This article was published in collaboration with Vice.
Not since I entered high school have I stayed in bed past 5:30 a.m., but here I am at 7:30, peeling the blanket from over my eyes. The impending decision about my father’s parole has suspended time—suspended my whole life, really.
Today, we’re set to find out whether he will be released from prison. By this afternoon, my world could be filled with love and possibility instead of heartache and loneliness.
When he was 17 — the same age I am now — my father was arrested with two others for a murder and robbery in which one of his co-defendants shot and killed a cab driver. Though he was not the shooter, and the murder was unplanned, my father and the two others were sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
My hopes are high because the New York State Parole Board recently decided to release the actual shooter, and my father has accomplished the most of all his co-defendants while in prison. I’m proud to say that he’s earned an associate degree from Bard College — and was the commencement speaker for the Bard Prison Initiative — as well as a bachelor’s from Thomas Edison State University. Now he’s working on his MBA. He’s been the lead trainer in a program that raises service dogs for our wounded vets, has facilitated a Crime Victim Awareness program, and is a published author. During his entire incarceration, he has never received a ticket for a violent offense.
This is my father’s fourth parole appearance, and he engages in a peculiar ritual after each one. Because the Board can be so unpredictable, and because the wait for its decision can be a several-day marathon, he always calls me to talk not about what might happen, but to tell stories from his past.
The last time my father called me, I listened as he revisited the first time we ever met: On Rikers Island, when he was 17 years old, and I was 17 days old. (But he felt older, and I looked older, he says.) He spoke vividly about those one-hour visits, when my presence gave him peace of mind in a place defined by violence.
Then I told him about school, and how I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. The other students have been performing at such a high level, I said, and doing it so effortlessly.
“Those kids’ parents come to every school function, right?” my father asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Their parents can check their homework, help them with math problems, and give them more direct guidance. But for you none of those things are true — is that how you feel?”
“It’s not what I feel. It’s what it is. I hate when I don’t know something. I feel lost.”
“But that’s the great nature of your challenge, son,” my father said, always erring on the side of strength over suffering. “You’ll have to work more because you have less. That’s not a question of ability, it’s a question of identity — of how strong you are. And let me tell you, you’re the strongest person I know.”
My father has always had this way with me: Whenever I feel like I’ve failed, he makes me believe that I’ve somehow succeeded.
After days of waiting on the Parole Board’s decision, I knew he was telling me these things — how reading saved his life, or how he learned to rediscover life by watching me grow up — so that it might strengthen me for whatever they decided.
But still I couldn’t find the strength to cast away my blanket. Instead, I retreated back into the darkness, imagining my father as a 17-year-old.
He was a standout student all the way through eighth grade, only to drop out at 14 and fall victim to the streets. He says that he didn’t fit in and was bullied, which left him feeling angry and alone.
It would give my mother great pause to hear me say this, but his life then, and the alienation he felt, share a strange symmetry with my own.
I think back to a recent football game, for example, which we had just won. Talking to my team afterward, I got carried away telling them how my father used to break tackles the way our teammate Michael did for the winning touchdown. Then someone asked, “How come he wasn’t at the game tonight?”
It was the first time anyone had ever asked me this, though I knew it wasn’t the first time it had been thought. I gave the worst answer by just standing there silently, saying nothing at all.
“My parents come to every game no matter what,” my other teammate, John said, breaking the silence. It felt less like a statement of his parents’ love than a judgment of my parents’ failure.
I walked home alone again that night, failing once more to connect with my teammates. But how could I tell them the truth? Of course they would make fun of me for caring about someone who was never there.
Today, on this decisive morning, I’m imagining my father in a setting outside of prison. He finally comes to pick me up from school. I can see him grabbing the football and taking me to the park, teaching me how to escape defensive pressure while scrambling out of the pocket.
My father is coming home, and I can show him that I’ve become a different version of him. My teammates will finally meet him.
But I can’t tell him any of this. I can’t tell him that I haven’t slept in days. I can’t tell him that I’ve never told anyone at school about my situation, that it would only confirm their suspicion that I’m not terribly loved. I can’t tell him, because I don’t want to add stress to my dad’s already dire situation.
I am still cradled under the blanket when the phone finally rings. My head is pounding, and I feel like I’m going to fall.
It’s my dad. After a split second that feels far longer, he says, “You have to be strong, you have to stay strong…” I don’t hear anything else. I want to scream.
I’m a good person. I’m an honor student. My dad won’t be coming home.
Tristan Darshan is a rising high school senior in Valley Stream, N.Y. Tristan’s father, an inmate at Otisville Correctional Facility in Otisville, N.Y., is appealing the state parole board’s November 2016 decision to deny his parole. His next hearing is in July.