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A silhouetted man sits at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean with a ghost sitting next to him.
Photo by Geoffroy Hauwen on Unsplash

An incarcerated father in Illinois hasn't spoken with his son in close to eight years, but he still hopes to set an example for his son in the future.

I was arrested on Oct. 14, 2014, on my 10-year wedding anniversary, one month before my son turned 8. That day changed the lives of so many people.

I was a functioning alcoholic for years, only seeing things through blurred lines. I let my family down, got divorced and hurt my son at a young age. How does a father celebrate birthdays and holidays with his family from prison? How will my son believe me when I tell him how proud of him I am and how much I love him?

Early last year, I received news that my ex-wife — my son’s mother — had breast cancer. After treatment that involved radiation, chemotherapy and a double mastectomy, her cancer retreated.

But last summer she had a seizure and was hospitalized. Doctors told her the cancer had returned, spread quickly and metastasized to her brain. She suffered from more seizures and even hallucinations.

Concerned for our son, I asked my mother how he was handling this heart-breaking news. She said his response was, “This is bullshit!” 

It turns out bullshit was an understatement. My wife of 10 years, the mother to our amazing and talented son, died Feb. 18, 2022.

Now he has lost his mother. I’m locked in prison, in a deteriorating relationship with my son. We haven’t seen each other since 2014, when I went away, because his mother thought it would be in his best interest not to see me. I’ve sent him boxes of letters, but she kept those from him as well. How do I, as an incarcerated father, care for a son I haven’t spoken to in close to eight years?

I have no words or feelings. I’m just numb. I am in a prison where I feel like administrators do not care about me and counselors will not help me. I sent a request to our mental health department and have received no response.

Being a father is hard enough, but when you add in the death of family and friends, COVID-19, 20-to-23-hour lockdowns, no commissary and canceled yards, it becomes even tougher to parent. And I’m not sure whom to turn to for guidance.

My father, whom I have always looked up to, suffers from Parkinson’s disease. My mother is his full-time caretaker. My three brothers are all married, with wives and kids and their own problems to deal with. I always feel like a burden when I rely on them. Life doesn’t stop just because a family member is incarcerated.

I have only made a few friends in prison. Prison is the hardest place to receive news that a loved one has died. Concrete and steel doors are not made to console anyone. The longer you are in prison, the harder your heart becomes, and your feelings and tears can disappear if you allow them to. 

But prison will not defeat me, nor will I allow it to fade my soul away like an old prison tattoo. 

Though my heart aches for my son, I want to set an example for him. I’m remaining sober. My mental and physical health are top priorities. I’ve earned a paralegal certificate and will continue my education in this environment designed to break people.

Still, the bad news never stops. My uncle was just diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Despite that, I must persevere. While I may not be there physically for my son, I am here mentally.

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.

Aaron is a writer incarcerated in Illinois. He is publishing under his first name only for fear of reprisal.