(Un)Carnation

I am participating in the UncoSynchro blog, a writing collaborative effort from ‪#‎Unco14‬‬‬, focusing on subversive themes of faith and life. The theme for December is (Un)Carnation.

This post is very difficult for me to write.

Thirteen years ago. The road turned from pavement to packed snow and ice. Studded tires are the only thing that kept my wheels gripped to the road. My brother told me where to turn, as I had not been down this road before, towards Mount Susitna. The sky was turning pink, as the sun set around 3:30 p.m.

We pulled into the parking lot of the minimum security state prison. It looked like a farm, too, except for the high walls with barbed wire. We entered the first building and my brother gave our father’s name to the guard, and we both handed over our ID’s to the guard.

We’d been to visit our father before in a much more secure facility, one in which we could not take anything in with us. We emptied everything into a locker, put the key for the locker into a bowl by the metal detector, and walked through. Then we had to leave the key because we couldn’t even take that in with us to visit. And more than once, we were turned away before we could even empty our pockets. We’d come on the wrong day (visitors at one facility could only come on the days assigned alphabetically to the first letter of their last name), or we were outright lied to by the guard to come back at 1:30, so we came back at 1:30, and the same guard said we were too late for visiting that day.

This facility was a little different, the guard a little kinder. I couldn’t take my purse in but we could definitely take the key to the locker and my brother could keep his wallet. We had brought some shirts for my dad to wear as he didn’t have to wear an orange jumpsuit here, and after they inspected the bag, they gave it back to me. After having our ID’s checked, we were escorted to a small waiting room on the other side of the building, and then ushered out to a van, then driven to another building on the facility.

“I know your dad, he’s a good man,” the driving guard told us, breathing out frost as the heater was not working in the van. “I’m glad you guys came to visit him.” I’m not sure every prisoner’s kids receives that greeting, but I smiled. It makes a difference when a guard is kind to even the visitors. We were escorted from the van to a large building, shaped like a barn, and told to sit at a table and they would get our father. The building was very warm, so I shed my heavy winter coat and gloves. We heard his name called on the loudspeaker, and we sat and waited.

There was one time, at the more secure facility, when we went and waited and waited, until finally a guard came and told us our father was unable to visit with us. I have never asked my dad what happened—if he was ashamed, or if they never told him we were there. But we knew that it wasn’t a guarantee we would actually get to see him.

We waited almost a half hour this time before he came out to see us. I don’t get home very often—back then, it was about once a year, if that—so he was very happy to see me. “Merry Christmas,” I greeted him as we hugged, and we gave him his new shirts. My brother had been to see him more often, as he lived in the area.

Dad told us about how he was caring for pigs and milking cows, things he had done as a young boy in Colorado many years before. He was also taking computer classes, and attending some other seminars on small business and job preparation. There was talk he might get early release and be on an ankle monitor, and he joked that he would frame his mug shot and hang it over a door as a reminder. I smiled, but didn’t laugh. We’d heard this story before. But maybe this time things would be different. He always did enjoy learning. But the social skills and addiction counseling that he really needed—these things were not readily available, especially once he was out of the facility.

When our two hour visit was up and the guards came to tell us it was time to go, they gave us a few minutes to say goodbye. I always felt guilty that I felt relieved when the time came. I didn’t like having our private moments as a family out in the open for all the other imprisoned individuals to see along with the guards. I didn’t like the long awkward pauses that came after the first fifteen minutes or so because we couldn’t think of what else to say or share. I didn’t like that I felt ashamed to visit my dad in prison, year after year, because of one screw up or another, his or the state’s.

As I got in the car, the sun long set and the moon glistening off of the snow and ice around us and hanging from the fragile spruce branches over the road, I started giggling. “What’s so funny?” my brother asked.

“How many other people get to say, ‘I visited my dad in the slammer,’ when they are asked what they did over Christmas break?”

It wasn’t funny at all. And yet we both laughed out loud, ashamed and humored.

Where is God when you have to visit your dad in prison for Christmas? Where is the Christ who proclaims liberty to the oppressed and freedom to the captives? No Christmas trees, no garland, no music, nothing in that prison that proclaimed the season or even hinted at the celebration of the birth of a Messiah.

As I turned out of the driveway for the prison onto the road, I looked back at the barns of the farm, over the walls with the barbed wire fence covered with snow. Two thousand years ago, Mary and Joseph were in a barn. Maybe they laughed out loud when they said, “Our son was born in a stable.” The Messiah, the son of God, among the filth and the animals. Not a place for a baby. Just like a prison is no place for children, no matter what age.

Maybe they laughed out of shame and humor. Maybe there were Centurions patrolling the streets. We don’t know. And I don’t know what it was really like for my dad. It didn’t feel like Christmas to me at all in that place, or any facility he had been in. But maybe that’s where God enters in, through the shame and awe, all in one moment.

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2 Responses to (Un)Carnation

  1. […] (Un)Carnation by Mindi Welton-Mitchell at Rev-o-lution […]

  2. Renee says:

    Thanks for this sharing. Very powerful to visit loved ones in places where hope seems distant.

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