I love my dad. He means so much to me and I wouldn’t trade him for the world, not even for multi-billionaire Bill Gates. Am I still mad at him for being in jail instead of with me all those years?

Out of Prison and Into My Life

Children with Incarcerated Parents

“After 16 years, My dad and I are Making Up for Lost Time.” 

Dorena Belovet Ruff

One night when I was 12, my mom and I caught a bus upstate to Franklin, New York. We’d gone shopping for the trip and I’d gotten a new green corduroy jumper and matching shirt. When the bus made a pit stop, we washed up and I put on my new outfit. I was very curious and a bit nervous to see what would happen. But at least I looked fly (I thought) for my first visit to prison.

When we finally arrived, I had to take off all my jewelry, my belt, and my shoes and socks. I felt violated, not to mention disappointed about messing up my new outfit. We made it inside the visiting area, sat at our designated table and waited for his arrival. When he came in, my mother pointed him out. My eyes wandered from left to right, trying to figure out who she was pointing at. Then I saw him, a reflection of me. My dad.

I Needed Answers

I hated him immediately. I’d gone through all of that stuff just to meet this stranger who’d never been there for me. He kept staring at me like he was reading me or trying to figure out who I was. That just pissed me off more. “Why do you keep looking at me, ugly?” I said. He laughed. “Yeah. Ha ha,” I thought. He asked me how I was doing, how the ride was and how school was. I gave one-word answers-I couldn’t stand the small talk. I needed answers to my questions, like “Why is he here?” and “Why am I here?”  But I didn’t ask him because I felt I should have already known the answers somehow.

Then my stepfather called the jail. He was jealous and he didn’t want my mom and me visiting my father, so he told the jail that we were transferring drugs to my father. They pulled us out and strip searched all three of us again. When we returned, stripped of our dignity, I wasn’t only mad at my mother’s husband. I was mad at my father, too. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be there in the first place. When my mom and I left the prison, I was angry, disappointed and determined not to have my father in my life.

My Dad’s Alive?

Before that day I’d never even known about my father. My mom had always told me that he was dead, and we never talked about him. I never even saw a photograph of him. Of course I’d wondered who my dad was, but never enough to bring it up.

For reasons I still don’t know, my brother and I lived with my grandmother until she died when I was 7. Then we moved in with my mom and stepdad. I guess you could say I had a father figure, but I didn’t like my stepdad or consider him a father. Then one day when I was 12, my mom told me we were going to visit my grandmother, who she’d recently run into. I was confused-my grandmother was dead. Mom explained that she was talking about my other grandmother, on my father’s side. “Wow, where did this come from?” I wondered. The idea of having another grandmother had never crossed my mind.

Pissed Off and On a Mission

At her house, my grandmother sat us at the kitchen table and asked me, “Have you visited your father yet?” “No,” I said. I didn’t understand what she meant. My father was dead, right? I didn’t even hear what my mom and grandma talked about after that, because I kind of went into a trance, trying to make sense of what was happening. Was my grandmother talking about visiting his grave? But part of me knew she was telling me that he was alive, and that confused me.

I guess my mom took my grandmother’s hint that it was time for me to meet my dad, because soon after that, she told me we were going to go see him-in jail. My mom told me he was in jail for something he’d done when he was younger and running in the streets. He’d been there since my mom was pregnant with me. All I could think was, “A damn jail cell? This is some bull crap.” No wonder my mom had told me he was dead. I just knew he must be a bad man if he was in jail, and I immediately classified him as an a–hole. After I met him in jail, I didn’t bother to continue our relationship. I figured I’d met him, I knew who he was, and that was all I needed to know. But soon after that visit, my mom and step-dad split up because of personal problems, and my mom started talking to my father on the phone.

A few months later, I was cleaning the house and I found a letter with my dad’s name on it, addressed to my mom. In the letter, he said that he was going to adopt my brothers (my ex-step-father was their biological dad) and that he loved my mom and they were going to be together. When I finished reading it, I was pissed off and on a mission. I couldn’t believe the audacity of my dad to say he was going to adopt my brothers when he couldn’t even get along with me. What he’d written about being with my mom was the icing on the cake. My mom had just gotten out of the relationship with my stepfather and she was vulnerable. I didn’t want to see her hurt. Who was he to make plans not only for my life, but for my mother’s life, and even my brothers’ lives?

