Our nineteen-year-old son is in jail. He has been there, pretty consistently, for the past four months. Last week he was sentenced in the county in which we live on charges that include (but are not limited to) theft of our vehicle last November. At last count he had seventeen computer entries which constitute more than twenty specific violations from misdemeanors to felonies in the state-wide criminal database. This is review for many of you who have read this blog over the past year, but in December we had to have a restraining order placed against him for his verbal harassment and threatening behaviors. We chose to specify in the order that he could have contact with us via US mail, but not in any other fashion (although while sitting in jail that is about the only option available to him).
I have written to him several times in the past months. A few weeks ago I received a post card reply. Today I received a lengthier letter, which included both words and the artistic depiction of the love between father and son. Both tear at my heart. It is hard to have a kid in jail. There should be consequences for (repeated) antisocial behaviors, there is no doubt in my mind, but I still find it hard to reconcile that the best place for a nineteen-year-old kid with mental health challenges is in the slammer. The only result will be his learning to become a better criminal, learning from older, more sophisticated and meaner criminals. I can only pray that somehow he will be spared that experience, but I am realistic enough to expect differently.
Immediately following his sentencing last week in the county in which we reside he was transported to a neighboring county where he will be facing five felony counts and up to 144 months in prison. Says he: "So I'm not really your read-head kid, I'm gonna have to fess and get ready for prison. I weigh about 165-170 now, so I've gotten bigger. Maybe that will help some. But it doesn't help that I'm only 19 and have red hair." A loving father can only surmise what, exactly, that might mean, although the nagging pain in my stomach tells me intuitively.
What can a father say to his son in jail, facing prison time? I don't know. But I tried. Here is part of what I said:
There is something you are wrong about, though. While you may be nineteen, and while you may be facing prison time, you will always be my red-headed kid. I know that for your own good you need to be strong and act like you are older than nineteen, but no matter how old you are and no matter where you live you will always be my son. I will never let go of you, Mike, and I will never stop loving you and wanting what is best for you. If I were going to give up, I would have done that a long time ago. I will never give up on you and the hope that your better days are ahead.
He tells me that he is experiencing anxiety attacks, that he has had a medical consult that has resulted in medication to help assuage his difficulty. All I can think of are the many times when Mike first came to live with us at the age of eight when he would face his anxieties by curling into a fetal ball and scream at the top of his lungs for fifteen, twenty or more minutes. In those moments of trauma I would often pick up his little body from the floor, hold him close to my chest, amidst his flailing arms and kicking feet, and tell him that he would be OK. I would assure him that I loved him, that he was safe, and that I was using my strength to comfort him. Until he was thirteen this was the pattern, with his PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in full-blown agony. Only now he does not have a protective physical presence to assure him he is safe and loved.
And so he continues to write: "I'm really sorry for all the problems I've caused, the things I may have stolen, or ruined. I look back at everything now and realized what a ****-up I've been all my life. And some[times] I wonder what would've happened if I had never gotten adopted. I cry [myself] to sleep now because with nothing to do all I can do is think about my past and realized I have absolutely no childhood."
And so I say to Mike, my son in jail:
There is a second thing you are wrong about, too. You have not been a ****-up all of your life, as you say in your letter. There are many moments you have made me proud as your dad. I was proud of you when you acted in the summer drama while we still lived in B******* and you were just a little kid. I was proud of you when you sang in junior high choir in L******. I was proud of you when you were in football and track (even though all the track events and their different timing confused you a bit). I was proud of you when you played tennis and did as well as your brother Kyle who had been playing a couple of years more than you had. I was proud of you when you completed the [Department of Corrections] program at Togo (a program, I know, which was not an easy one). I was proud of you when I watched your abilities as a swimmer from the first time we met you (remember that night in the hotel in Washington, before we brought you and Kyle home?)
When I think of you these days I don’t think about all the crap that you’ve been a part of in the past few years. Instead I think of your infectious smile, your witty personality, your marvelous artistic abilities. I do think of your startling red hair, your eyes that change to fit the mood you are in, your soft-spoken chuckle when something makes you laugh. I think of you in those ways, because I think that’s the way God sees you, too, Mike.
I'm not sure what he means by the ambiguous line about his being adopted. So I say,
You say you wonder what might have happened if you had never been adopted. I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I hope you are not saying that your being adopted is what has created the difficulties you find in your life. Even if that is what you mean, I guess we will never know because the fact is that you were adopted at the age of eight. I can only say that I am glad we adopted you and that you are part of our family. The only regret I have is that, hard as we tried, we were not able to help deter you from some of the situations you have become involved with in the past few years. I regret that, not that we adopted you.
And so he closes a letter home from jail. His words bring tears to my eyes as I think of what might have been and what could yet be. "Well, Dad, I miss you and love you."
Me, too, Mike. Me, too.