‘MERRY CHRISTMAS’ THROUGH PRISON BARS

J. Grant Swank, Jr.

Reading through my diary this Christmas, I came across this detail below. I reflected on that pain. Today, the pain is gone due to my son living for the Christ Child, evangelizing in His holy name, and overseeing his Christian home under God.

It is amazing how such suffering can continue for years; but then free will explodes in heaven’s favor so as to filter out the anguish.

This Christmas I just visited my son and grandchildren. In the midst of the celebration, we paused to read the Christmas account from the Gospel of Luke. As I read down through the verses, I could hardly believe that the diary’s bloody pages were now replaced with “Glory be to God for His saving grace.”

Here is the diary detail of years past:

I guess it is a father-son thing. At least that is what the two of us used to call it.

I’d take Jay out for pizza—just the two of us—and we would call it a Father and Son Evening. It was really quite exciting and fulfilling, too.

I can recall when he was just a baby, curling his tiny fingers around my one finger. I would lay him on my chest and then he would fall asleep. He was just a bit bigger than what I could hold in my two hands—tiny tiny tiny.

And all brown. A perfect brown. His skin was exceptionally smooth. What an awesome color.

His mother was white. His father was black. We don’t know any more about him than that.

He was born in July. We adopted him in September. That was over 25 years ago. He has known no other home but ours, no other family but ours.

So it was that as he grew older, we two had more and more Father and Son Evenings. Sometimes they were as simple as going for ice cream. Sometimes they involved traveling or exploring a new venture.

But when he talked to me the other day on the phone—Father and Son Afternoon? I guess you could call it that. But there was no excitement or fulfillment in it. It was a call that ached.

When I heard the phone ring, I lifted the receiver to get a recording. It was from a federal prison. The voice was masculine and it informed me that the first minute’s talk would cost me over four dollars. The next minute would cost me 70-some cents. Further, there would be 70% interest charge to top it off.

If I wanted to accept the call, I pushed a button on my phone front. If not, I could hang up.

I pushed the button.

Jay said, “Merry Christmas.” I answered with same—at least from my tongue; but it all got lost somewhere in my chest as far as my heart was concerned. I wonder sometimes where my heart is in all this stuff that’s been going on in Jay’s life in the last whatever years. I quit counting the years; but they add up to be too many, that’s for certain.

In his mid-teens, Jay traded in our family for that of the low-life sub-culture. He went for that surrogate dark-sided clan big time—in far more intense, hurtful and complicated terms that I would ever want to know.

It cost him five years in federal facilities—in New York, then Ohio, and finally Michigan. My wife and I drove over five years to those three locations to see our son for two-day visits. Lots of miles. Lots of heart.

And for what?

I wonder. Of course, life is not over. So there is much tallying yet to do—maybe; however, I surely do pray and hope that sometime it will take a turn for the light side.

While on probation, details unbeknownst to me by my choice, Jay broke the rules. So back to fed housing, hence the phone call and “Merry Christmas” from behind bars. Father and Son Afternoon. Right? Right not.

I wish I had a son.

I have two lovely daughters—biologically ours. But I had always dreamed of having a multi-racial boy—mine. And I at one time I had got him. But somewhere along the travels, he left me. I don’t know exactly when it was that I lost my son, but I lost him.

Oh, we would meet from time to time, but I had not counted on our Father and Son fests being in a lawyer’s office or court room with Jay’s ankles in leg chains or a fed visiting room with guards seated on raised platforms watching our every move.

Where was the camaraderie a father and son were to enjoy when the boy reached teens and young adulthood? I will never know. I have no other son to discover that with.

And how many years does my own adopted son think his adoptive father has on this earth for that boy to turn around to locate his dad? When? How? And finally, why?

“Merry Christmas” through bars is no fun.

All the while we were talking over the phone, I kept wondering where my voice box had gone. It was giving forth sounds, but to this day, I don’t know what I said. In other words, how many worn, pre-programmed cliches can a dad come up with when he’s lost for words, especially when writing is his vocation and words trip off his tongue or fingers while in his sleep?

“Merry Christmas” through bars.

I thank God that in time I did come upon two grand sons-in-law. They are such terrific fellows to be with. They treat me with courtesy and honor, something I had not discovered in Jay, that is, until after his mid-teens.

Now that I look back on his pre-mid-teen years, Jay would treat me with such respect. In fact, six footer that he ended up to be, while maturing, he would walk into a room filled with others to go straight for me. Then he would give me a bear hug and smack a manly kiss on my forehead. But. . .those days disappeared once he bonded with the underground family.

Nevertheless, God’s gift of two sons-in-law has filled the void to a significant degree. I look forward to their visits and conversation and laughter and nonsense. They have surely been worth the wait.

But with all that said, there is still an empty place way down deep inside. I try to ignore it. I try to put it aside. I try not to think about it. But the empty place won’t go away.

In other words, it was meant to be filled and moving and happy and gracious and embracing. It’s where my adopted son should be.

Jay, why do you do these awful things to yourself and to your family? Why are your choices so selfish and destructive? Why do you wake up in the morning to ruin the day for those who gave themselves to you since you were reclining there on my chest, since you curled your tiny fingers around
my finger?

Why?

I looked into your face as you stood there in your tuxedo as one of the groomsmen at Heidi’s wedding. You were handsome, for sure. There was not a flaw in your face. Your build is striking and strong. You walk into any room and take it over without saying a word.

What happened to you along the way, Jay? Where did you go? Why did you leave us? Surely five years in a federal prison cell got through your thick selfish head some basics for survival and kindness to those who poured out their love for you.

Yet seemingly not. You landed right back where you had languished for five years.

But I’m going on too long. This is stretched out much too much. For my own Christmas this Christmas I must get on with it, tending to matters that are close at hand.

There are carols to sing and presents to wrap. There are guests coming for dinner in a few minutes. There is a wife who needs help setting the table. And my daughters and their husbands will be here before I turn around.

Jay, I wish you could be with us. How I wish it. And pray for it. But you are seated somewhere out of state in a cold, lifeless prison.

So with that, I send out to your heart from mine—“Merry Christmas”.

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