One afternoon at the weight pile where I was exercising, I noticed a man with an exquisite portrait of a child delicately tattooed over his heart. I complimented the piece and asked him who it was. He smiled and said proudly, “That’s my baby girl.”
There is no hiding a father’s sincerity when he talks about his kids. Eyes light up. A hardened voice softens. l have had many talks with other fathers inside — some are filled with wonderful memories, others are heart-wrenching.
Later that week, I received a letter from my own teenage daughter. I knew it was from her before I even looked at the return address; her letters are always slightly bulky and filled with surprises.
I opened it carefully and removed a textured, off-white piece of paper, which I unfolded. A wondrous splash of color appeared before me. It was a gorgeous sunset, drawn in chalk. l paused and let my eyes trace the rays of light my daughter’s hand had created for me.
A few folded-up Post-it notes were also inside the envelope: funny sayings, words of encouragement, a tic-tac-toe game we played back and forth through our letters. After a few laughs, and after I penned my “O” in the grid, I looked for an empty spot on my wall for her sunset. Then I glimpsed a message on the back of the artwork.
“This one! This piece is by far my favorite. I expect to receive this back; of course, I want to receive this the day you get out.”
My daughter was reminding me of her expectations, and of the importance of my work inside to help me get back to my family.
A few months passed. One day, I was talking with a man in the dayroom. I said I was waiting to use the phone to call my daughter, that l was excited to speak with her. She had just turned 14. I asked him if he had kids.
“I have two. A boy and a little girl,” he said.
I asked him how old they were. “My son is 9, and my daughter would be 7 today.”
I was not sure I had heard him right. Her birthday was today too?
“My daughter died in a car accident last year,” he clarified.
My eyes teared up, but he smiled. Still, I could see the pain — but also the resolve. On this night, we were both celebrating our daughter’s birthdays. In that moment, in his heart, his daughter was as alive as mine.
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.