A few years ago, a woman I did not know called and complimented the columns I write for a small newspaper in my Indiana hometown. Then, niceties out of the way—she was merely softening the beaches, you see—she asked if I could help her with a personal writing project.
She told me she had written a letter to her granddaughter for an upcoming birthday. The letter was written in Spanish, but her granddaughter could only read English. She hoped I might be able to rewrite the letter in English based on a translation she would provide. She had faith that I could make the letter understandable for the girl and perhaps presentable enough for framing. I agreed to help. She said, “How much will I have to pay?” “Nothing,” I said. My county had developed a noticeable Hispanic population over the previous decade, drawn in large part to jobs at a turkey processing plant. Living in a predominately white community, I admired these people for their courage to willingly start new lives where they clearly were the minority and would face communication issues. I had always wanted to help them out in some way with my writing skills to help bridge obvious language gaps, though I had just never found the time. But this woman’s call dropped an opportunity into my lap. It was a sign. “I’d be glad to help,” I said. I won’t lie; I agreed in part because it made me feel good. Sometimes we help others to feel good just to help ourselves feel good.
She said she would drop the letter by my office the next day, but before that, she called again. She wanted to come clean. The letter wasn’t written by her, she said, but by her son. She added, “He’s in prison.” He had been arrested, found guilty, and sentenced for his role in a methamphetamines-related conspiracy.
An uncomfortable silence ensued along the telephone line. My initial instinct was to want to renege on the earlier agreement as gently and believably as possible, make up some type of excuse. Her revelation took me aback. My life had been privileged in the sense that I had no friends or relatives who had served jail time or even been on trial. Even the jail space in Monopoly was never really a factor in our games as kids. This woman’s world, through no fault of her own, was far from the sheltered reality of my own.
I found myself with one foot planted in the comfort of an orderly, ordinary life while the other foot dangled over the discomfort of someone’s disorderly, unordinary life. It would’ve been easy to change my mind, pull the foot back and keep it planted where it belonged. I didn’t know the woman. She had no idea what I looked like. We would never knowingly encounter each other in public. No awkward moments would arise.
I couldn’t help but imagine the heavy importance this girl would find in a heartfelt letter written by her locked-away father, a felon, but a father just the same.
But, like her son, I was the father of a daughter. Empathy’s weight lay upon my mind. I felt bad for the grandchild of a woman I didn’t know, for the convict’s child I didn’t know, while my foot hovered in the awkward airspace of a world that I didn’t know and in which I didn’t belong. I couldn’t help but imagine the heavy importance this girl would find in a heartfelt letter written by her locked-away father, a felon, but a father just the same. How terrible it must be for all involved: the dad, the daughter, the grandmother. I could not imagine the hellishness that surely existed for this family. I was free to see my daughter anytime I wanted.
I was also touched that a stranger had bravely sought assistance for something she respected in me, my writing abilities, though in this case, the letter was already written—the hard part already done. I was simply given an opportunity to help make things better for a little girl I didn’t know. How could I say no?
She delivered her son’s letter to me the next day. Scribbles of her English filled the spaces between each line of her son’s Spanish.
I didn’t expect much from the original draft, so I was pleasantly surprised by its meaningfulness (if the translation was true; how I wanted it to be true)—the father’s unabashed sentiment, his shame, and life’s lessons learned the hard way.
“I was desperate. I had no money. I did what I thought was necessary to put food on the table. I made an unwise choice. I started selling drugs, which was so very wrong. My mother, your grandma, cried so much over my behavior. She begged me to stop. She never wanted to see me the way I am now. I did not listen. I’m paying for it, baby girl; I’m paying for every single tear shed for me. I was a bad dad. I know that. Someday, perhaps you will understand the situation, though there is no legitimate excuse for what I did. Thanks to God, you are very smart. You will understand.”
I fixed the grammar and the punctuation, and I moved sentences around for more effective flow. I added some words to make the transitions better, making this man a better writer than he was but careful to not make him a better man than he was. The man in the letter had to mirror the man behind bars. The content, drafted with pen by a man in the pen, remained true to its creator. Though I have always loved a byline, I strived for invisibility this time. My role was a fixer of sentences, not a fixer of the fragility that existed between father and daughter. I kept my distance. I wrote as ghostly as possible.
