The Visiting Room
Before my daughter was born I used to visit my dad every other weekend. Now, unless there’s a special occasion like last week, I only get up to see him once a month. Last week he turned eighty and we sat and ate ice cream to celebrate.
Four years ago my dad suffered a mild stroke that left him temporarily impaired. Fortunately, he made a full and rapid recovery. A year later he was arrested on charges of creating child pornography. It was a federal offense and he initially faced up to seventy five years in prison. In a way he was lucky. He pled guilty to a plea bargain that charged him with a record keeping offense and got three years. He currently resides at a federal medical facility in central Massachusetts. I go visit my father in prison.
My dad didn’t mean to make child pornography. He was just looking for a cheap thrill and photographing nude women. It’s a risky business though. Between lies and what turned out to be non legal release forms he ended up photographing some girls he thought or hoped were over eighteen. They weren’t. My dad is what most people call a dirty old man. But he’s my dad and I love him.
It’s an unsettling feeling going to a prison. I had no experience with jails or prisons before my father was incarcerated. I had no idea what to expect the first time I went. I remember being very nervous and on the verge of tears. I remember wanting to cry out as I filled out the forms- my father was simply a number. Like every time afterwards, I must have handed over my ID, walked through the metal detector, had my clothes and shoes x-rayed, went through the heavy, steel lockout chambers and then, finally, entered the visiting room.
FMC Devens is a minimum security facility. That means, in part, that the visiting room is quite relaxed. Inmates can sit next to their visitors. You can hug and kiss upon greeting and leaving. They have vending machines on one side of the room and the visitors can buy food and drinks for the inmates. Row after row of blue plastic chairs fill the room. Inmates in khaki and bright orange suits dot the room.
The first few times I went, I quickly found a seat and sat quietly with my hands clenched, fighting back the tears, while I waited for my father to be brought in. At first I didn’t realize that I was entering a world of regulars. People that came every week to visit their loved ones. But, slowly, it dawned on me as I started to recognize the same faces every week. And I realized that we were all there for the same reason. To visit the people we loved. The Cape Verdian couple that always sat close together and laughed and cuddled like newlyweds. The older father who came every weekend to visit his son. The teenage girl who came to visit her teenage boyfriend and twine her fingers through his hands.
I believe in the kindness and love in the visiting room. Many times I have sat in that room afraid to meet a curious gaze lest I burst into tears. And yet, every time I did, I was met with an encouraging smile or sympathetic look. A look that says that they too have felt the same way. They too wished more than anything that the person they loved was not locked behind steel and designated as a number. That the only place they could see them was not in a room that looks like a high school cafeteria with heavy, double locking doors and guards on duty. And that they wished that when they left, their loved one wasn’t left behind, cavity searched and sent back to his cement cell.
I have learned in that room that I am no different from anyone else. That we all love our families, spouses and friends just as much as the next person. And I have learned that when given the opportunity the human spirit is generous, forgiving and kind. The few words and smiles that people gave me in the beginning fed my faltering inner strength and helped me get through the first few months that my dad was in prison.
Now, when I go visit dad it’s still upsetting. But I wave to the people I know and smile at the ones I recognize and sit down in my seat to wait. I sit down and absorb the love and kindness of the visiting room and I am glad that I have come.
* I realize this is over 500 words. Am happy to edit it down but assumed, if it was chosen, that it would be edited anyway. Sorry for any inconvenience this causes.
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