NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– I walked into the bleached blue cafeteria with grey tiled floors and anxiously looked around. The tiny windows looked out into a gloomy courtyard surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Lined in rows close enough that people could eavesdrop on one another’s conversations, the rusty tables and chairs were bolted down to the ground as though they might try to escape, too. “Row A, Table 3,” the officer shouted as she slammed my paper on the desk. I took a seat and squirmed when I felt the cold metal. Suddenly I felt the heat of his hand touch my shoulder. I looked up and there he was, staring at me. He smiled and I forced a smile back. My stomach dropped and the muscles in my throat tightened. His army green linen jumpsuit felt stiff on my face as we hugged uncomfortably. I closed my heavy eyes and inhaled, the scent of his cologne filled my nose.
I was 3 years old when my father was arrested. My memory of him is so blurred. My mother always reassured me, “Even though he is not physically here with you, when he was, you two were inseparable.” When she said this, I would roll my eyes. Here I was 13 years later visiting him at Green Haven Correctional Facility.
“Ashley, you look so different since the last time I saw you. Your hair got longer!” he said. “It’s not my real hair,” I replied coldly. He began to ask me about school and how things were at home. I gave him closed-ended responses with no explanations to follow. As we made small talk, he held my stiff hand and tenderly massaged it. My father suddenly asked, “Do you want to hear a story?” Unsure of what he was about to say, I nodded my head. “When your mom and I had to go to work,” he began, “we would leave you with your aunt Beverly. When I came to pick you up, you were sitting right where I left you. You was so scared of her!” His eyes glistened and his voice got lower. “But when I came to get you, Ashley, you ran to me.” He smiled faintly. I felt my eyes well up and I excused myself and went to the bathroom.
I rushed into an empty stall with my hands over my mouth trying to block the smell of disinfectant. The tears started falling too quickly for me to wipe away. I cried for the relationship we never got to have. I cried because of the tears in his eyes. I cried because of the emotion in his voice and the strength that he held my hand with. That little girl that he told me about reminded me that I do love him. I had a father, finally I understood that.
Though the pain of his being absent for most of my life continued, I found the courage to visit him weekly and slowly even forgive him. I realized that the actions that led to his arrest were separate from the love he had for me. During this first visit I found myself becoming a more open-minded person beyond that bleached blue cafeteria. I learned to empathize with others and be aware of the different circumstances and perspectives we all come from.
A few months ago, I walked back into that bleached blue cafeteria. While I waited for my father, I noticed a chubby, bald baby sitting across from me. She was holding her father’s finger in her mouth. He sang to her and she smiled. Her smile was so contagious I smiled back. That little girl and I aren’t so different. Just like her, I need my father. The scent of my father lingered. I looked up and he was watching, too.