There he was on the back row, grinning from ear to ear. It had been years since we had seen him, and it took a minute for my mind to register who he was. I rushed to greet him the first chance I got. “How are you, where are you staying these days, how are the kids, what are the kids up to now, it's great to see you, how long has it been ?”
We peppered him with friendly questions, and he answered with his unwavering smile. He said he had been to Iraq a couple of times and was just passing through. He just wanted to drop in and say hello. For a brief time he was a rock star around here, one of our success stories. Now we were greeting the prodigal, nicely asking good-intentioned questions while leaving the nagging ones alone. This was not the time.
He gave us updates on his children. The oldest was doing something, I don't recall, the next was still in town working, one daughter had a little baby now and was living out West, and the youngest, the one we all thought had been the sweetest, was locked up.
This was the sort of brief and pleasant encounter where you talk and details are avoided. We all say we will keep in touch and hope to see each other again, but for some reason phone numbers and emails are skirted. At the end of the day, we were happy to have seen this man but had no way to find him again. We would just have to wait for him to pass through again.
This wasn't an unusual encounter. We meet people, we like them, they leave, they pass back through, perfectly normal. But my wife couldn't shake the news about that youngest kid. Locked up? Jail? Him? It hurt her to think of the kid she remembered, so young, well-mannered and sweet, now in jail.
She spent that evening online doing a statewide prison search for his name. He wasn't that hard to find.
“We are going to see him,” my wife announced in her familiar authoritative tone. I have learned that when I hear this tone, the only thing that can be done is to start making arrangements, so we did.
Visiting was only allowed on Thursdays, before 4, so I had to take a day off from work. We scrounged around to find a baby sitter and headed off for prison. It had been at least four years since we had seen this young man, maybe more. He may not even remember us.
We first met him and his family in church. His dad was a widower trying to raise four kids by himself. His oldest was struggling and got sent off to a youth detention center in the Poconos. The middle two kids were up and down.
Then there was the young one. He was good.
The dad would load the three kids up in the van and bring them to activities every Wednesday. He would sit and keep them in line on Sundays, but he was tired and lonely. Then he got a girlfriend.
The girlfriend grew into something that was more than casual. She had kids of her own, and when he moved in with her, things got bad. There was not room for two families in this one house or in the relationship. The dad sent his own kids away. He didn't just farm them out, he gave up legal custody. The kids were old enough to know what this meant and what it implied. Some friends from church tried to legally adopt one of the middle kids, but she ran away. The youngest, the one we were going to visit, had gone to stay with a grandparent. He was probably 12. This is about where we all lost touch.
Sitting in the prison waiting room, my wife looked over and asked, “Is it bad that I'm really hoping he is in here for drugs?” I knew what she meant. The online prisoner search will tell you where a person is but not why that person is there, and there could be lots of horrible reasons to be there. Eventually they called our names and we were allowed back to see him.
In a crowded room full of denim jumpsuits, girlfriends and wives stood a young man confused. We recognized him long before he recognized us, but once it dawned on him who we were, he smiled. Wide eyed and grinning, he hugged us, still confused. They had told him he had visitors but not who they were. He said he had thought and thought about who it could be while they processed him but never would have guessed it would be us.
Turns out he had been there for eight months and had never had a visitor; we were the first. He explained that this was his second time in. After he moved in with his grandmother, he made a "stupid" mistake.
He was 18 now, almost 19. If this was somewhere else, some other universe, he would be buying suits to go on a mission. He would be excitedly wondering where he would spend the next two years, but instead he was telling us he might be here another nine months, maybe longer. He said he spent most of his time watching the Phillies games on TV. He was quite proud that he, through his good behavior, had earned the right to control the remote for the entire cell block. He said he read a little but mostly he watched the Phillies.
Still shocked we were sitting there he admitted he often remembered those days back then, when he went to church. We reminisced about a winter camp-out where all the boys wanted to sleep in the cinder-block outhouse because they thought it would be warmer. He had never been camping before that. We talked about who was doing what now; other kids, other adults, the same sorts of things you do when catching up with an old friend. He appeared genuinely happy to see us and we were happy to see him smile.
Then he began to ask us about his family. He wanted to know if we knew what his brothers and sisters were doing these days. We tried to repeat what his dad had told us, but in reality, we had no idea. He was fascinated by how we found him. He wanted to hear all about his dad. Sadly, there wasn't too much for us to share.
We tried to steer him toward the future, to talk about where his head was at now. There wasn't much there to talk about either. He was more interested in the past. He said he knew it was his fault that he was there. He knew he had done wrong and felt both bad and responsible for his life's events.
We did our best in that moment to be supportive. As our time together wound down, we asked sincerely what we could do for him. We wanted our reunion to be productive. We offered to send him things to read, to help him plan next steps once he was out, anything.
All he wanted was for us to help him find his dad.
He wanted to write him a letter, or better yet, for his dad to come and visit. He wanted to talk to him so he could say he was sorry for how he had acted. He wanted to apologize for not being and doing better. He thought he had let his father down and he wanted to make it better. He wanted to tell his dad, and asked us to say it for him if we could, that he loved him. He loved his dad. That is all he would ask for.
I felt horrible on the drive home. This kid had every right to be angry and spiteful. I was largely outside the whole situation, and I was both those things, but all he wanted was reconciliation. He had been abandoned, rejected, arrested, incarcerated, and he still loved his dad. Due in large part to events that happened to him when he was 12, events that were completely outside of his control, the odds are that he will never in his life experience financial security or comfortable job fulfillment, and all he is really worried about is seeing and loving his dad — the guy who gave him up for a girlfriend. It hurt my feelings. I'm not really sure why, but it did. It still does.
We couldn't find his dad. Sadly, we were never able to do much.
I often think about this young man and think about all of this. I know the textbook answers to such situations, but I struggle to nail down the real-life applications. Maybe we could have done more, but really, a lot of people did a whole lot, and look where it led.
I could easily point to the father's failures, but I can't, and couldn't, change those. They happened, and in so many ways are still happening. I could point to the young man's criminal behavior, but I can't blame that little kid.
So what do I do? What do I think? I refuse to accept the idea, or sometimes the realization, that nothing can be done. Something must be done. Not felt or thought, but done. I try some things, then I try others, but I don't really know what to do.
So until I do know, all I am left to do is remember and write, tie my tie and go to church, and there I go greet that smiling face on the back row. I meet new young men and young women, grandmas and grandpas, brothers and sisters, and at the end of it all, all I have is a little bit of the feeling that Heavenly Father has, and I keep going.