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In the Qur’an, God instructs his believers to be good and dutiful to one’s parents. The cornerstone of Islam is the singular belief to worship one God, and that fundamental principle is followed by being subservient to one’s parents.

As a 40-year old man looking back, I realize that Islam’s mandate of respecting parents provided a new meaning to me as a young teenage convert. Before converting to Islam, I grew up as a typical American teenager with hormones, pop culture, haughty thoughts and, of course, drugs and alcohol. That crafted my view that my parents and specifically my father wasn’t for me but against me.

I used to question why he wanted me home by 11 p.m. on a weekend. Why would he want me to keep a job and live a sober life? Why would he want me to walk around with my pants pulled up? He was the antagonist to my protagonist, or that was my distorted outlook. He was difficult, and he and I bumped heads.

My father to this day is still a difficult man in many ways, but I’ve learned to appreciate his reasons. 

Born in the middle of 1940s to a single mother of nine, his prospects for a future were bleak. Southern Illinois didn’t have any meaningful employment opportunity beyond coal mines. Poverty was rampant, and children couldn’t sleep because they were so hungry. 

As such, his mother needed him to quit school after the 8th grade to get a job and help bring in more money. Beyond that, the culture of Southern Illinois wasn’t that much different than the Mississippi Delta. There were, and still are to a degree “sundown towns,” where African Americans weren’t safe after the sun had set. 

Such a racist and poverty-stricken culture jades a man’s mentality, and it infected my father as well. 

My only reaction as a teenager was to rebel against what I perceived as his absurdities and seek comfort in other places. 

But now, years later, my evolution as a man, a Muslim and a son has left me trying to be dutiful from behind prison walls.

Part of what I do includes simple things like taking the money he sends me to make sure that someone is performing routine maintenance on his home, a chore that he is unable to do himself. Or, urging and pleading with him to prepare questions ahead of time when he visits the oncologist, so he can better understand his particular type of cancer and treatment option. Beyond those efforts, I talk to him and try to show my father the beauty of life and humanity despite someone’s race, creed or religion.

Evolution in my personal life has also coincided with recent reforms in juvenile criminal justice law. Instead of a natural life sentence, I am now eligibile for release this year. I suppose juveniles are no longer looked at as miniature adults or “super predators.” 

Although my turn in front of a judge is approaching fast, and regardless of how giddy others like me are feeling, the fact is that my reality is an ominous one. 

I worry, and instead about what I’m going to do upon release, I think about taking care of my father. I wonder whether I will be enough for him and whether he will even be alive once I’m out because his cancer is re-occurring and may have metastasized.

Haunted by these visions, I often think and hope that these thoughts are the sufferings of a good dutiful son. 

The reality is that his life stopped when his only son was arrested, so maybe it is only right that even after I am free my life stays on pause to attend to him and his needs. If this is a measure of what it means to be a dutiful son, then I readily accept the responsibility.

It has hurt to see my family dynamic change in the past 20 years of my incarceration, the biggest being the loss of my mother to cancer when she was only 50 years old. Over the years, I’ve come to embody my father’s pains. He watched his wife of a lifetime wither away from cancer. He is now the last surviving person from his own family unit. 

With his body turning against itself from crippling arthritis, and his cancer refusing to be subdued, I find myself sleepless thinking of his anguish. I guess I finally understand the sleepless nights he experienced when his teenage son didn’t come home for days on end.

They say with age comes wisdom. As I write this, I know that many fathers and sons have tumultuous relationships, maybe even worse than the one that I had. But I also believe that in moments of clarity, no matter how murky the situation may get, no matter how much cussing and fussing occurs, every son will admit he has an ‘unsung friend’ in his father because I know I do.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Michael “Abdur Ra’uf” Hearn is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey.