A guest post: by Rev. Elizabeth Grasham
My ex-husband calls my cellphone once a week to talk to our son. In and of itself, that would probably sound normal to any person who lives with a custody agreement, post-divorce. Except the first person my son hears when he answers the phone is not his dad; it’s a voice recording.
“You are about to receive a prepaid phone call from [XXXX], an inmate housed at the [XXXX] Unit. If you still want to accept this prepaid phone call, please touch ‘1’.”
My son has been getting these phone calls for almost five years now, so there’s hardly any pause between when I hand him the phone and when he presses “1”. The litany of the voice-recording and it’s reminder of his father’s whereabouts is hardly even noticed by either of us anymore; I’m only aware of its irregularity when someone else hears it. There’s a certain widening of the eyes universally common amongst folks when they hear the word “inmate.” Did I mention that I always put these calls on speaker-phone, and that I’m always present for the conversation? “Wise as a serpent, innocent as a dove”; that’s divorced parenting advice if I’ve ever heard it. Usually, I’m only vaguely listening to their short exchanges. This time, though….
“Hey buddy. How was school today?”
“It’s summer, Daddy. I already graduated from kindergarten.”
You’d think that when your ex-husband is in prison for a heinous crime which gave you the ability to divorce him without anyone blinking an eye, you’d THINK that you wouldn’t feel sad for him anymore. But you’d be wrong. Every time that man misses an event (the first lost tooth, the first day of school, the first time he reads a book on his own, the kindergarten graduation, etc., etc., etc.), I wince. My son shows no sign of grief over his Dad’s absence because his dad’s absence is the norm rather than the exception. But I still grieve, as I am the one who holds two realities within myself: the universe where his dad could have been an active parent, and the universe in which he never will be.
My mom and I spoke about that just a few weeks ago, the tenderness we both still carry for my ex-husband’s self-inflicted suffering. Believe me, I know that his current state is deserved; no one in my family holds to the delusion that he is innocent or incarcerated wrongly. The man confessed; he’s earned his stay within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But I also remember loving him; I did marry him after all. I remember my ex-husband holding our newborn son; I remember how they played together in the days before his conviction. I know my ex held hope that the nightmare of his arrest and trial would not irrevocably shatter his life. He wanted to see his son grow up. But it all fell apart; the center could not hold. The nightmare of his crime swallowed him, and for a time it swallowed me too, a darkness that took me years to unhook from the deep parts of my soul.
So when I sit on the couch next to my son as he chatters away to his incarcerated father, the man he sees once a month for two hours at a time, the two universes that I hold within myself come as close as they ever will. I close my eyes and imagine what it would be like for my son to speak to his father with no barriers in between them. My son hasn’t touched his father in almost 5 years, a condition set by the laws of our state. He doesn’t know to miss it, but I would bet you a million dollars that my ex-husband does. Every time he talks to him, every time they visit and look at each other across long plates of glass, I know without a shadow of doubt that the inability to touch his child resonates deep within his being.
Perhaps if I was a different sort of person, I would feel smug about that. “Here’s the bed you made. LAY IN IT.” But more often than not, I feel a chiding nudge that can only be God because my instincts are not so beneficent. I remember that Jesus tells his disciples that loving your friends is no great virtue; loving your enemies is their charge. I remember Paul writing to his churches about how they needed to bless, feed, and care for their enemies, leaving vengeance to God’s purview. I am nudged and I remember, so I swallow the poison words that would bring me fleeting satisfaction, and instead experience a flash of grief for the greatest villain of my life. A villain who is really just a man who fell so deeply into sin that he detonated the landscape of his (our) future.
In case you’re wondering, I feel a ghost of this same grief for every villain I encounter, whether in fiction or in real life. Bad guys and gals don’t come up out of vacuums; their paths into evil were always fraught with options to “do otherwise.” Instead of trying to stifle it, I’m choosing to cherish the wince of grief; the wince reminds me of the humanity of those I might consider foes, and of my own tenuous grasp on righteous living. Who knows? Maybe one day, my son will catch me in the act of fleeting grief, and it will be an opportunity to talk about how justice and compassion don’t have to be estranged from one another.
The Mad Hatter of Carrol’s Wonderland said: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Today, I’ve got one: I’m just as thankful that my ex-husband is in jail as I am sad that he’ll never be a proper father to our son. Universes bump up against each other inside of me, I the solitary keeper of what is and what could have been. Maybe this is what it means to be made in the image of God.
Rev. Elizabeth Grasham is the Solo Pastor of Heights Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Houston, TX. She serves on the Board the Coastal Plains Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region, is currently ending her term on the Regional Committee on Ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region, and will soon begin serving the Board of The Young ClergyWomen Project. Elizabeth blogs over at And Yet I Sing, and draws napkin notes for her son’s lunches on Instagram. She is mom, a step-mom, and an avid lover of many geeky things, including but not limited to Star Wars, Neil Gaiman, and Dungeons & Dragon (3rd edition, obviously).