During the summer of 2020, we’re celebrating the fathers, grandfathers, and other parental figures in our community. We are proud to share their reflections on what it means to be a parent and how their lives have been enriched by the experience.
Father’s Day approaches. I rarely think of such milestones and I have no memories of my father. Yet, I have two children and in their eyes I am FATHER. This is a responsibility I take to heart. How do I share values I would have my children learn and practice in their young lives?
Here is my attempt to explain why I was in prison and branded a felon and criminal in the eyes of both society and my children. An early step in reconnecting with my children that I have continued in this past year after serving sentence in San Quentin State Prison.
As my Daughter sat on my lap in San Quentin’s visiting room for one of our monthly visits, I realized that both my girls wanted to understand the exact same thing: why I used to drink.
(Explaining Alcoholism to a Young Child)
Why Daddy?— This eternal query of young children has pleased and perplexed parents from time immemorial. This particular “why question” I had been preparing to answer for over two years. Still, I was startled by my girl’s presumptuousness. As only a Daughter could ask a father, without rancor or guile:
Wife was frustrated that day. In the past, I would have misread her as ANGRY, just as our Daughter did now. The source of wife’s short temperedness, however, was more one of frustration-driven disappointment. Wife found her single-parent responsibilities daunting. An amazing mom, it took all her abilities to keep our children in a normal childhood—easily lost given my crime and incarceration.
Early on during my recovery and as a family, we discussed how I was drinking and driving that night of my accident. I explained that accidents happen, but drinking and driving was WRONG—a crime. A crime I would have to answer for in court. After all, I was a citizen and had a duty to answer to any crime I might commit against other people. I would be judged by the state and have to pay for my crime.
What was left unasked was WHY I drank in the first place, let alone on that fateful night. Like a hidden splinter under the skin, this gap in understanding was the source of Wife’s festering discontent and Daughter’s question as well.
“Dad drank because he had been depressed for a long time,” Wife had told our children after I was gone to prison. This explanation deeply troubled Daughter. She understood depression was worse than sadness but was vexed by my depression.
I remembered when Daughter had suffered under the misconception that she had contributed to Wife’s breast cancer diagnosed four months after my crime. This time I sensed Daughter’s concern that dad had been depressed because of our family life. I could not let this misconception stand.
As I gathered my thoughts, she asked again:
I have asked myself those very same questions each and every day since the accident. If there is a grace to serving at San Quentin, it is the array of groups that provide psychic tools to delve into the mind. I had taken full advantage of these opportunities. Now was time to squeeze my hard-won realizations into a shape Daughter would understand. My goal was to both assure her I had indeed been the very happy daddy she remembered, and share what I had learned about myself over these past long years of prison work and seclusion.
What follows is the story of THE HAND OF MAN. I present it as a seamless whole, minus the pauses, false starts, and redundancies which are the timeless modulations of story-telling.
DAUGHTER! While you consider yourself a human girl, you are also a HAND, THE HAND OF MAN. While a hand provides humanity with the amazing ability to make wonders in the physical realm, know Daughter that I speak of a different hand. This is a magical HAND. Just like with physical hands, humans do the most amazing thing with THE HAND OF MAN.
I took her hands in mine and asked “Did you know that each one has 106 bones? All these bones work together to make and control the sources of the hand’s power, its fingers. You can hold just about anything with your hand.”
“I shall explain the FINGERS of THE HAND OF MAN to you this day. These are true magic and work to hold a life force, the very soul, and help it on the path to enlightenment.”
“But I’m a girl Daddy,” Daughter said with a shy smile.
“Yes, you are! And this Magic Hand is yours too,” I replied with all the warmth I could muster.
I had captured her complete attention that cold but sunny day in San Quentin’s visiting room and planned to use this moment to show as well as tell my girl my hard-won knowledge. In this magic hand, I would explain the parallel structure of a psychic state based on a physical hand.
INDEX: This is the mind. It points the way we would go. To keep this finger healthy and strong, we must learn, explore and teach. We solve mysteries with a healthy mind, just like Harry Potter and his friends.
MIDDLE: This is the body. It is the biggest finger. We need to exercise, nourish and rest it to keep it strong.
“Look at mom. She exercises every day. Mom is really strong,” I said with a mischievous smile to Wife as I continue the story. Wife had found a real focus in Soul Cycle as an outlet and solace during these lean years.
RING: This is creativity, work, and accomplishment. You use it to do school projects and make bracelets. If you look at adults, they wear rings on this finger. That’s how it was named. Adults wear such rings because they believe accomplishment should be recognized and rewarded.
“Look at mom’s ring finger! In fact, watch people, many of them wear such rings,” I said hoping her skills of observation would be put to use.
LITTLE: This is true love. You may wonder why such an important finger is so small, but it makes perfect sense. It can be broken like a heart.
“Look at my little finger. See how it is crooked. That is because it was broken and healed — bent. Always be careful with love — protect it and keep it safe,” I solemnly stated.
THUMB: This is the true secret of the HAND. It is not even a finger, but the opposable thumb is what makes everything else work. You would call it HAPPINESS as it allows you to hold onto your soul. Another word for it is VITALITY. To fully experience life, you need the thumb of VITALITY. With it, you will be able to accomplish any goal and live a complete life.
My Precious Daughter, you have this magical HAND too. You use it every single day of your life. You can use your fingers one at a time or in groups—like signally ‘okay’, counting, or using your smartphone. But when a task is really important, you use all five fingers. Remember the first time you held Milky as a kitten? I bet you used all five fingers!
Daughter nodded solemnly remembering that special day.
“Mikly is so big now Daddy,” she exclaimed.
They all are necessary to do the most important things. I know you are distressed because daddy was depressed and drinking. You worry that my depression had something to do with our family life…
Nothing could be further from the truth. You see, each human uses all five fingers of this magic HAND to hold onto life and keep it on course. Daddy was having many struggles with his RING FINGER of accomplishment/work. Then when Nana was very sick and uncle had so many problems, I bent my LITTLE FINGER of love way back. Even though I was holding onto my life with my other fingers (especially my thumb of HAPPINESS), my grip loosened.
I used alcohol to hide from this pain. That was not smart. I made a BIG MISTAKE the night of my accident and while alcohol was involved, the real cause was my damaged magic hand. My mistake was so big it is called a CRIME. I am here at San Quentin to both show that I understand it is a crime and learn from my mistake.
Now, I am working very hard by attending groups and taking classes and practicing to use all FIVE FINGERS to make them strong, healthy and flexible. I promise to adjust my grip to keep hold — not to clench or clamp — and use them all to hold my life and keep my family.
DO YOU UNDERSTAND?
As with any answer to a BIG QUESTION, we played with it for a long time. Each of us needed to assure the other that we understood the importance of the magic HAND to our family’s JOY.