Chris and April’s story began the way many prison family stories begin. About five years ago my daughter April had a friend who was communicating with an inmate at a correctional facility about three hours north of our home. The friend asked her if she would be willing to write to someone the inmate knew there. April mentioned this to me and, never having been faced with something like this before, I immediately told her I didn’t feel she should comply; I told her not to get involved. She was newly divorced and had a four-year-old. I felt that writing to someone in prison could open up a whole world of problems that she wouldn’t know how to handle. As a family, we had never before even known anyone who had spent time in a correctional facility and this certainly wasn’t a road I would have liked to see her begin to walk down. She knew nothing about the life of a prisoner, or, for that matter, about the life he led on the outside that brought him to where he was now. April thought about the request and decided to write the letter. She felt there would be no harm in simply communicating back and forth with someone who just needed a friend to talk to. Famous last words, right?
After several months of letter writing, April decided to accompany her friend on a visit three hours upstate to meet her pen pal in person. Their communication until this point had shown them both that they had much in common. They shared many of the same opinions and the same likes and dislikes. It had taken no time at all for them to become good friends. Needless to say, after meeting face to face the bond between them became stronger. They had already gotten to know each other well and now they each had a face to connect with their letters. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about this. However, my daughter, as an adult, was going to make her own decision. She has always wanted and respected my opinion, but, in the end, her decisions are her own to make.
April visited Chris several more times, and, as time went on they became closer still. One day I told her that I would like to go with her next time she visited because, rather than come to any unfair conclusions about him, I wanted to meet him myself and be able to read him as the person he is. April had read me excerpts from some of his letters and had, over the months, given me some idea of his background and personality. Based on all of this he seemed to me to be a good man. But, as I have learned in the five years since that time, there are very many good men who make up the population of those who are incarcerated. April told Chris about my request, but he felt that he didn’t want her mom to meet him in that environment. He was due to come home in a few months and wanted our meeting to take place on the outside where he wouldn’t feel so inadequate. I respected his feelings. A couple of months later, however, as their relationship continued to strengthen, Chris agreed to meet me before he came home. Honestly, his surroundings meant little to me. I was more interested in getting to know Chris, the man, than Chris the prisoner. The person he is, rather than what he has done, is his identity.
April and I and my four-year-old granddaughter arrived at the facility early on a Saturday morning in the winter of 2009. Chris was scheduled to be released in August that same year. I fought apprehension, but I was determined to make a fair judgment. We went through the reception process and finally entered the visiting room. We were assigned a table by the CO at the front desk and we sat down to wait. We had lots of change for the vending machines and there was a small playroom in the corner for visitors’ children. My granddaughter ran off to play with other children already in there as April and I continued to watch for Chris to come through the door that led from the rest of the facility into the visiting room. Suddenly she said, “There he is!”. I had told her in the car that I was going to tell him a joke I had recently heard, just to break the ice. (Now, everyone knows that I can’t tell a joke! If I am even able to remember the whole thing, 99% of the time I will either forget the punchline or twist it around into a senseless mess!). I felt pretty confident, though, that I had this one down. Chris came over to the table. He leaned across and put his hand out to shake mine. I took his hand, looked into his face, and saw into his soul. As I looked at him, I knew that this was a meeting of the hearts; something I am not able to explain any better than this. My fears were arrested at that moment. What I saw in him, I realized, completely lined up with all that I already knew about him from what my daughter had told me. As we spent time talking that day, my opinion of all I saw within him was confirmed over and over. And as time has gone by, and he has become a valued family member and son, I have come to love and respect him for the man that he is. This was the beginning.
Oh, and, by the way, yes, I messed up the joke!