I am the child of an incarcerated parent. I have been the child of an incarcerated parent since the year 2000. I was 10. I am now 26. I was 9 years old when my father left. He moved to Georgia for work from our hometown of Pittsburgh. I don’t remember being particularly sad when he told us he was leaving. At that point in my childhood, our home was his revolving door. He was an alcoholic and addicted to drugs. Granted, I didn’t know that at the time — either I was extremely naive or I just had a badass mom who protected her kids from the things we didn’t need to see. Needless to say, his relocation to a different state wasn’t that big of a deal for me. I had grown accustomed to his broken promises, his unpredictability, and his absence. So I wished him luck and I went back to being a 9 year old.
When my mother told me he had gotten into trouble and that he was going to prison, I remember crying. I remember processing the news that I wouldn’t see him until I was 25. (I eventually learned that he was given a 20 year sentence, not the 15 I had originally thought.) And although I cried, I don’t remember dwelling on the news for too long. More than anything, I just wanted to know what he did to get such a long sentence. But my mother wouldn’t say. Apparently, I was too young to know. Regardless, I went on with life. I lived in the inner city of Pittsburgh and went to Pittsburgh Public Schools. Living in a fatherless home wasn’t uncommon. In fact, it was the norm. It was a much rarer sight to see a happy, two-parent home. At least, a happy, two-parent, Black home. Come my 11th birthday, I received my first of many handmade birthday cards from my dad, and by that following Christmas, my siblings and I were receiving Christmas presents from a church program that gave gifts to children of incarcerated parents. I normalized it all — the prison birthday cards that were clearly drawn by someone else, the incredibly long letters, the generic Christmas gifts (although, they gave some bomb books one year), and his Christmas wish-list sent each year that my mom would laugh at. The pain and the resentment and the emptiness didn’t come until we moved.
The summer of 2004 my family moved to the south suburbs of Chicago. I was 14 and entering my freshman year of high school. Everything about our new home was different. The people were different, the accents were different, the homes were different, and the school was very different. It was diverse. At least, far more diverse than any school I had ever gone to. It didn’t take long for me to realize just how different the people were. My peers had fathers…who lived at home. And they weren’t just the white students either. I soon realized that among many of my peers, I was one of the few without a present father. I didn’t know how to accept that. I wondered, had I normalized something that wasn’t normal? It was definitely normal back home. And yet there I was, in my foreign, new home where my normal was no longer everybody else’s normal. I can recall friends asking nonchalantly, “Where’s your dad?” To which I would reply, “Oh, he lives in Atlanta. He works down there.” I remember hearing my peers complain about their Dads and how they wouldn’t let them go out with certain guys or stay out too late or see a particular movie, and I would get so angry. Like the ‘angsty’ teenager I was, I would go home and rage in my journal:
They are so incredibly ungrateful! They have a dad in their lives that cares about them and their well being! A man that will eventually walk them down the aisle! A man they can go to Father-Daughter dances with. God-forbid he gives a damn about who you go out with!
I remember all the speech meets, soccer games, and plays that I had nobody there to watch me because my mom was either working or sleep from pure exhaustion at caring for a household by herself. I remember the elation I felt when I got into college. I sent my father my acceptance letter and told him off for the first time ever. It was very Drumline, when Nick Cannon’s character told his dad: “I did it without you.” And then I remember the utter devastation I felt when it became clear that my mom couldn’t afford to send me to college. All I had ever dreamed about was going to college. And my dreams were just shattered. All the emptiness and sadness dissipated. I was pissed. This man — my father, had the audacity to send supply lists each Christmas for things he wanted us to buy him and yet here was my mother, struggling to provide for the children he helped bring into this world. The children he left behind because he was fighting one too many demons. I had always tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. When my siblings refused to speak to him or write him back, I always did. He was still my dad. I loved him and I knew that he had to be lonely. But in that moment, my heart turned cold towards him. I stopped replying to his letters and we didn’t speak for a while.
As a 26 year old woman now, I can say that over the years my feelings towards my father have gone up and down. It’s a complicated and daunting relationship. We’re in a better place now. I even went to visit him in 2010 with my son. To this day, I think I’m the only one of his children that he’s seen since he’s left Pittsburgh. It was an incredibly emotional visit. It was like I knew him and didn’t know him at the same time. And as I grow older and he grows older, the disparity in our lives has exposed the unfamiliarity even more. He’s recently had some serious health issues. Initially, I was devastated and very emotional when I found out. But I soon became privy to some deceptive nature on his behalf which left me feeling uneasy. I had to take a step back and remind myself that yes, this is my father and he helped create me, but I don’t know this man. And I’m not sure if he knows me.
His health has worsened and he recently had heart surgery. I spoke with him before and after and I told him that I loved him. But in the moment that I found out he was having surgery, my initial thought was “Will I cry if he dies?” I’m sure that I will. I cried when Marley died. I cried when Jack died. I cried when damn near everybody in Set It Off died. I guess it only makes sense that I’ll cry when my father dies. But if I’m honest, I fear that I won’t cry the way a child cries when they lose a parent. In many ways, I feel like I’ve already lost mine. Maybe I’ll cry for his memory. Maybe I’ll cry for my son, who potentially wouldn’t have had a relationship with his Grandpa. Maybe I’ll cry for him — for the years of his life gone, the demons he couldn’t shake, the memories he missed out on. But I’m not sure if I’ll cry for me. I don’t know if I should. I don’t know if I can. When you’re the child of an incarcerated parent, you don’t have to be behind bars to also feel imprisoned. You miss out as well. Years can never be given back. And once you’re an adult, you feel like “What’s the point?” If I’ve made it along this far without him, during the years when I needed him most, do I really need him now? He missed an amazing opportunity — watching the beautiful kids he brought into this world flourish and thrive, even in his absence.
Now that I’ve written this, I think that’s what I’ll cry for.
Photo: Sophie Lécuyer