Melissa’s first guest blog for prisonist.org, Child of an Incarcerated Parent, (Jan. ’15) chronicled her reunion with her father who was sentenced to 50 years in prison – it became our most-viewed blog ever! Below is her follow-up blog that brings us up-to-date on her incredible and heartwarming story.
Jeff Grant and Lynn Springer and the Progressive Prison Project are on a mission to change the lives of families impacted by incarceration, and they changed mine in a very unique way. At the beginning of this year, I was without a job, searching for places to live and having to consider moving out of the city. I knew I wanted to work at a nonprofit and I knew I wanted to work in criminal justice reform and was doing everything I could to try to get my foot in the door. I was applying to jobs every day but with only a bachelor’s degree in this day and age, the only response I received was an automated “thanks for applying, we’ll get back to you soon.” They never did.
I came across Jeff on LinkedIn because I was searching people who worked in criminal justice reform. I took a shot in the dark, used one of my free LinkedIn messages and introduced myself, asking him if he knew of anyone looking to hire in New York City. I had shared a short overview of my story with him and he said he and his audience would be interested in hearing more. So one afternoon I sat down at a coffee shop and in about thirty minutes to an hour typed out my first draft of my story of having a parent who is incarcerated, Child of an Incarcerated Parent. I sent it to Jeff for review, to see if I was even going in the right direction and did not anticipate his response. He said he was so moved by it and wanted to post it as is. I was a little shocked. I knew my story was interesting, I knew it was unique, but I guess I was a little used to it and forgot the impact it could potentially have on people. I was excited and somewhat nervous to see the response.
I like to think that I tweet funny, clever things on a regular basis, but my phone has never seen more Twitter notifications than when Jeff posted my blog. People were tweeting directly at me, thanking me for sharing my story. The blog caught the eye of Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is The New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison and her compliments were very meaningful since she has also been impacted by the system and is now working to change it. The best responses came from people who not only were moved by my story but could relate. People would email me saying I put into words what they have been trying to express for so long and wanted me to talk with their children who have a parent who is incarcerated.
A couple weeks later I got an email from Tanya Krupat who works at the Osborne Association and is the Director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, and my jaw dropped. She told me she had read my blog, loved it and wanted to talk on the phone. Eventually I came into the Osborne office and shared more of my story, both past and present, with Tanya and her team. Tanya had asked how comfortable I felt with advocacy and sharing my story more publicly. I took the opportunity to casually mention that I was actually currently (and desperately) looking for a job doing just that. One thing led to another and in April of 2015, I started working in the Communications Department at Osborne’s office in the South Bronx. Ironically, a part of my job is writing blog posts.
One of the many lessons I have learned is the power of vulnerability and the beauty of what can happen when we are transparent with each other and how that can open doors for support. This year is the first time I’ve really felt like I’ve known other people like me, other adults who have had or do have a parent who is incarcerated and struggle with similar emotions. I now feel less lonely. I now feel less burdened by my past and all the difficulties I have experienced throughout my life. I feel less ashamed of my struggles with depression or anxiety or the emotions that arise when memories are triggered. As I’ve embraced being a daughter of an incarcerated parent rather than ignoring it, I have learned so much more about myself. In getting to know my dad, I have become better acquainted with me.
Another lesson I have learned is that not only is it powerful for me to share my story as an adult with an incarcerated parent, it is powerful for my dad to share his. As I wrote in my last blog post, my dad had cancer and at the time was in remission. But in March of this year I got a call from my dad like I normally do except this time, he told me his cancer had returned and spread to his lungs. The doctor said he had at best, two years to live. He has responded well to chemo but it will be an ongoing treatment and at different moments, he is very vulnerable to infection. If it’s not the cancer that gets him, it could very well be a minor infection that his weakened immune system is not able to fight off. When I first found out about his cancer returning, everything seemed meaningless. What do we talk about now? How do we catch up on 20 years of not knowing each other in at best two years?
Because we are not sure of the amount of time he has left, visiting has felt more urgent. A couple months ago, after the Ella Baker Center issued a report about the cost of incarceration on families, I started a GoFundMe to help supplement the costs of visiting my dad in another state. Friends, family and people I don’t even know have generously supported me so that I was able to visit him at the beginning of this month, cost-free.
Before the visit, I was wondering what kind of impact it would have on children to talk with their incarcerated parents, at an age appropriate time, about their crimes. Tanya had recently told me a story about a young girl who thought her dad’s incarceration was her fault because of something she construed in her head and it wasn’t until she went to visit him and heard from his mouth that his incarceration had nothing to do with her, that she felt freedom and was smiling when she came out of the visiting room. I wondered what kind of pain and guilt that girl would have struggled with as she got older had she not talked with her dad. My dad and I talk about his crimes and what led him to such a place where he was capable of committing them. He assures me over and over that it never had to do with us, it was his issue. It wasn’t because of a lack of love or care or desire to be with us, he was in a bad place and made terrible choices. To this day, although he can walk me through the how’s and the why’s of committing his crimes, he still cannot fully grasp what would cause him to push his loving family away like that. He assumes it must be some deep level of self-loathing. We may not figure it out, but watching him wrestle with it is healing for me. It is healing for me to sit across from him in a visiting room and hear him say that and it is healing for him to be given the opportunity to say that to me. I believe when people are truly remorseful, they not only say they are but they desire an opportunity to make things right, to somehow fix their wrongs. And for people in prison, we consistently deny or limit the ability for someone to do so. I know why. I know there is risk, I know there is a lot of pain involved in bringing a harmed party around the party that has caused the harm or bringing up years of buried pain, and in some cases, it may not be for the best. But I believe every person should know that it is at least their right to decide what they want and that there is potential healing in doing so.
In order for someone to begin the healing process, there has to be community and policy support. I could not have started reconnecting with my dad if I did not feel I was in a safe space to do so. I know the key to my continued health and well-being is the support of new and old friends and family, people on Facebook I haven’t talked to in years sending me words of encouragement, donating to my GoFundMe and offering for me to stay at their house when I visit my dad. It’s not easy, it is overwhelming, but the payoff is worth it. My dad is worth it. His healing, my healing, and the impact it has on people in my same situation is a million and one times worth it. So thank you New York City, thank you Osborne, thank you Twitter, thank you Tanya Krupat and the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, thank you friends and family, thank you prisonist.org family, and thank you Jeff Grant and Lynn Springer for opening your arms to me and not only allowing me the opportunity to share my heart, but for taking such good care of it.
Happy Holidays, Melissa