My father has been physically absent from my life since I was 12 years old. When I was just a middle schooler, he was sentenced to 25 years to life.
I remember the day I learned he was going to prison. Before leaving for school, my mother gave me a parting hug and kiss as she normally did, and left me with the following cryptic words: "When you come home, we have something to talk about."
The rest of the day was anxiety-laden. In all of my classes, I was preoccupied with what scenario my mother could've possibly been alluding to. But, intuitively, I already knew it was something terrible.
That prior summer, in the Bronx, was the last time I saw my father. Before then, he had been in and out of my life, constantly moving across the country, for reasons I now know were due to his involvement in illicit drug trafficking,
I remember walking into the kitchen after his friends came by the house. There was a scale in the middle of the dining table—a couple of men picking apart a substance I didn't recognize. Piece by piece they placed it on the scale to gauge the weight. I was stunned: The veil had been taken off. His true self was put front and center.
Back in class, my anxiety accelerated into a full blown panic attack and I went to my guidance counselor's office. Despite my better judgment, I took the offer and painstakingly dialed my mother's number. As soon as she answered, my hands began to tremble. After a couple of minutes of pressing her, she succumbed to my audible nervousness: my father had been incarcerated.
Sometime before my freshman year of college, my mother and I bought tickets to go to Panama City to see my father. I hadn't seen him in about six years. As the plane began to depart the John F. Kennedy airport, I nervously squirmed in my seat. My muscles tensed up; my throat constricted.
I thought of the last time I saw him, the summer before he was incarcerated, when we watched television into the late hours of the night and he bought me rainbow cookies.
But our last encounter, when I witnessed him preparing bags of marijuana for sale, had taken on more resonance as I'd gotten older. It was then that I realized my father was a drug dealer, not a normal person with a legal job. His constant "trips" began to make sense to me. He was evading the law by running away from state to state.
My father was unaware of how much that moment had changed me, and I decided that during that trip, I would finally let him know. I wanted to let go of all the anger and hurt I had for the person who had deprived me of the perfect family—the man whose ambitions and cares did not include my well-being.
Unfortunately, the trip didn't pan out well as my dad got sick and was transported to a hospital some counties away. I still haven't seen him since he was first incarcerated.
One day during my senior year of college, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to search for my father's name in his prison directory. Tears cascaded down my cheeks as the webpage loaded. There he was. My father. Right in front of me on the screen was a mug shot of my dad. To the right of his picture was his physical description, the nature of his crime, and the length of his prison sentence. No longer could I attempt to convince myself he was elsewhere but behind bars.
Having grown up without a father for the majority of my life, he has turned into an elusive concept, a faint memory. All of the sweet moments we've had are now hidden away behind the shadow of his imprisonment. Besides having to deal with the economical and emotional strain of coming from a single parent household, there's a mental, moral dilemma I often have to contend with: Sure, he rightfully deserves to serve time for breaking the law, but because he's my father, I instinctively don't want him to. This duality comes up a lot. My father hasn't exactly passed away, but he is still physically absent from my daily life. He's not a bad person, but he has legally committed a crime.
When a parent becomes incarcerated, a little piece of you diminishes. You may start to feel as if you're serving time just as much as they are even if their crimes were not your fault. But in order to make it through the day, you have to recognize that while you're biologically connected to someone who broke the law, you are ultimately two different people who have consciously made life-altering choices.
I'm not my father, but the stigma still looms: There isn't one person in my inner circle of friends who has an incarcerated parent. Most of them come from stable, two-family homes, which means I occupy an emotional island.
That island continues to grow. My father's absence has left an indelible mark on my life. Serving a life sentence, he will never bear witness to the most precious events in my life. When I walk across the stage at Lincoln Center and shake hands with my school's dean to commemorate the successful completion of my undergraduate studies, he won't see it. It's up to me to make peace with that.
But with everything else that causes me pain, I have learned to let go and to remember—and value—the moments that have brought me my greatest sorrows. They have laid the foundation of a strong, resilient woman—a woman who has accepted that my father will always have a place in my memory, just not my future.