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Pay telephones sit unused along an American highway.
Photo by BigWest1 on iStock

It’s December 26, 2022. Thankfully, another Christmas is behind me. I just have to get past New Year’s Eve. I really don’t celebrate the holidays. I haven’t for many years. My self-talk reminds me of another year I’ve been conspicuously absent from my family. It’s a regret viscerally felt.

A few days before Christmas, I called my elderly mother. I am my mother’s firstborn and only male child. I have been loved by my mother in ways that only a mother can love a son who has spent a significant portion of his life incarcerated. 

My call to my mother was important not just because I had not spoken with her for a week. I called my mom for the connection and spiritual renewal that I get from talking and laughing with her. My mother and I have settled into an easy relationship. It’s the sacred privilege of an aging son talking to his elderly mother. 

My mom goes to dialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She is usually in her bed, exhausted from the life-saving treatment, when I call around 8 p.m. When she answers the phone, she warms my heart with the affectionate way she asks me about me.

On this particular Friday, she was agitated, so I became her therapist. I got her to calm down. I got her to laugh. 

But then her brother called and interrupted the sacred space we were sharing. 

Her brother is in a Florida prison. I knew he was calling my mother for money to support his drug addiction. My mother has difficulty saying no to his requests for what he calls “money for commissary.”

To take the call, I knew she was going to drop my call because she doesn’t know how to put a caller on hold. 

When I called back, she was livid. Her brother had been asking her for money for two days. I advised her to ignore his calls, but she kept talking. “Between my brother and my grandchild, I can’t keep a dollar to myself,” she said. 

The call dropped again. I didn’t call her back because the officer said my time was up. 

Later on that night, I unpacked her words: “Between my brother and my grandchild, I can’t keep a dollar to myself.”

I hadn’t considered the fact that there were three generations of family members incarcerated: my mother’s brother, her son and her grandson. 

Three generations of incarcerated Black men. Three generations of mothers who have taken care of their grown children, suffering the heartbreak, shame, struggle and financial burden of doing all they can for their loved ones behind bars. 

My grandmother has long since passed, but she too had fielded collect calls from more than one son, put money in their accounts and was a salve for their souls, like my mother and sister.

I have long since ceased badgering my mother for money. I no longer seek out the sneakers, shirts and other items we, the incarcerated, use as props to validate ourselves. The older, better version of me is ashamed to ask my elderly mother for money.

My only vice these days is Duplex creme sandwich cookies, which have doubled in price this year but are still within my meager means. 

My mother sends me money whether I ask for it or not. She feels an obligation, not just as a mother, but as the matriarch of our Black family. 

Although she did not include me in the reason for why she “can’t keep a dollar” — perhaps for the sake of my feelings — I include myself in the trio of family members locked up and a part of the reason for her decades-old disappointments and frustrations.

I could rail against the systemic this or that, but it sounds like a convenient trope. The easiest thing would be to blame it all on the racism sewn into the fabric of everything American. 

Racism does indeed play a part, but to stop there as the reason for my failures would be irresponsible, reckless and a recycling of the old me. 

My psychic mirror won’t allow me off the hook that easily. I like to think I’m the best me I’ve ever been, but the only signs of probative value are my insights and my sustained personal change as I try to pay it forward to my mother, my family, those similarly situated as I am and the world I live in. 

It’s all I have to offer right now. It’s all anyone can offer in prison. But just imagine if all incarcerated people could find their moral and ethical good foot?

I confess my past mistakes and failures because it is the soil on which I grow my current insights and aspirations. 

My mother tells me she likes the person I have become. She said that to me a couple of weeks ago. 

Even though I don’t celebrate Christmas, her words were the best gift I’ve had in many years. They are also my marching orders for 2023.

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.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.