I will not tell you that I tried to put myself in this man’s shoes. That was not possible. My empathy derived only from the one thing we held in common, only one thing: We were both fathers. I do not know if he bought his daughter flowers when it rained, as I often did for mine when she was four or five. I do not know if he shared a couch with his daughter while repeatedly watching Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid like I did with mine—or how the movie’s “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” nearly brings me to tears even to this day when I hear it on the radio. I do not know if he experienced the great joy of watching his toddler daughter being chased by the white, foamy nips of a Gulf Coast tide during a foggy Florida dawn. But, thanks to the letter, I do know this:
“Your birth was the best moment of my life. I still remember pushing you on a park swing near Grandma’s. You looked so cute when you’d laugh and show the world your mostly toothless smile. My friends, when they saw you, would say, ‘Your daughter is so precious, like a diamond,’ and I would say, ‘Yes, I know.’ Now you are probably losing your baby teeth—huh? My baby is growing without me watching. I can do nothing. If you are mad, I understand.”
Riding shotgun with this letter’s tender spot was plenty of gristle, tough things for a young mind—or even an old mind—to chew on: poverty, desperation, a humbling admittance of wrongdoing. Despite evidence to the contrary, he wanted to be a positive influence for her. He offered sage advice.
“Face problems wisely. Make good judgments. Bad choices bring bad consequences—always. Control your destiny. Do not fear making decisions on your own, but always remember that when you do this, you must accept responsibility for your actions. When in doubt, ask your grandmas for direction. Listen to them. They are wise. You can be nice without others taking advantage of your niceness. You can be brave without risking your life. Respect from the enemy is better than a friend’s flattery. Respect yourself. You were born to be a champion. You have value beyond your imagination. Do not accept insulting, humiliating or demeaning behavior from anyone. Do not endure verbal, emotional or physical abuse. If you are subjected to such behavior, seek help immediately … In good or in bad, here or there, I am with you—like any good papa. You are not alone in this world.”
Years passed. I’m fuzzy on just how many. I had long forgotten the letter, the daughter, the grandmother, and the prisoner until last November, when I noticed the man’s highly unusual first name in an online news report.
The letter filled me with hope that once this man served his time, he would return to his daughter, rehabilitated, and start life over in promising fashion, that he would become the good father and provider he promised, a man by virtue of darkness finding light. And perhaps his letter would still be hanging on her bedroom wall, the letter I had had a small hand in making clearer for her. I wanted this to be true. I am a sucker for a fairy tale ending, maybe more than normal in this case since I had an indirect, albeit insignificant role, in its making.
The next day, I read the touching, touched-up letter aloud to the prisoner’s tortured mother. I wanted to make sure the letter read true. Her reaction, her tears, told me it met her expectations. She thanked me. We never spoke again.
Years passed. I’m fuzzy on just how many. Five years? Six years? I had long forgotten the letter, the daughter, the grandmother, and the prisoner until last November, when I noticed the man’s highly unusual first name in an online news report. He had beaten his girlfriend to death after his release from prison a few months earlier. He had been sentenced to prison again, this time for 65 years.
I remembered how my minor role had made me a major believer in this man’s letter, how his words had the power to heal past wounds, to bridge a familial gap.
“When I get out, I’ll dedicate myself to raising you in the proper way that you deserve. I will try to send you to college so you won’t go through what I did. You have created within me a special feeling that will never leave in my lifetime.”
As ghostly as I attempted to be in my role to help this father reach his daughter through the written word, I cannot help but feel haunted by one particular line that touched me then in a different way than it touches me now: “Do not endure verbal, emotional or physical abuse.”
I, too, am guilty of something: possession of a delusion of grandeur. A woman I did not know called me to help her with something I have always loved to do: write. Certainly it was fate, my involvement destined to be a seed for a fairy tale ending, I thought. I was wrong. Fate actually revealed itself years later, when I just happened to be reading a particular out-of-town online newspaper that I rarely read, and a headline caught my eye. Suddenly, I didn’t feel very good about helping with the damn letter.
There is no fairy tale here, only a nightmare, one from which we cannot awaken, one that makes it very hard to sleep.