The long drive, my forgetting to have exact change for vending machine cards, locker expenses, and other visiting procedural protocols, was just a part of the anxiety I was feeling, as I began to inch closer to the front of the check-in line. You see, the last time I made the three-hour trek up the highway one Saturday in July, I was turned away with a simple explanation. “Sorry, it’s not his visiting block today,” the prison guard had uttered, as she stared at what must have been the most bewildered expression I had mustered on my face since high school physics.
Unbeknownst to me, that day in July just so happened to be Family Day. Hence, the explanation as to why there were so many small kids, babies, and single mothers there. I recall thinking to myself, freedom, next to life itself, has to be the highest priority valued by humans. Anything short of that, I surmised, must be like death itself.
Because of the sheer number of visitors for Family Day, inmate visits were divided according to last name, with some visits occurring on Saturday and the others on Sunday. As I came to grips with not being able to see my father because I came on Saturday and not Sunday, I glanced around the room looking at all of the fractured families. Women with children were cluttered throughout the check-in area. Their valiant attempts to maintain a semblance of family life, I noted. At that very moment, I stopped feeling sad for myself, knowing that all I had to do was come back another day. But it was not that simple for all of those kids who longed for their fathers or for the mothers forced to do family life solo.
As I exited the prison grounds and began driving down the long road back towards the interstate, I tried to recollect back some 40-plus years earlier, wondering about my own mother’s plight, and how she was confronted with this same issue in the early ’70s. My memory was blank; I could not recall one visit in which my mother accompanied me to see my father. Was my subconscious suppressing painful past events or was the passage of time doing what it naturally does? Was Mom traumatized by her own interactions and past deeds in the struggle that she could not bear any more? Had she gotten too close to the fire and possibly steps away from being incarcerated herself? I speculated that it had come down to two options: being a mother or being a lover. In many regards, her fate, as well as that of other like-minded associates who aggressively challenged the status quo, was up in the air, and she was probably under tremendous pressure. Their plights intertwined with my father’s and he ultimately received multiple life sentences.
Struggling to remember clearly, I turned the music off so that I could better concentrate. I put the car on cruise control. The white lane dividing lines of the interstate rhythmically passed under my car tires every few seconds and I zoned into deep thought… As a young boy, I remember going to a Family Day visit. My sister and I went to Western State Penitentiary to see my father, accompanied by Grandma Shoatz, my father’s mother; two aunts, Sayeeda and Sue; and my cousin Masai (Aunt Sayeeda’s son), who went to see his father Sayeed. It seemed like it took forever to get there, but in reality it is only a five-plus hour drive from Philly. We had a bunch of food: fried chicken, macaroni salad, and a number of cakes and pies. I vividly recall entering the 30-foot barbed wire fenced compound and the guards inspecting the food for weapons and contraband. They must have cut those cakes and pies into about 30 little pieces each…
Returning to my most recent visit to the prison where my father’s now held, there was a considerable amount of noise in the waiting area: little children crying, playing, and just being active. “Name and number,” the guard asked, his voice piercing through the air, seemingly drowning out all other sounds, as I was now at the front of the line. My anxiety was now on full tilt, and my subconscious began entertaining Murphy’s Law of whatever can go wrong will go wrong, remembering my last visit and the Family Day fiasco. However, without further hiccups after my stay in the waiting area, I advanced into the search room and then down the concrete stairs into the visiting room.
Scanning left, right, and back to the left, I began looking for Maroon, AKA O.G., Sheikh, Old Head, and countless other names and titles given to the man I simply call Dad. The hardened solider who says he has to be ready for anything and everything at all times, was near the back of the visiting area, attempting to save a few seats in the crowded room. We spotted one another, and for just a minute, the intensity, sense of urgency, and ultra-serious demeanor went away and a smile appeared. The frontline solider had taken a break, even if it was for just a brief moment. Mental note: the visits are always good whenever I get to see that smile on my father’s face.
About an hour into the visit, just kicking it, guess who shows up unbeknownst to either of us.? My sister twin Sharon. We are a few years apart and have different mothers, but that Maroon DNA runs deep. Besides height, sex, and the hair on my face, we are identical, thus, I derived her nickname, “sister twin.” Now, I’m smiling ear to ear; I haven’t seen nor talked with her in a while. We would normally cross paths at a family function or she would drop by when frequenting my neck of the woods. Lately, however, we hadn’t interacted. But on this day, it was like we never missed a beat.
Good times interacting with each other, as was to be expected based on the circumstances. But there was something different about Pops. I eased back for a moment to figure it out; what was it, I asked myself? I had taken a step back to watch him kick it with Sharon. And true to form, his interactions and demeanor were what is often noted about most father-daughter relationships. Pops has flipped the script. He spoke a little softer, his words seemed more measured and tempered. If the frontline solider had taken a break with me, he was at a full-fledged retreat when it came to Sharon. She had him melting like hot butter.
The highlight of the visit came after taking this picture. Pops said, “Let me see.” And just like a proud father admiring his work, he looked at the picture, studying it with great intensity. He began nodding his head up and down, giving his vote of approval. Now smiling ear to ear, he said, “Damn, this is all me, this is all me.”
Mental note: The visits are always good whenever I get to see that smile on my father’s face.