For Me, Not Him
I was sitting in the seat where many other family members waited to see the prisoner they came to visit. As I sat there waiting, I recalled how the social worker used to look at me with such pity when she would ask how I was feeling. I never told her the truth because I knew better.
These guards are anal about following orders and being at the check-in at the precise time, but when it comes to taking the prisoners to the visitation area, they take their time, as if to taunt them. The walk to the visitation area was familiar to me. Roughly every 50 feet, there was a gate to unlock and the next one would not open until the last one was shut. The fence was thick and the barb wire at the top made the sky look limited. After about ten doors, we got to the final gate where there were more guards analyzing each visitor with suspicion, as if the visitors were guilty of a crime by association. As the guard that led the group of visitors to the visitation room paged the guard on the inside of the visitation room, I looked up at the sky. The sun was bright and loud. There was a chilly breeze with patches of shaded clouds. It felt like winter in June. A large guard opened a heavy door for us, and we entered the visitation area. I chose the seat closest to the exit; it made me feel safer. The visitors took their seat and tried not to stare at each other. We were all there to visit a criminal. We could hear the inmates walking to the visitation area from the clinging of the chains, like the pictures in my history books of when slaves would be transported. I see him being processed to the visitation area through the bullet proof glass. He was wearing a bright yellow two-piece scrubs-looking outfit, with what were supposed to be white socks and slip-on Vans-like shoes. One chain was clipped on to his ankles, waist, and wrist while the other chain connected the line of men by the ankles and waist. As they were led into a separate area, they looked down until a guard instructed them to lift their heads. He saw me standing there and I saw his joy, that glow in his being as he cherished the fact that I was there, in his prison, in his hell. I half sympathized, and half justified – he deserves it, I thought. Many years ago, he was a monster in my dreams, but now, he’s a constant reminder that there is no happy family.
As the final guard pats him down and instructs him where to go, his eyes meet mine. His eyes are bold and deep. I stare at him and think this is my father. There is too much love and hate toward him mixed in the same crushed heart. How I hate him and love him at that very moment is maddening.
His chains were unlocked and he was told, ‘No touching the visitor, sit across from the visitor, hands on the table at all times, and ask for permission if you need to step away from the table. Understood?’ He responded with a ‘yes’ and a childish nod to assure the guard he understood. My heart tightened as the anger in me shifted from my father to the guard. I made it a point to meet the guard’s eyes thinking that, in doing so, I would subtly defend my father, but it had no effect.
My father proceeded to his entrance of the visitation area. My intentions were to tell him to his face ‘your actions fucked up my life’ and make him feel as bad as I have felt all these years. As I thought that, I looked at the dehumanized man walking towards me with such joy. This man controlled so much of how I had felt for so many years and to see the torture in his person and gleam in his eyes was wrenching.
His gaze had depth; I half wanted to hug him and half wanted to punch him. As he walked closer I could feel his happiness radiate through him, anxious to hug me even though he couldn’t. He stood across from me clearly allowing me to go in for a hug, like the last time I visited him with my siblings when I was nine years old, but I did not hug him this time. Partly because I was weary of what the guards would do and partly because I couldn’t bring myself to hold this man with all the latent love I refused to allow myself to feel.
After not seeing him for nine years, I thought the worst thing that could happen was breaking down in front of him and all the other people in visitation, but standing in front of him, at that moment, all I did was smile and he smiled back. I remembered how secure his embrace felt back when I was three years old. I remembered all those times I threatened boys not to pick on me because my father was going to kick their ass. I remembered who I painted him to be, as a child, this responsible and sensible man who loved his wife dearly but adored his daughter above everything else. I felt the knot in my throat swell and the tears in my eyes waiting for their cue to flow, as my lie came back to me. So much of my childhood revolved around him and his absence; the flare was lit. I turned – and walked away.
Before I went through the door, I looked back at him. He wore pain on his face and guilt on his shoulders with a hint of torment. I stood there as the officer waited for me to proceed. I turned away and the thoughts that raced through my mind were of my mother. She once told me my father loved me more than he ever loved anyone on this earth and, above everything else, he was still my father. My mother wouldn’t be too proud of me right now, walking out on my father. She took me to church and taught me to pray because I needed to know how to forgive. I understood her reason, but I wasn’t willing to do all the work – he could at least say he was sorry.
The next three hours I wept for him and because of him. All the memories of him beating my mother until there were puddles of blood on the floor, the endless nights I wept in strangers’ beds, the lasting damage to me and my siblings’ ability to build trusting relationships decided to tornado around me in the solitude of my truck. I had parked at the farthest end of the parking structure to be as far from the crowd of visitors as possible. This was something I did as a child as well, putting a distance between the conflict and myself. Backing away from the situation is safer, at least at the moment, I’d think. As I wept and acknowledged all the trauma, I could feel something in my heart was changing and I was scared. Facing my Father demanded courage I was not sure I had. Rather, I drove all this way because of rage, not courage. My heart was throbbing, and my mind was whirling with memories I hid away for so long. After cowering away for a while, I decided to show him my truth.
I walked back to the visitation check-in, trying to keep it together. The receptionist noticed the redness of my eyes and asked me if I was okay. I couldn’t vocalize my response, so I just nodded my head. The initial judgment was gone. I signed the forms and took off my shoes to walk through the metal detectors. I felt the receptionist’s sympathy emanate from her as I put my shoes back on. I walked towards the doors of the visitation area. The guard recognized me and opened the door. He told me it would take a few minutes to have the inmate come out again and that I only had 45 minutes left of the visitation. That fact was comforting.
