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For the Soundless Victims of Mass Incarceration

I can distinctly recall the first time I lied to my daughter. An innately punctual child paced the floor, anxiously waiting to hear the sound of her father’s heavy exhaust pipes or see his blacked out, big bodied truck snatch around the corner on two wheels. This always caused her to giggle uncontrollably and inquire, “Why does daddy drive so fast?”

It was Thursday night and his tardiness was threatening to make her late for gymnastics. “Mommy, did you text daddy? Is he on his way?”

“Daddy, has to work late. He can’t come tonight,” I lied.

She didn’t believe me.

It was in her eyes.

It was in my voice.

Refusing to be late, she grabbed her gym bag and reluctantly journeyed to class without her father. Unbeknownst to her, this would be the first of many.

A cold breeze met my left side where he use to sit and watch her class with me. The reality of his absence hit me half way through her gymnastics class and suddenly I couldn’t find my breath. Watching her stern form and fluid movement on the balancing beam caused my throat to fill with desperation and agony. He was gone.

“Hanadie, daddy is..daddy is..” I replayed this conversation over in my mind so many times it shook my sanity. I could feel the room rotating. In a matter of 24 hours, our lives had drastically changed. We were swiftly spiraling downward and I had nothing to grip onto.

Thrust tightly between a rock and a hard place, I was left with a painful decision. I was either going to be the bearer of bad news or a habitual liar; a person my daughter would learn not to depend on for the truth. Both options would leave me to deal with the broken heart of my baby girl, which didn’t seem fair.

I had no idea how I was going to explain to my bright-eyed, exceptionally intelligent 3-year-old how a violent combination of institutional racism, bad decisions, a stormy upbringing and an addiction to fast money ultimately landed her superman injured and handicapped of his ability to be a real father. At least for the next few years.

This is for the soundless victims of mass incarceration. This is for the ones who do not show up in the statistics or the national reports, but suffer the most from incarceration. This is for the children of imprisoned fathers.

My hope is that this piece will somehow reach the hands of fathers who need to know the impact that their absence has on their children’s lives. I hope that it ultimately encourages them to make better decisions.

If your child is in a similar situation, please be attentive. This is what grief in a child looks like.

Anger

I turned to Hanadie who was in the back seat of the car staring intently out the window. Her mind was occupied and her thoughts were straying away from reality. “Ladybug, daddy is on the phone. He’s calling to wish you a happy birthday.” Her glance never broke from whatever she was fixated on. I repeated myself several times, not once did she bother to respond.

Today was the day she decided to stop entertaining our lies. When she finally spoke, the amount of rage that was in her mousy little voice had enough impact to shatter dreams. “Daddy is not at work. That’s not the truth mommy. He’s not working all these days. Why won’t you take me to see my daddy? I just want to go to his house so he can take me to the movies. I baked him cookies and you wont let me take him his cookies.” She was pissed.

For the first time in four years, my daughter abandoned everything she was taught about respecting her elders and filled that truck up with rage. She was livid and I could no longer blame her. We had been lying to her for three months and she was sick of it.

Hanadie, a consistently pleasant and joyful child, had entered the stage in her grieving process where distress consumed her. She was frustrated eighty percent of the time and she had no idea what to do with this new emotion. It spewed from her in the way she spoke and the way she interacted with other children. When we visited places where children were playing with their fathers, she would spectate and yearn for the same interactions. She was tired of being hurt and even more frustrated with not feeling worthy enough of the truth from us.

Depression and Detachment

“Nadie refused to eat her lunch today and she hasn’t really been interacting with other children. Is everything OK with her?” Five months into this and the lies escaped my mouth so freely that I was starting to believe them. “Her father is away at work and she’s taking it a little hard,” I justified.

This was my attempt to explain to my daughter’s teacher why a traditionally active and vibrant child was suddenly unrecognizable in demeanor and spirit. The same tragic decline in ambition and energy could be seen in her gymnastics and dance classes. Suddenly, activities she loved had no color. She spent practices sitting on the ground looking off in space. My praise was not enough, she missed her dad’s obnoxious encouragement from the sidelines. His heavy-handed, thunder claps whenever she executed a move with perfection. He was the boisterous supporter, my mild mannered high fives and silent thumb ups didn’t suffice. She missed her father.

