You learn a whole new vocabulary as you become immersed in the world of corrections, both formal and colloquial. The incarcerated men are referred to as “offenders”, and the “VR” is the visiting room where your life intersects with the life of the imprisoned person you love. You learn what clothes you can wear and cannot wear. Men cannot wear what a male prisoner wears: no plain white, gray or navy T-shirts. And women cannot wear anything, basically, that might unreasonably titillate a male inmate
You learn to bring money to load a special debit card to use for overpriced snack items in the VR. The incarcerated see them as luxuries – items that aren’t part of their usual fare. You also remember to bring a quarter so that you can use a locker – you can carry in no purse, no phone, no watch and no keys. Walking through the metal detector and being “wanded” becomes commonplace. The heavy clang of massive metal gates with coils of murderous razor wire on top no longer make you jump when you pass through them.
As the months and years pass, you get to know the “CO’s”, short for “correctional officers”. You learn which ones are young and eager to earn their stripes. They swagger, twirling their keys, their hair spiky on the tops of their heads and close shaven on the sides, and they lean on counters, their eyes darting back and forth, vigilant for any infraction. Others have been in the position for years. They have gotten to know some men well. They have seen people come and go and, in some cases, return again. The Old Guard know me and greet me by name, asking about my plans for the holidays. We’re all in this together.
My son has been incarcerated almost nine years, and not wrongly. He committed the crimes and, at my naive urging, he confessed to them fully. He could spend a total of thirty years in prison, arrested when he was 23. A better possibility is 21 years, and we hold out hope that he may be released soon. My son says that he cannot think about those prospects. He has to “do his time” one day at a time, not allowing his mind to invest itself in thoughts of going home, focusing only on the days just ahead.
I have learned to follow his lead. Being with him in the VR, surrounded by other offenders and their friends and family, no longer seems strange to me. He remains my oldest son, my Old Soul, and the only one of my family who could have survived a long sentence like this. My daughter would have organized the population and reformed the whole system by now. My younger son would have staged a Rambo-esque revolt. Me, I would have fallen in love with the warden or something. Classic Stockholm Syndrome.
Over the years, we have visited in every family configuration, but my favorite visits are those alone with him, him and me. We laugh, we eat, we discuss politics and sports and family members. It still hurts a lot, every time I leave, and I have to start the long drive home without speaking to anyone to get my emotions under control. Someone wise and beautiful taught me once to sit with my pain, so I imagine my pain as a crone, wrapped in black, who sits beside me in the passenger seat and rocks back and forth, keening her grief. I breathe in and out, and when her mourning is complete, she disappears.
Every time, I remind myself that way too many mothers would give all to have the chance to visit their son in prison, instead of in the morgue. As the bodies of young men litter streets everywhere, mine is safe. Mine still does what he can to be a father to his young son, a son to his mother, and a leader in his community. My son, someday, will come home.