I took a seat, the same seat, only now with the bravery I lacked the first time around. I waited roughly 15 minutes before I saw him through the bullet proof glass, again. This time he wasn’t so glowing; he was a pitiful scene. I was mad, and I knew it. Mad was safe because it provided a sense of courage. He stood at his entrance and walked to the table. He sat down with a caution I’d never witnessed in him before.
He met my eyes. “Hola…” was all he managed to say.
I had this sensation of joy escape me as I bashfully smiled. Then I quickly took it back by looking down. I was so mad at myself for slipping and confused as to why. I gained the needed determination and began the dreadful conversation.
With a stutter to my Spanish, I told him that he ruined my life. So that I may move forward with my life, I told him I no longer wanted any communication with him. As I spoke, the tears betrayed me and ran down my face as if trying to make a puddle, like the one my mother made. I stared at him dead in the eye anyway. He was smiling at me with a tenderness I could only interpret as him not taking me seriously. I rubbed the tears off my face and inhaled, then exhaled. I told him he destroyed my life and I hated him for what he did. I told him I hated how enslaved I felt by the pain caused by him 20 years ago. I confessed to him that I had never been fine. As a child, I told him I would become a lawyer and get him out of jail, but in reality I wouldn’t have done this. I said it only because I wanted him to be proud and not worry about me… because it mattered to me to make him happy. After those words, I broke down. The tears were no longer tears but a flood of sorrow just pouring out from nowhere and everywhere. I toiled to keep my sobbing as inaudible as possible and after some time I managed to breathe. I took in some breaths because I had to continue speaking. I was not willing to hold anything in any longer. I gained control of myself again and proceeded. I told him I forgave him for his ignorance and careless actions, but that I no longer wanted him in my life. That all my memories of him were too unbearable and to not call or expect to know about my life. The assertiveness I felt in that moment about my life was the first breath of air I felt was my honest truth.
I looked at him in search of a reaction, and he simply looked down at the table where my hands were crossed. He was analyzing the hairs on my arm and the ring on my finger. I watched him make note of the crease on my knuckles and my bitten nails. He looked at my face and took in the bareness of my skin, the length of my eyelashes, the thickness of my eyebrows, and smiled. It only made me angrier. I took in the moment for what it was because I had decided that I wouldn’t return. I allowed him time to think and speak, for the sake of being able to say I gave him a chance to.
He told me he understood and accepted that I had a lot of pain that needed to be expressed. It hurt him to know that he had pained me so much, but he could not contain the happiness he felt when he was allowed to be in my presence.
His Spanish was paced and deliberate, just like I remembered it. He shared that it has been hell what he has lived through and on various occasions he had contemplated suicide. The misery of what his life had become had only one piece of beauty and that is the existence of his children.
His demeanor still held strength and his words still wretched my heart. He said he would never be able to recuperate the lost time or erase his decisions, but he hopes that, one day, we would be able to forgive him and permit him a role in our lives.
Though I was visiting to dismiss him from my life, my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be as cruel as I recall him being. In my heart, I knew the harshness of my request, but it was my honest truth. In my smallest whisper I reiterated, ‘I don’t want you in my life any longer.’ My voice was broken and barely audible, but he heard me.
Again, he said he understood.
I first felt it in my chest, the heaviness was lifted, I had said my peace. He made my tears fall gracefully with a mixture of breakthrough feelings. His acknowledgement meant the world to me, but it confused me. I felt such love from him, just like my mother told me existed. For a moment, I had a glimpse of the possibility of an honest relationship with my father. Though that feeling was new to me, I still felt the agony.
There was still time left so I let him know how the family was doing and that we were going to be fine because my mother taught us well. He simply smiled with satisfaction. He said he knew my mother would make great adults out of me and my siblings. I felt a note of bitterness when he mentioned my mother, as if he should be forbidden to even think of her. My mother occasionally says she forgives him, but when she is sad, she says she hopes God forgives him, because she has tried. Growing up, I understood her sentiment but for different reasons. Even now, I wanted to love this man with all my heart, but I couldn’t dismiss my honesty in requesting his absence from my adult life. Marianne Williamson once wrote, ‘until we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is.’ As much as it made my chest tighten to think of all the damage my father had caused, I couldn’t be as cruel to him as he was to me because then I’d continue the cycle of abuse that had enslaved me. At the end of the day, I did love this man, though I hate who he has been.
The guard announced the time was up. My father looked at me with ache and regret as he hesitated to stand up and face the guard. I remembered the day the cops came to our house to take him in. I was only three years old but I remember, and it felt like that day all over again. As he was led to his exit, I stood and walked towards the visitor’s exit door. I turned back one last time thinking I forgive you, as if he would feel it if I kept thinking it. My father did not look back for me, he was instructed to face forward in the opposite direction, and I felt his agony that very moment. His prison felt like my prison, only I was being released from my cell and he was being led back to his.
After letting the visitors out, the door to the visitation area slammed shut as if to announce there will be no going back. With every stop and go from each gate on the way out, I looked back just in case I got a glimpse of my father heading back to his cell. I did not.
As I walked back to my truck, with every breath between my sobs, I whispered, ‘I forgive you, I forgive you … I love you Dad.’
Writer: Martha Monge is a Fullerton College student currently working on her B.A. in Creative Writing. This piece is the first of many she intends to publish. She poured her heart out on this one, and it was difficult for her to write it, but she hopes it advocates forgiveness and sheds light on scenarios society tends to omit or disregard.
Artist: Cassandra Jimenez is a third year student at Fullerton college. She plans on completing her Associate’s Degree in Art and plans on transferring to a four-year university to receive a Bachelor’s Degree. Cassandra has loved art since she was small. But, her interest in art increased when she took intermediate and advanced art in High School. She prefers water color painting but also enjoys drawing and even creating murals. Her love for art is displayed in her work.