Many years ago, I fell from grace. I left behind my eight-year-old son.
The whole family called him many nicknames. My son was affectionately deemed “Mr. No-No” due to everyone telling him not to touch or mess with things. Then he graduated to the nickname of “Little Bubbie.” When I went to prison, that’s what I called him.
When he contacted me in 2017, he was a young man in high school; he was no longer little, and after seeing a picture of him, I didn’t recognize him. He was a stranger to me. From his point of view, I was a stranger to my son as well.
The first email through the prison messaging system was his to initiate. I was unsure if I was legally allowed to contact any of my children. But he reached out to me, telling me that he indeed had permission to contact me, and he wrote of his goal to be valedictorian at his present school.
Valedictorian? Very good, I thought.
He continued, saying that he was not into drugs or alcohol. Very, very good, I thought.
He then explained that he had a girlfriend. A girlfriend? I was a very late bloomer, so to read that my son had a girlfriend in high school showed me that he was maturing as he should. So, this was all good news.
Even though we had been separated for about five or six years, he still felt he knew me enough to tell me these things upon our first reconnection. I will forever appreciate the gesture.
When I was growing up, some people in my household smoked cigarettes, and some drank alcohol. At the time, these things were socially acceptable. In addition, I was expected to get good grades. My mother, single and working three jobs to support us, didn’t give me a hard time, but she simply said, “I expect no grades less than a ‘B.’” That was easy enough.
As I was raising my own kids, trying to work full time, work on a master’s degree, run a business, and run a research organization, it was nice to read that Little Bubbie somehow absorbed my expectations.
Reading his recent email to me, I remembered him in kindergarten. On his first day, my son drew the wrath of his teacher, and I was called into the school along with my then-wife. The teacher said he was in trouble because he said he was too smart for this particular class. I’m not proud of my statement to the teacher, but I agreed with my son after scanning the classroom.
The teacher retorted something to the effect that she saw that is probably where my son gets his attitude. My son was what I would deem highly confident; others might describe him as cocky.
I am proud of his progress since then. He wrote that he had great anxiety when it comes to homework not being done correctly. Maybe it’s a sense of perfectionism. Later, in other emails, he demonstrated his mastery over computers and programming and hinted at a career in engineering.
This surprised me. We do not have an engineer in our family. My son would be the very first, and in our Japanese family, this would be a very highly regarded profession. My son has a great uncle who holds a master’s degree in physics, but he did little with it and became a high school teacher.
I’m very proud of my son, but I still didn’t recognize him. How did my son get the idea to become an engineer?
In one email to my son, I told him there was some form of Wi-Fi that we could tap into to send emails. He seemed very excited about all of this and asked whether it would be possible to play a combat game called StarCraft via Wi-Fi. StarCraft, which is a national sport in Korea, was one of our favorite pastimes together. As a former infantryman, it is hard to relay the level of humiliation in being dominated in a military combat game by one’s eight-year-old son. It brought back a lot of memories; maybe my son is not so much of a stranger after all.
Last year, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, was the last time I got an email from my son. He told me about getting a scholarship for the first two years at his top university choice in an excellent engineering program. He then told me he had applied for other scholarships to pay for the rest of his education.
As a father, I’m very proud. But I often wonder — if I did not go to prison, would my son have advanced this far?
It sounds so stupid to even think such things, but many people try to tell us inmates to look for the silver lining in the worst of conditions. I do not respond well to pat answers to complex problems. And I know, through emails that my son went through hell dealing with my incarceration and getting where he is today.
At the time of this writing, I haven’t heard from my son in over a year. He’s busy, I guess. I hope and pray he is doing well. If my son obtains all that he has strived for, our becoming strangers once again will be worth it somehow.
I get the feeling if the situation were different we would be good friends; maybe we’d even try a father-son relationship again.
But until that time, I appreciate his “message in a bottle” to update me on his status. So, I’m sending this “message in the bottle” back and hope it finds my son.
We are still strangers.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.