Blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror. I was driving west on 95th Street in a dark blue Chevy Impala with expired license plates, and I had been speeding. It was late at night. The rain was light, and I was nervous. Any time is a bad time to go to jail, but tonight would be the worst. As the officer approached, I rolled the window down. Shining his flashlight in my face, he said, "You're going kind of fast." I gave him a look that indicated that I was disappointed with myself. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was going that fast. I'm on my way to the hospital. I'm about to be a father." I then showed the officer the hospital wristband that the nurse had given me as evidence. The officer smiled, wrote me a warning citation, and then wished me good luck.

"I'm gonna be a father…"

When I arrived at the hospital, your mother was lying in the bed, suffering from labor pains. You were soon to come. The doctor entered the room excited for us as first-time parents and doing her best to make your mother comfortable. "Breathe. Gimme one big push. Almost there!" And there you were—a beautiful, curly-haired boy. We knew what your name would be. We knew that between us parents and both our families there would be enough love and support. You were placed in my arms, and it was at that moment that a new kind of love was discovered.

I saw myself instantly. It wasn't the hair so much that gave you away, but that we shared the same frown that I had seen on my own mother's face. Yours would be the face that would inherit questions such as: Why don't you smile more? Are you okay? Why do you look so mean? You locked eyes with me for what seemed like an eternity. I kissed you and then handed you and your childhood to your mother. I left to go share the news of your arrival with the projects. I am sorry that I did not know how to be present.

I visualized it just being me and you. We're not at the visiting room table, but a park bench. Or, we're two light bodies or entities traveling through the galaxy.

I would be your dad for 155 days before being arrested. When I was arrested, I had your green bib in my pocket. It still had your baby milk vomit on it. I held the bib over and over and over until the jail guards took it from me. That would be the last memory I had of you and your infancy. The bib was the last time that I would have contact with anything so innocent. I wouldn't touch you again until you were four years old. And, for the next 19 years, we barely saw each other or talked at all. Stateville Correctional Center is about 45 minutes from Chicago, and it's the closest facility to the city. My correctional center, however, is nine hours away from home. What I learned over the years is that no matter how close or far, every drive to and from prison is long.

During visits, I would see fathers with their kids. Some would say that it was the first time they had seen their daughter in two years, or how their son had just turned 15, but they hadn't seen him since he was 10. An older man once told me that it was the first time that he had seen his grandkids, and they were seven. This helped me to put things into perspective because, when you did come to visit, the other men would see us and say, "Man, at least you get to see your son."

Early in my sentence, I couldn't conceptualize what it meant to be a child with an incarcerated dad. But I could soon see that you hated getting searched by antagonizing prison staff. I could see that you hated to stay seated at all times, and that there was no physical contact except for the start and end of the two-hour-long visits in a loud and crowded room that's heavily surveilled. 

Every time that you came to see me, I never left with you. That's heavy. I used to think that because you didn't want to visit me, that you didn't love me. However, I now know the opposite to be true. You didn't come to see me because you did love me. It's been painful for us both.

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Being incarcerated, small things get magnified because little is all you have. Little things like, do you know that I have never really heard you call me "Dad"? You probably have, but it has been so far and few between that I can't remember. I can't remember you saying, "Hi, Dad," or "My dad," or "Dad, guess what I did," or "Dad, Mom's not being fair." This has made me feel like an absent father on the inside—looking out from prison. And for that, I can blame no one except my immature, ignorant self and the racist and corrupt Chicago criminal legal system. No child deserves what was done to you. We traumatized you and we made you experience something other than an exceptional life. Please forgive me.

In the process of writing this, I was fortunate to speak with someone special who asked me to imagine our relationship beyond the context of prison. I thought it was a beautiful, beautiful suggestion. Being incarcerated comes with so many obstacles and barriers that you can become pessimistic and only see the glass as half empty. After this conversation, I went into contemplation and came back with the revelation that my glass wasn't half empty. It had been full the whole time. I discovered this by removing the physical constructs in prison, the guards, and the outside noise in my mind. I visualized it just being me and you. We're not at the visiting room table, but a park bench. Or, we're two light bodies or entities traveling through the galaxy. I was able to see us.

fatherhood from prison

I was able to see the lightning in your soul when we played story games. I remember when I gave you a prompt about a shoe that lost its string, the story that you developed from the top of your dome was so good. And to be so young, I thought that one day you would be a writer. We would have staring contests, and I would make funny faces to get you to blink first. It wasn't cheating. I was being tactical. I'm so glad that we got to play those games because I got to stare into your eyes—and you into mine—like we did when we first met. And what I saw in your eyes was the answer to my prayers.

You introduced me to your friends, and they would only have good things to say about you. I thought to myself that you got your father's charm—so, you're welcome, son. What I am most proud of is something that I can't take credit for, which is the person that you chose to become. I may have helped usher you into this world, but you chose to make the world a better place by the ways that you express love within a society that is cold and callous. You are warm and tender, and I've seen you being brave and fearless in principle all before you exited your teen years. I have become a better man learning and loving alongside you. The best gift that you will ever give to me is the emotional connection that we have—a stronger connection than the physical. 

I understand now that it doesn't matter how seldom nor how frequently we talk. What matters is that we both love each other deeply and, when the time is right, we can build a home together.

More on love from behind bars:

My heart is wrapped in concertina wire

An incarcerated woman recounts her experience of having a relationship with another woman in prison—the highs and lows of their bond, the obstacles they faced from the system and themselves, and the heartbreak of letting go.

Whether Fences or Not

When I remember what a privilege it is to have a place, any place, in the web of existence on this planet, I return with humble gratitude to the awe-inspiring, primal fact of the moment: I am alive, I am part of this place, part of the totality.

Devon Terrell was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago and is a father of an eighteen-year-old college student. While incarcerated, Terrell graduated from Northeastern Illinois University’s University Without Walls program with a depth area major in Poetic Justice in Black culture, which focuses on the use of poetry and art to transform youth culture and society. Devon is a published poet, activist, and advocate for Black youth.