw away the key,” Dad often said. When his prophecy finally came true, the only thing left was my desperate wish for a do-over. Then that undeserved wish came true.

I was 30 when Mercedes entered my life, bringing with her Taylor and Rachel, then seven and five. Their arrival paralleled other big changes in me. Behind bars, I had learned the value of spirituality. I had also received training as a counsellor and a tutor. News of my transformation was getting around.

Mercedes was at a dinner with her faith community when she first heard about me. Curious by nature, she wrote and asked me for details. Why had I murdered another human? Was I truly sorry? If so, what was I doing to prove it? While her questions were pointed, her tone was gracious. As my answers turned into six-page letters, a relationship flourished. The letters then turned into visits, with her children in tow. Somewhere we passed a point of no return, and in the sun-washed spring of 1999, what had been the Group of Four became a family.

Keeping the family strong

The first question we’re usually asked is how we could have made that choice. The second is how we have continued to make it for more than 12 years. The answer is that, although our surroundings are unusual, we’re in many ways just a family doing our best to face a difficult time together. For us, keeping things in perspective, giving everybody room to just be, and never losing our sense of humour have proved to be important tools.

No one has wielded those tools better than Taylor and his sister. On our wedding day in the prison’s chapel, Rachel was to carry the flowers. Whether it was nerves or a stomach bug, we’ll never know. What we do know is that in our wedding photos, the flower girl carried a four-litre plastic puke pail. At least she was smiling.

Parenting from jail

When Mercedes and I figured out we were in love, our immediate reaction was panic. After all, she came in threes and I was property of the state. Every way we measured, the barriers to entry were too high. But when the months passed and love’s longing didn’t, it became evident that the status quo was no longer an option. We either had to commit or walk away. The latter was unbearable, the former unknowable. If we committed to building a family in the big house, what would it look like? Where would we live? How could I contribute as a real parent? The questions seemed unending. But we met every hurdle with a leap of faith.

Before we became family, Taylor, Rachel and I had been easy pals. Every visit from them shone a new beam of sunshine onto the dreary backdrop of my life. Although face painting, three-legged races and ball tag aren’t the first things you might think of when you hear the words “maximum-security penitentiary,” the pen I was in had never seen the likes of these two. Taylor and Rachel came up with the idea for a Family Sports Day. Prisoners and their children competed in events together, ate ice cream and even tossed water balloons. The entire prisoner population passed the hat to make sure that the kids all got Olympic-style medals, pictures with their dads, and a Dairy Queen gift certificate. Family Sports Day became a summer staple at that prison. Rachel and Taylor had brought the screams, squeals and laughter of playing children to a place where screams mean something else.

As foggy as Mercedes and I were about living arrangements, we were adamant that the kids’ needs would come first. That meant giving them as much time as they needed to digest that I would now be their father. It also meant that they would have a place at the table in family matters that affect them. Adopting that standard early has pulled us out of more than one sticky situation.

Keeping emotions in check

That day Taylor innocently activated the alarm of the prison’s drug-detection equipment (it turned out to be a false positive), my first reaction was anger. Anger at a public servant who would be so careless with the feelings of a 12-year-old. Anger that my family had to go through such a frightening process just to see me. Anger at myself for bringing them here. But a loaded glance from Mercedes told me that my temper was only feeding the children’s anxiety. I had forgotten the golden rule about whose baggage gets processed first.

Somehow I found the pause button on my emotions, and held them in check long enough to offer some empathy. We started a family discussion about drug abuse. Together we told the kids how much we trust them and how deeply we love them. A visit that began horribly ended with me thanking Rachel and Taylor for standing by me and spending time with me. That final comment earned me the hugs I had craved all week, and reminded me that being a prisoner never absolves me from being a parent. It’s a lesson my stepchildren have been teaching me for 14 years. But it’s not the only one.

The power of listening

Taylor and Rachel have taught me that the things that are important to them need to be important to me. They’ve helped me to reveal the shameful events from my past with dignity. They’ve shown me how to be there for them when I can’t be there with them. For me, the key has been to open my ears. Taylor and Rachel have never asked me for an all-expenses paid trip to Toys“R”Us. What they have asked is for me to listen — and care — as they tell how it feels to be overloaded with school work or to have a fight with a best friend. They want to know that I’m involved in their emotional life.

Being able to convey that message to their young hearts has taken some imagination from all four of us. Mostly it comes through weekly visits and daily phone calls. Another lifesaver for us is good old snail mail. In an age when kids text from their bedroom to the kitchen to ask about supper, a handwritten letter might seem passé. But some of the memories our kids value most are the cards and letters they’ve received from me by post. Still, there have been times when the challenge of the medium has been far outweighed by the burden of the message.

Explaining crime to kids

This was never more evident than when I searched for a way to tell Taylor and Rachel why I am in prison. How do you explain murder to trusting little souls? That question plagued my sleep for a year. Then, one of our children showed me the way. Taylor was eight when he asked his mom why I was here. Mercedes said that I had hurt some people and the police had locked me up for it. “Oh,” he said simply, before returning to his Transformers. It took him a year to revisit the subject. “How much did he hurt the people?”

His mom sat him down, ensured his full attention, and then answered. “Badly. He killed a man.” Silence. Then, after looking out the kitchen window, he responded.

“Oh.”

Later, Mercedes checked in on him. She found him lying on his bed reading an Archie comic. Evidently Betty and Veronica had sufficed in the absence of a trauma therapist. It’s a pattern I’ve since become familiar with. They ask the question that’s important to them and take what they need from the answer.

All grown up

Taylor turned 21 this year. He’s a Christian minister, a financial contributor to our family, and a remarkably balanced guy. He has used experiences from our relationship to counsel others who are going through crises. His 19-year-old sister is a community volunteer. Both place a high value on respect for authority and the law. I like to think I contributed to how well they’ve turned out. I know they think I did. But the value I have brought to their lives can never equal what being a husband and father has brought to mine.

The lessons Mercedes, Taylor and Rachel have taught me about love, patience, trust and responsibility have shaped my heart more powerfully than any judicial punishment could. While there’s a raging debate about what prisoners deserve, my kids have kept me focused on being the parent they need — and are entitled to. I think I’ve finally learned my lesson.

*I.M. GreNada is the pseudonym of a federal inmate who blogs at theincarceratedinkwell.org.