Saturday, August 25, 2012

My Innocent Father

This is not the story of a man wrongly accused of a crime, nor is it a story about how the system failed him. Instead, this is the story of how my father, a 55-year-old shy rock and roller from Southeast Iowa withstood being convicted of a crime. The nature of that crime is irrelevant; as are the months leading up to his conviction. The relevance is my father himself-his reaction to his sentence, his subsequent years in prison, and his overwhelming love for life.
As a family, we were scared. Petrified he would die in there. So many horrible prison stories played out in our minds. We were angry. We were in denial.  But my father never showed that to us. He was strong. He accepted his sentence and worked with the warden, who despite the laws surrounding him, tried to help keep his punishment manageable.
He first ordered that privileges be removed. It was difficult for Dad to lose such an important part of life. Visits were still allowed but kept to a minimum. The first six months were horrible. Dad was physically drained and the stress was evident. He lost his taste for food. He lost weight. The rules in Dad’s prison were that the hair goes. While Dad has been balding for some time, what little he had left he hated to part with, but he did. He begged and prayed they would let him keep the beard. Oddly, they did.
Dad never lost his sense of humor. He would not complain though we knew it was hard for him. His cell mates would come and go. Some were physically abusive. They would keep him awake at night. His sleep cycle was damaged and he became exhausted. Some of his cellmates caused emotional turmoil. They messed with his mind and caused him undue mental anguish. And some were just irritating. Just a constant reminder of the prison he was in.
But, again, he never complained. He joked about them sometimes. They became companions’ almost-like neighbors you can’t get to move- so he learned to live with them. Occasionally, he would get a quiet one. And he would sleep.
After the first year or so, he was used to his surroundings. Used to the guards and the other prisoners. The food still tasted bad and he would pass up a meal here and there. He wrote a lot. He became friends with the warden. Together, they began working on a plan for freedom.
At the five year mark, it looked like Dad was on the road to release. He looked good. He had started eating again and the warden and him were pleased with the way the system was treating him. There was a report of time for good behavior. Release was about to happen. We were close.
As a family we could not have been happier. My children were young when this began and didn’t even know Grandpa beyond the walls of his prison. Although he was the same man in or out, there was that sadness around him that would only go away with freedom. We would rejoice in that freedom.
The news came and we did rejoice. Freedom was a lovely thing. But, he wasn’t set completely free. He was still a convicted man. The crime or sentence had not been taken. The only change was the walls that surrounded him. He was paroled only. One false move and he would go back. We knew the risk. We ran with it. We were ecstatic.
Our family was complete again.
And then it happened. The news came at a routine probation meeting that his parole was being revoked. There was no warning. No indication that this was coming.
Dad went back to prison.
New privileges were removed. And, new restraints were used. Again, he lost weight. He became depressed. But he never complained. He never lost his love of life. He never wanted pity. He was happy to be alive. It didn’t matter where he lived.
He went to solitary confinement and for 85 days, he was poked and prodded by guards. Taunted by them in a way that scarred him for life. Physical signs of the pain he endured could be seen by the eye. The tire in his voice was clear. But, again he never complained. He never felt sorry for himself.
When he got out of solitary, he couldn’t decide if he wanted the fizz of a Pepsi tickling his nose or the sweet taste of orange sherbet caressing his palate. That’s what he thought of. Not of the pain inflicted on him. Not the anger that should have been directed to the new warden that put him there, or at the guards who furthered the error of the system. No, he wanted the goodness in life. The good that he could always see, hear, and want.
The good that is in him. No matter what. That is what he shares with his family and friends. He talks about his prison life-not in a “feel sorry for me” kind of way, but, in a “this is my life and I love living” kind of way. He is happy to wake up every day. He is happy to love his children and his grandchildren. He is happy to love his wife; the girl of his dreams-his angel.
He is a happy man and has lived a happy life. Even from prison.
It’s been fifteen years. He is still in prison. He just turned 70. He said it was the best birthday ever. He said the love of his family and friends made him the happiest man.
Dad’s prison is cancer. And for fifteen years we have lived outside the walls that Dad lives within, sharing his love for life and his optimism to fight.
This is not the story of a man wrongly accused of a crime. It’s the story of my father, a shy rock and roller from Southeast Iowa who has showed his friends and family how to live. How to live good and strong despite being surrounded by the walls of cancer.

Until next time...
Dream Big