Ever since I reunited with my daughter a year ago, it’s been like a dream. On our calls, my 11-year-old cracks jokes, laughs at mine, and generally keeps me on my toes. But I’m also learning things about her that require me to be even more present. That’s difficult to do when you’re serving time in maximum security prison.
Last fall, when she was 10, my daughter, her siblings and her mother were in a shelter for a few days. I can’t get into detail, but I can say that her mother’s relationship had ended in hurtful arguments, that her maternal grandmother died while they were at the shelter, and that they needed help getting back to our hometown.
All I could think about was my daughter's emotional safety. About what she saw in her mother’s tears. But as much as I wanted to protect her, I couldn’t.
“Where is she?” I asked when my daughter’s mother called me from the shelter. “I want to talk to her.”
“In the back,” she replied. “The shelter has a little playground there. Hold on.”
Soon I heard the clank of a heavy metal door and a wind gust — the loudest I've ever heard through a prison phone.
“Hmm,” my daughter mumbled into the receiver.
“Hmm,” she repeated.
“You don’t feel like talking to me today?”
“I didn’t say that,” my daughter shot back.
“Well, I told your grandma you’re coming to the city. She can't wait to see you! A lot of people want to see my beautiful girl, my little baby girl.”
“I am not a baby,” she said.
“You’re my baby,” I clarified. “Are you OK? What’s wrong?”
Through her silence, I could hear other children playing, laughing and living in the moment. I asked her what was wrong again. And again. And again, until it burned my throat.
“I don’t know!” my daughter finally blurted out.
“But are you OK?”
“I dunnnnnnnnnno,” she said, dragging out the word this time.
“Just know that I love you so, so much.”
“No you don’t.”
I heard the wind again. My chest tightened so much it felt like my skin was being pulled inside of me.
“Why would you say I don’t love you?”
My daughter and I went back and forth this way until the operator woman’s recorded voice warned us that we had one minute left. So I did my best to reassure her.
“I love you so much. I’m sorry I can’t be there as you need me to be, but I’m here. I will always be here. I know you're trying to understand the world, but it’s important that —” Before I could finish pouring out my heart, the operator woman thanked us for using her network and disconnected us. I couldn’t call my daughter back because an officer announced over the PA system that phone time was over.
That night I had a dream. I was on the shelter’s playground, but it had the same design as a prison yard. My daughter was staring out over a fence. I was staring back at her, and our eyes both met the sun.
Suddenly, I was on the playground with her. It felt like I was hugging her, but I could see her burying her face into an empty space. She was crying, “Please come home. Please come home. Please come home.”
I woke up in my single-man cell at Baraga Correctional Facility soaked with sweat. I had a teary face and a throbbing heart. I called my closest friends, my mother and my grandma and pleaded with them to create a comfortable environment for my daughter when she got to town. I felt useless, but I was glad that she was closer to my family.
In November, I had a good surprise for my daughter’s birthday, and I was excited to tell her about it. She’d burned out her last iPad, and I’d gotten her something much better — a computer.
“Happy birthday, baby!” I shouted when her mom handed her the phone. I was standing in the cold, but I didn’t care. I was happy to hear her giggle. “I got you a big present! Your uncle should be there with it soon.”
“What did you get me?” my daughter asked.
“I ain’t telling you,” I replied playfully.
“What is it?” she repeated. I noticed that her voice was deepening.
“You want to hear your happy birthday song?” I asked, ignoring her attempt to ruin my surprise. “I made it up just for you.”
“OK,” she said, the smile back in her voice.
“Happy, happy birthday,” I sang. “Happy, happy birthday! Happy, happy birthday to you, Nini!”
She laughed and begged me to stop. “Daddy, that song is for a baby,” she explained.
“I know. You’re my precious baby.”
Switching gears, she asked if I told “them” that she had returned to the city.
“The people that got you there.”
I was silent, trying to process.
“Just tell the people at the place you’re at now how much you love me. Tell them I’m here, so they can let you go for the weekend. They’ll believe you. They’ll let you go.” She sounded confident, as if she had come up with a solution.
“I...I’ll try,” I said, realizing that she was confusing this maximum security prison with the juvenile facility where she’d visited one of her older cousins. I would have to explain the difference to her later.
“Go do it now!” she demanded.
I started singing the happy birthday song again. I did a dance along with it, even though she couldn’t see me.
“I don’t want to hear the song, daddy,” she said, laughing again. “You’re silly!”
Before the operator woman could interrupt us with a one-minute warning, I struggled to think of something wise to say. I told my daughter to be good when my mom came to get her and to focus on school.
“I love you more than anything in this world,” I added. “I will always be here, no matter what you're going through.”
“I love you too, daddy.”
My child does love me! I remember thinking. Feeling relieved and empowered, I started singing again.
“You’re doing too much!” my daughter yelled into the phone.
But in that moment, all I could think about was how it would never be enough.