She spent days locking herself away in her room, in cabinets and in corners. I would often find myself knee deep in work only to see hours pass and no word from Hanadie. She always requested solitude and very little food. “Hanadie, you want to play dolls and tea party?” These were her favorite games. “Not today mommy, maybe we can play tomorrow. I just want to stay in my room for a little bit.” The sadness I knew she was experiencing behind closed doors yanked at my heart strings. My daughter was battling with depression and I felt helpless. She was four.

Dialogue and Bargaining

I was exhausted from being the face of this tragic lie. She deserved to know the truth and shockingly, I could see relief flood her. For the first time in 5 months, things finally made sense to her. Over the next month she attacked us with questions. Her inquisitive mind needed to process the details of the tragedy that kidnapped her superman in the middle of the night. She needed to understand how something like this could happen to HER daddy. The more she understood, the less depressed and angry she felt. After 6 months, I naively convinced myself that I had my little girl back.

We were in a good place and my child entered the bargaining phase without my permission.  One week she came home and she told me that a little girl at school had hit her. Naturally disturbed, I probed further. This continued for a week, everyday the bullying intensified. By Thursday, a little boy had taken her lunch from her and poked her in the leg with a pair of scissors. Friday morning I was at the school. Someone was going to explain to me why my child was being picked on or I was prepared to send the whole elementary school up.

I walked in with vengeance, called for the teacher and principal. I calmly explained to them the series of events and wanted to know why my child was being tormented by her classmates. The teacher, puzzled at my accounts, shook her head and returning my calmness informed me that none of those stories were in fact true.

I called Hanadie to where I was standing and demanded she explain herself immediately. Her justification caused my knees to buckle. She said, “If you lie, you go to jail with your daddy.” She wanted to go to jail.

“Daddy told me that he was going to come and handle the little boy who pulled my hair, but he never came.” In a desperate attempt to understand what was happening, my child devised a plan that would either, put her in jail with her father, or force him to get out and come save her.”

I accepted at that moment, she was going to need help getting through this situation. She had lost trust in what she knew family to mean and she needed the kind of help that a mother’s love or Saturday visits to the prison couldn’t provide.

Acceptance

As painful as it has been and will continue to be, she has accepted that her father is in jail and his participation in her life comes in the form or phone calls, bi-weekly visits to the jail where she can see him through a glass and letters.

This is a stark contrast from seeing him cheer at dance recitals or coach her at gymnastics. This is nothing like spending weekends having daddy-daughter time or going on dates together. He missed and will continue to miss birthdays, holidays, and other milestones in her development. He won’t be there when she graduates pre-school and the last time they danced together was last June 2014. It’s been a year.

Her life has changed in the past eight months. Her childhood has been impacted in a way that an 1,800 word piece could never explain, but moving into the acceptance phase of grief is where we learn to make the best of a sad situation.

These children are the victims who suffer in solitude. They are forced to try and process how to survive in a world without a man to train him up or a father to protect her from the ill intentions of young boys.

Fathers, your presence is vital. Your children elevate you to a level of superheroism that is unreachable by any other human being. You’re daddy and it takes more than a mistake to tarnished their perception of who you are.

There is not a child in this world who should know the pain of grief at such a tender age. Love is the healing agent in this equation. Heartbreak can be prevented simply by considering the way your choices ultimately empower or restrict your children from living a life where lies, trauma and misfortune does not become the norm.

I asked Nadie how she felt about daddy being in jail and she responded, “We all make mistakes don’t we mommy? Maybe daddy just made a little mistake. That’s ok. He can say ‘sorry’ when he gets home and I will hug him.” Despite it all, her love for her father has not wavered. Her ability to forgive is solid because the innocence of a child allows for parents to make not so good decisions from time to time.

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Jazz Keyes is a community activist, poetess and a nationally certified Life Purpose and Career Coach. Keyes supplies clients with the necessary tools and techniques to awaken their divine energy, heal their open wounds and create an aura of love, compassionate and tranquility. In 2013,  Keyes was named “13 People to Watch For” by Rockford Register Star and in honor of Black History Month 2014, Keyes was recently named a “Neighborhood Hero” by ComEd’s Power of One Campaign. Keyes in currently pursuing her Masters in Clinical Psychology and hopes to one day be a best-selling author and motivational speaker. She has devoted a great deal of her time and energy on mastering the art of communication in order to create healthy, dynamic, long-lasting relationships.