This article was published in partnership with Evident Change, a nonprofit that uses data and research to improve our social systems.
I boarded the ferry from Seattle and found my seat. I sat and stared at the little ticket in my hand as I thought about how I’m going to be visiting my eldest daughter for the first time ever.
After being released from a nine-year prison sentence a few months earlier, everything was new, scary, exhilarating and, most of all, unknown. Soon after I got out, I had left contact information with my four children via Facebook Messenger. I was afraid they would reject me, but my eldest daughter was the first to respond. Her message was curt, but it was the beginning of a relationship.
In our first meeting, she brought her fiance. It was the middle of summer and warm, so we chose a small restaurant that served dinner outside near the pier. I don’t remember all that we talked about, but we stuck to small talk. We asked each other about work and our health. My daughter was closed and guarded. It almost felt like her fiance was there as her bodyguard.
Most of the time, I sat in wonderment at this older person, a daughter I didn’t recognize. She had only been 12 years old when I had left — I can still picture how she had looked in new braces and contact lenses, crying. She had been Daddy’s girl. When I was awaiting charges, she had sent a letter to me in jail. A year later, she sent me another one on her birthday, telling me about how she was learning music and various instruments. I never received another letter after that.
Now she was a young woman in her early 20s.
After dinner, they boarded the ferry to go home, and I watched it disappear into the moonlit night.
A few weeks later, we made a date to have coffee. This time, she was alone. I met her at the ferry, and we walked over to the housing center where I was living.
I could tell she was uncomfortable with my accommodations, but I assured her it was mostly safe and that they gave us excellent food three times a day. I told her about how I was part of a culinary training program, and I was in the process of finding my own apartment.
Afterward, we went to one of the local premier coffee shops in Seattle. It was here that my daughter began opening up. She expressed her disappointment in my choices leading up to incarceration. She had felt these choices led her life to go astray. As her father, it had been my job to be there to take care of her, and I had failed in that objective. I owned up to my failures and promised to make things right as best I could.
Throughout the next month or so, we communicated via phone and text as we tried to mend a very broken relationship. I learned that my daughter struggled with many medical issues, and I convinced her to accept some financial help. She accepted cautiously, but my status was still as an acquaintance rather than a trusted father.
For my part, it was easy to snap back into my previous role as her parent. In prison, time tends to stop. But for everyone else, time keeps ticking, things keep happening, memories and feelings change. My daughter’s memories of her father centered on someone with a thunderous personality who kept the family in line. I knew that picking up where we left off was illogical and impossible.
After a month of careful communication and waiting, I finally received the text I was hoping for: “You should come over for dinner.”
The logistics were slightly complicated because she lived in the next county over, a ferry ride away. I needed to get permission from my community custody supervisor, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive it immediately.
We decided on a Thursday.
My head swam with jumbled thoughts. Will my daughter accept me as her father again? Is all forgiven? What if an argument ensues? What if I lose my daughter again?
I was also worried about my outfit. I had chosen a bright pumpkin-orange dress shirt with a matching tie on top of slacks and dress shoes. I wanted to look sharp and dependable, like a father she could be proud of.
The ticket I held in my hand was pregnant with possibilities and failures.
We had a simple, delicious dinner of chicken, beans and broccoli. Our conversation was awkward. I was careful not to discuss her mom or my sons. I tried not to pick at her words. Once she served the wine, she began telling me how she really felt: she was angry that I had left her, that her life took a terrible turn after that. I tried to be sensitive.
As I got to know her, I began recognizing my 12-year-old daughter from nine years ago inside my now 21-year-old daughter. My daughter still needed advice about money, her job search and her health.
There were other traits that were new to me. I appreciated her nagging about my medical appointments and my food portions — convicts coming out eat way too much of everything they missed while in prison, such as ice cream. I was conflicted about whether I should be giving her advice about her career goals. After such a long time away and a fall from grace, was I in the position to guide my daughter on her future?
Since that first dinner a little over two years ago, my daughter and I have come together to help her younger sister get away from a horrible relationship. We have witnessed the passing of my mother on life support. We’ve visited my ailing father who suffers from dementia.
What I’ve learned about my adult daughter is that she is family-oriented, emotional, direct and, at times, bossy.
When I went home, I pulled my ferry ticket out and placed it carefully with the two letters she had sent me during my incarceration. I had, of course, kept them.
These items represent acceptance and reconciliation between my daughter and me, even though she has not yet called me “Dad” and I’m still waiting to hear her say the words “I love you.”
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.