Minutes after hearing the news that our nineteen-year-old son Mike would serve a three-month prison sentence for violating the terms of his parole, I was sitting in the visitation area at our law enforcement center, awaiting the arrival of Mike on the other side of the glass.
The indistinct orange of his county-provided jail clothing blurred momentarily as he sat before the video camera on his side and picked up the receiver.
"I'm going to prison, dad."
"Yeah, I heard. Looks like ninety days. Where are they sending you?"
"Don't know for sure. It could be [names of two Minnesota Correctional Facilities north of the metropolitan area]. They're supposed to be pretty hard core."
I pause, knowing nothing about what prisons in our state are considered "better" than others. I surmise that Mike has heard from the inside jail population information that is more relevant and reliable than would be my guesses.
"So," I ask, "are you concerned about that at all?"
"Um, a little. No, not really," he equivocates. I am sure he has some apprehensions, but in his typical way he overestimates his abilities. There is little solace for me in knowing that he has been in numerous treatment facilities over the years, including recent stays in at least four area county jails.
But I try to remain non-anxious and offer, "Well, you've been in a lot of places over the past few years, anyway."
"Yeah, but I was really kind of set up to fail this time, you know."
Ah, how many times have I heard this phrase from Mike in the past five or more years? It is always someone else who has set him up, always his friends who have gotten him into trouble, always the system that has failed. It is not he who has culpability. And yet, I understand to some degree what he is saying. He has never been able to follow the basics of society's expectations ... to obey the law and stay out of trouble, to respect authority. So, in that sense it is true that he was "set up." Sadly, though, he may spend much of his life being "set up" again and again. I wonder if he will ever be able to figure out what it means to be an ordinary citizen in any community where respect of others' boundaries is a norm.
And so I say, "Yeah, there are a lot of expectations when it comes to parole. So, tell me, Mike, how exactly did you violate the terms of your release?"
"Well, I didn't call my parole agent every night."
My eyebrows arch, I sigh inwardly. "So, you mean to tell me you are going to prison for three months because of a missed call?"
"And I was in the car with a friend who had stolen property. They thought that I was involved with that, too, but I wasn't. And they know that it won't hold up in court, so they aren't going to charge me with that."
Ah, yes. We are getting as close to the truth as Mike is willing to convey or is able to tell me, what with his faulty executive mental functioning.
"So, do you think you can visit me when I'm in prison?" he asks plaintively.
"I'm not going to make a promise that I won't be able to keep, Mike. I'll see what I can do, but I don't want to disappoint you. I will write to you and stuff, though."
"Oh, OK. Do you think you could give me some money before I get taken away today? I need to get some personal care items like shampoo and soap and stuff."
"I don't have any money with me, Mike." (I very seldom carry cash).
"Oh, they would probably take a check."
"Mike, I don't have my checkbook with me, either."
"But I'll give it some thought, and when I find out exactly where you are I'll check with them about their guidelines. I'll follow up on this for you."
"And, do you think when I'm out I can come back home?"
In a split-second my mind spins back to the red-headed nine-year-old I met in a Washington state foster home years ago. In our initial conversations with Mike and his older birth brother Kyle we talked about their moving into our home. It is haunting, really, to hear his question, because the emotional quality is akin to that day years ago when he asked about living with us in a forever family.
But he is no longer nine, and I am no longer naive.
"No, Mike, you cannot live in our home."
"Well, the restraining order will be lifted by then. I thought I could come back home."
I don't have the time or the energy to explain to Mike that the restraining order, which will technically be expired by that point if we do not have it renewed by court order, was originally initiated by us against him. I know I have explained this to him before, and I do not want to revisit that history.
"I'm sorry, Mike, but it doesn't work for you to live with us. It makes everyone else too upset. We will help you find housing and do all we can to navigate the social services system with you, but you cannot come to our house again."
Our fifteen-minute impromptu visit comes to an abrupt ending as the officer indicates it is "time to be done."
"Gotta go, Dad."
"I love you, Mike."
"Love you, too."
The receiver is summarily dropped into its holder. An orange blur stands and moves away from the monitor. And I am momentarily alone with my thoughts.
This is not an unexpected moment. I have anticipated for months now that the day would come when Mike and I would have a conversation in which we talked about a term of prison incarceration. I have been helpless to do anything for years to help Mike change his behavior. The hours of conversation and holding therapy when I would hold his screaming, skinny, fetal-balled body in my arms are gone. The multiple late nights' summons to sheriffs office to pick Mike up after days on the run are history. His place at our table, to my immediate right, has been occupied years ago by another child. Juvenile treatment center plans, therapy sessions, letters written, hugs given but unreciprocated.
Nothing we have done for more than a decade has altered this outcome, I think to myself, as I shuffle silently, alone in the small corridor that leads to the elevator which will transport me to the fresh air outside the stultifying building I have occupied for little more than an hour.
I push the doors open to my freedom as the winter air blows into my face. And then it hits me. There is only one purpose I have been able to serve today. I am the one person outside of the criminal justice system Mike has been able to tell about his plight.
I cannot change today's outcome, and seemingly never could. But for Mike today I am someone to tell. It's not much, but it's all I have to offer. And maybe, I pray, it is enough.