He Was Here to Stay

I responded to his letter, ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even addressed to me. I told him I hated him and I thought that he was stupid, and that there was no way that he was going to adopt my brothers, so he could go to hell. He didn’t write back. Instead, he called my mom and asked her to put me on the phone. Then he told me, “Don’t you ever write some sh-t like that to me again.” I was shocked that a man had talked to me in that manner. My mom’s husband had tried to discipline me, but I never took him seriously. I wasn’t used to a man laying down the law. That phone call was a wake-up call, like this really was my dad and, unlike my stepdad, he was in my life for good.

The fact that he was taking charge made me feel like he was a real dad, and I felt like I could start trusting him. That’s when I started to forgive him. He wrote to me soon after, and we started writing each other letters weekly. We found out we had a lot in common. We both liked to read and write. We were both free souls, not followers, and we both hated authority. It kind of star struck me because my mom and I don’t have a lot of things in common and our personalities clash a lot. I was happy to find out that I had a parent who was like me. The more we talked, the closer we got, and the more I let go of my resentment and animosity toward him.

A Pair of Road Dogs

When I was about 15, he made an audiotape for me and I thought it was so special. He’s kind of a preacher, teacher, advisor and philosopher all in one, and he makes tapes for family members and anyone he trusts enough to become a part of the family. On the tape he gave me, he preached self-awareness and building up one’s self and family. He also told me that he loved me, which made me feel happy and glad to have him as a daddy.

When he got out of jail a year later, in 2005, I couldn’t believe it. He’d been in jail for 16 years and there’d been rumors about him being released, but nothing official. I was elated. He and my mom never did get back together. But he and I have been road dogs since the day he got out, hanging out all the time.

What I’d Missed Out On

When I was growing up, my stepfather wasn’t worth a dime, and I figured all fathers were the same. But as I got close to my dad, I began to realize that I’d missed out growing up without a father.

My dad feeds my mind with new ideas and introduces me to new things. He’s been a vegetarian for years and one day he took me to a vegetarian restaurant, where they had all types of fake meat, like chicken, shrimp and beef, made out of soy. I’d never tasted food like that before, and it was pretty good. He has also done so much for my self-esteem and pride. Nothing compares to him teaching me how to drive. One ordinary day last December, he came to pick me up and we were sitting in the car. I said, “I wanna drive.” We’d been talking about it for a while already, so he said OK. We switched seats and the rest is history.

Driving Lessons

He’s been patient and taught me everything about driving, step by step. Having him teach me to drive is special to me, because even though he missed the first 12 years of my life, now he’s witnessing me grow up. We have some of our best conversations sitting in the car. One day we were talking about a 16-year-old girl he knew who was pregnant. I guess since he got my mom pregnant early, he didn’t want to see me end up the same. “You know I have plans for you and getting pregnant isn’t a part of the plan,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. You don’t have to worry,” I said. “Nah, I’m serious. You’re graduating and going off to college and I’m proud of you for that. You don’t know how happy I am to be here experiencing this with you. But it don’t stop there. Your sister [his other daughter] should be in school now but because she got pregnant she had to leave college. I don’t want that for you. I want you in control. I want to be able to leave what I have behind with you and feel that I’ve made a smart decision.” I was thinking that this conversation was crazy-my mom and I don’t talk about serious things like that. But I was happy because he really cared. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I won’t mess up, for your sake and mine.”

Letting Go, Holding On

I love my dad. He means so much to me and I wouldn’t trade him for the world, not even for multi-billionaire Bill Gates. Am I still mad at him for being in jail instead of with me all those years? Yes and no. I’m mad at the decisions he made that landed him in jail, because if he hadn’t gone there I would have had him in my childhood. But maybe he needed to make the mistakes he made so he could learn from them. Besides, I’m not sure we’d be this close now if I’d known him my whole life. I’m still a little mad, but I do forgive him. I’m glad I’ve been able to let go of most of my anger towards my dad. It allowed us to have a strong relationship, and it allowed me to see him as a man, not an ex-convict. It helped me learn to respect men.

It also taught me how to forgive other people in my life. I used to hold onto grudges. But after seeing what came out of forgiving my father, I’ve learned how to let go of my anger toward other people also.

This year I started college in Maine, and my father’s moving to Georgia to go into the real estate business. Our plan is for me to join him in Georgia after college and hopefully become his business partner one day. I just want to be close to him and if that means moving to Georgia and working with him, then so be it. We’ve got each other now and we’re not letting go.

Source: Barry Chaffkin & Tanya Krupat, Coalition 2007 Conference Presentation

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