TL;DR. The much promised follow up to this confession: the story of meeting my father.
I was staring at grass.
When left unattended, the turf grass of Oklahoma grows tall and wild, and gives the plains a rigid but relaxed feeling as the breezes sweep over them. This grass was obscuring the facade of a long ago vacated dormitory that used to house the residents of an institution for the criminally insane.
The building was decidedly early 20th century, with warm red brick and windows long ago boarded up. The grass around it separated just enough to show the remains of a path that led from dorm to dorm, remnants of a half-freedom some of the residents used to possess.
The new addition to the building, in whose parking lot I sat, seemed to be built to be almost intentionally in direct contrast to the old brick of the dorms. With an outside of green metal and stucco, it was the Oklahoma of the new century, pragmatic and with a showmanship only seen in states with the hottest temperatures, reflecting a new design, a new approach to mental health, and a new name. It was erected with a job in mind, and at that moment, that job was incarcerating my father.
More than 20 years after my mother revealed to me the truth about my father, my family had mostly remained quiet about him. His history, the tragic moment that led to his imprisonment, and more importantly, who he was in the present day still remained a mystery to me.
One weekend in late summer, the hot weather triggered a kind of insanity within me, the kind of whim that grows deep within your belly over decades. I rented a car and drove more than 200 miles to that place, the place of old and new, breezy and pragmatic, his home of nearly 30 years.
Watching the grass and wondering about the death and life of those who used to live in those dorms was easier than what I had to do. So I lingered there for a few minutes, building up my courage.
The emptiness of that parking lot and the heat rising from the black asphalt expanded the distance to the big glass doors of the entrance, making that walk seem like a longer journey than my road trip from Chicago.
When I finally got out of the car, I was determined that my walk to the door, my interaction with the attendant, the general state of my visitation would seem as casual as possible. No need to draw attention to the fact that I had never actually been to see my father.
I exited the car, made determined steps, and was buzzed in in normal fashion. The long, sterile hallway echoed my footsteps as I walked to a big glass window beyond which sat the attendant at her desk. To the left of that, a metal detector. Beyond that, a gray door.
“Can I help you, dear?” she asked, in a familiar accent.
“I have an appointment,” I said. I told her who I was there to see.
“And you are?”
“OK, honey, let me check.” She pulled up her computer, and in a second she was on the phone with someone. She turned to me. “Honey, they weren’t expecting you until later. When did you say you’d be here?”
“He told me if I got here any time in the morning it’d be fine.”
Back on the phone, she began typing things into the computer. After a minute: “OK, honey, they’re going to bring him out.”
She walked over and handed me a few forms. “And when was the last time you visited?”
“Oh,” she said. “In that case, I can see why they made an exception.”
As is routine, I handed over the contents of my pockets, and she explained what I could and couldn’t do beyond the big gray door.
“Do you understand?”
She stopped to examine my Illinois license. “You’ve come quite a long way,” she said, with the unsubtle overtones that Oklahomans so often use.
“Yes,” I said. “I have.”
A guard, dressed all in white, stern and silent, came out to meet me. I walked through the metal detector, and he led me inside to another corridor, this one even longer with an even greater number of nameless doors. Picking the first one on the left, he led me into a small room.
The cheap furniture and white walls made the room feel like the visiting area of a hospital. An old man sat in chair, probably waiting to visit someone. A television monitor on the wall showed we were being watched. The atmosphere deceived me into thinking I was supposed to do what people do in rooms like this: wait.
I walked past the old man to a semi-circle of chairs around a small coffee table, and sat in one of the largest. My heart raced. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was still unsure about the mechanics of the interaction I was about to have—whether or not my father would be lucid, whether he’d be angry at me, happy, filled with any emotion at all. Whether he would even want to see me.
I started to feel like a lost prince sitting on an oversized throne, when—
The old man spoke to me. Then he smiled at me, like he knew something I didn’t. Had my father been talking to people in here about me?
“Do you know me?” I asked.
“Your grandmother sends me pictures of you.”
I smiled at the absurdity of the moment, the anonymous old man suddenly so known and still so anonymous.
My father was indeed happy to see me, and he continued smiling as I took a seat across from him. We stared face to face, and I looked into his shallow blue eyes—just like mine—and his white hair that made him so much older than his photos. I looked into my future.
“Hi,” he said. He stood up to shake my hand, like one would do at the start of a business meeting, but with enthusiasm.
He wanted to make a good impression.
I too became self-conscious, suddenly aware of 200 miles of drive on me, the messiness of my hair, the tattoo screaming on my arm. He commented about my shoes.
“Thanks,” I said. “They’re boat shoes. A few years old, but I like them in the summer.”
“How are those boys of yours?”
“They’re great. They’re amazing. Growing up too fast.”
We talked a little bit about my family, my life in Chicago. He seemed to know most of it already, but he listened eagerly.
“And how have you been? How is life in here?” I asked. (How would you approach that subject?)
“It’s OK. I read a lot. I take daily walks.”
“Yeah? They keep you healthy?”
“Oh, yeah. Healthy as a horse.” A big smile came across his face, as if he knew I was trying to get a bit of his medical history.
The conversation went on like this for a while. Small talk with a purpose: filling in an almost 30-year gap of history, but one we both already knew. He asked me about going off to college, about starting a life with Caroline—and a lot about his grandsons. I slowly started to get a picture of life on the inside, but I asked him about growing up as well, about life with my mother when they were married.
I didn’t ask him about the circumstances of his imprisonment.
At one point: “I read the Wall Street Journal every day. Try to stay up on business.”
“When I get out of here, I’m going to start my own thing again. Have to know what the markets are doing.”
“That’s good, I guess. You’ve always been interested in business, haven’t you?”
“I’m an entrepreneur. How about you?”
“I was never that interested in it growing up. But I went to business school, got an MBA. I’m more interested now.”
“That’s great, son.”
Later, on my way out, I asked him about the new building. “Did you used to live in those old dorms up the hill?”
“Oh, yeah. For many years. We had more freedom back then. We could roam the grounds whenever we wanted. Since they moved us into here, they’re pretty strict about our free time. They’re more strict about a lot of things.”
We talked about the kind of contact we would have moving forward. He told me it was up to me, that he didn’t have any expectations. He was very formal about it, very giving. He didn’t press for anything.
We shook hands again. “I’ll call you sometime soon, maybe,” I said.
“That would be great, son.”
The next part was a bit of a blur. I walked out of the tiny waiting room, into the long sterile corridor, through the metal detector. After getting my personal belongings back from the attendant, I somehow made it back out onto the black asphalt. The sky was bright and clear, the air hot. It was like the feeling of leaving a movie theater during the day: that the world has gone on without you while you were having an immersive experience.
I got back in the car, and sat for a minute, looking at the grass again. Soon I would be on the road back to Chicago. I would be on the phone with my wife, telling her about it. But I wanted to take a moment to relish the wave of freedom that was washing over me. The feeling of accomplishment. The feeling of shining light into dark places.
I had just met my father.
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