We'd been planning to go for months but the timing was tricky. With four kids and full lives and a frantic fall, where do you find the time (or the desire) to be gone for five hours?
October was clear but then the visit was cancelled.
Before Christmas worked but then there was a conflict.
So we found ourselves there, on the sabbath between Christmas and New Years, sitting in plastic chairs and eating vending machine food and taking it all in.
It's kind of a process, the whole "visit someone in the state penitentiary" thing.
First you fill out paperwork and mail it in.
Months later they tell you that you're cleared to visit.
Then you find the visiting times, come early to check in, provide ID, stash belongings in a locker. And then you wait.
At some point they start to call names and you go through security, similar to an airport except that everyone is patted down.
There's all kinds of people who are going in with you- people your age that have small kids in tow, people older who you think might be visiting their own grown children. You wonder for a minute what it would be like for your kids to be here- your kids who you dropped off at grandma's this morning and who hold your sunshine in their smiles and who you have such big dreams for- what would it be like to visit them here? You wonder if the woman across from you, a woman with well trimmed salt and pepper hair and a lovely blue cardigan, you wonder if she's remembering things like that while she waits. The thought makes it hard to swallow for a minute.
You follow a series of doors, doors that lock behind you before the next one opens before you, and eventually you're in a large room that has rows of chairs set in clusters. You sit down and wait.
What happens next, the hours that follow, are so beautiful and hard and difficult to describe. One by one, inmates wander in, wearing dark jeans and various colored shirts. Their faces soften as small kids run to them. Their tattooed arms wrap around their loved ones and hardened faces break into smiles.
And we sat with our friend, a guy in his twenties that I first met as a cocky but charming seventeen-year old. In some ways he hasn't changed much. He's always had a way of telling stories that made people believe him, want the best for him. In the years with us he graduated high school and knew our kids as babies and got into his fair share of trouble- though that's not what I remember.
I remember sitting in the kitchen, reading Dracula for senior English, taking turns reading chapters aloud.
I remember Drew as a toddler, running out on the football field as we went to stand next to this teen during Senior Night for high school football.
I remember Christmases and birthdays and a graduation party and the way he would put his hands together in mock pleading to try to get me to make him a stack of PBJ's.
"You can make them yourself," I would say.
"I don't make them as well as you do," he would reply, all charm as usual. And then he'd stand next to me in the kitchen and watch and talk and inhale them before the knife was in the dishwasher.
I remember wanting so much from him, so much for him.
He lived with us for years, his story becoming part of our own, his pain and struggle and journey a part of our own as well. And so that afternoon last Sunday, we talked about old times and new times and doing hard time. We talked about how he got here and how to be here and the long road away from here.
"I just passed a year," he said. I felt surprised it had been that long and ashamed we had just come to see him and sad that a whole year of life seems insignificant when you're facing 14-20.
As usual, Garrett knew what to say. He asked direct questions and encouraged with the raw, loving truth and tried to bring hope without being cheesy or falsely optimistic. As usual, I just sat there, feeling.
Feeling loss for the years ahead.
Feeling hurt for the families around me, families that might do this every Sunday for years to come.
Feeling pain for the inmates here, men who may not be innocent but have been reduced to a life that is so hollow, so hopeless, so unredemptive in the way it is played out.
Feeling heavy for the others that I recognized, two other grown men who we knew from our time of working with teens at the local detention center.
It's their choices that got them there, you might think, and you are probably right. But it wasn't that little girl's choice, the little girl in the grey boots and the long braid piled on her sweet head, it wasn't her choice to know her dad this way.
You do the crime, you do the time, you might say, and I get that, too. I don't begrudge the time served or the justice that is (hopefully) done, but I do mourn for the life in there, a life that makes joining a gang practically essential, a life that requires you to harden up even more in order to survive.
I think of them, those prisoners doing time, and I think of the Kingdom, and I wonder where they meet. I think of Jesus spending time with the least of these. I think of the Old Testament prophecy of Christ coming to declare freedom for the captives, sight for the blind. I think of my own kids and their journey ahead and the things that I want so desperately for them to avoid.
But mostly I think of him, my friend in his dark jeans and starched shirt, talking football and hugging his girlfriend and thanking us for coming and caring and still being here. I think of him and will myself to have enough hope for him, to keep him in mind, to live in conscious awareness and not willful denial of his everyday.
I think of him and hurt. I think of him and pray. I think of him and beg Jesus to move, to protect, to bring freedom in that prison.
I think of him and I'm thankful, for PBJ's made and Quik Trip runs and movie nights and moments that seemed small but were big in the grand scheme of things. I'm thankful we offered him grace when we could and a home to remember. I'm thankful that we can offer friendship still.
I think of him and think of Christ and think of life and it makes me ache.