We sat together in a room on Christmas morning. We talked about our favorite meals and our favorite memories from back when we were young. And we laughed for a while.
We laughed about our childhood memories and the way it was to be a kid on Christmas morning. We talked about the presents and the way things change from action figures to a new bike (or something like that).
We spoke to one another the way regular people speak. There was no hierarchy, no pecking order, just a roomful of men who wished to be elsewhere. But due to the circumstance, for the moment, this was all that we had.
There is something so true and so healing about the memory of family gatherings. There is something so heartwarming about the plates of food that spread out on long tables that extended far enough to include all of the cousins and Uncles, Aunts and Grandparents. For some, this was the only time we were able to see our distant relatives. We waited all year to eat together and to sit and laugh. And that’s just what we did too.
We ate until our bellies couldn’t take anymore and even still, there was always room for dessert and coffee. There was always something that happened. There was always a dish that broke or something that spilled. But there was more to this.
There was something else that was filling. There was something about seeing everyone together, all in the same place, and after the last goodbye, there is a comfort equal to the feeling of eating a full meal—only rather than comforting the appetite, this feeling comforts the heart and soul.
We sat together in a room. It was Christmas morning and there was no reason to debate or think about any plans. There was no reason to discuss anything heavy. Instead, we shared some of our funnier moments. We shared about our most endearing times.
I told about my first real Christmas when I lived up on a farm. I was sent home for two weeks to say goodbye to my Father who passed on December 29, 1989. There was so much I wanted to tell him. There was so much that I needed to hear.
At least I was there to say goodbye. At least I heard him say the words I needed to hear most. I heard him say, “I’m proud of you, son.” and “I love you.”
The last coherent thing my Father said to me was, “Take care of your Mother,” which was a tall order for me at the age of 17. I was in the middle of my own tragedies at the time. I was struggling with different complications. I was lost in my own self-destruction with no direction and no purpose. But more, I was now tasked with the responsibility to grow up.
In my discussion, I was not the only one in the room with heavy sentiments during the holiday season. There were others too who shared about their holiday losses. In my case, it was my loss that taught me how to gain.
It was my loss that showed me the need to find purpose. Maybe this was a need to right the wrongs and settle the debts between father and son. Call it the need to keep my word and do as The Old Man said. Call it a loss that was so deep that I never wanted to feel regrets like this again. Or call it whatever you choose but me—I call this the birth of my transformation.
After learning the news that my Father was going to die, I can remember riding on the bus home. I tried to strike a deal with God or whomever would listen.
At the time, I saw no value in me. I saw no worth. I thought of myself with little regard and believed that at best; this was all I could ever be. And I swore that I would go peacefully. I promised that I would accept any fate that came my way. I would have taken anything at that time—a life in prison, a death sentence—I would have taken anything if someone were to answer my one desperate plea: “Just don’t take my Father from me.”
I suppose The Old Man knew his time was up. There were bubbles of hope that quickly popped each time The Old Man had another episode or heart attack.
I suppose he had his own conversation with whoever would listen. I suppose that before he was heavily medicated, The Old Man tried to make his peace. And I’m sure that he was worried about me and the rest of us. I imagine The Old Man said that he would go peacefully so long as his family would be okay.
I have been asked, “When did you decide that you wanted to change your life?”
In fairness, the answer changes each year because each year, I choose to change my life a little more. However, back then, I can say this was my first cognizant moment of awareness.
This was the first time I can say that I came to a better level of willingness. I saw more. I felt more. And thus, I had more to either lose or gain more, which is why I chose to gain.
There is the scripture that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
And to be clear, this is not about God or religion by any means. I only know that my life’s events showed me the roads of change and had my Father not passed when he did, I might not have chosen the right path at that time—so therefore, in my eyes, my Old Man gave his entire life, just so that I could have mine. So, I choose to honor that. And to the best of my recollection, this was my first true catalyst of change.
After talking for a while, the room we sat in took on a different appeal. We forgot the surroundings. We forgot the reasons why we met and where we were. We forgot about the guards. We forgot about the locks on the doors and the barred windows.
I was there on Christmas morning at the Drug Rehabilitation Center (DRC) in a Northern New Jersey County Jail. I wasn’t there as a specialist or a teacher or to give a lecture.
Instead, I was there to honor the one truest thing—regardless of our whereabouts and regardless of our pasts or the roads we’ve travelled, before we are anything, we are all human first.
We all lined up for a hug before I left. And to me, this was incredible.
I am sorry for those who disagree with my math or science. Perhaps the way I add is different. And perhaps my science in the way I work with people is different. But much like the gifts we get from our family gatherings, I have to admit, there was nothing like hearing “Merry Christmas, Benny,” from each and every person in that room.
I did good, Pop.
I kept my word.
It’s hard sometimes because the last we saw each other, our meetings were all too brief. And here I am now, in a whole new world. I guess no matter what my age is, I’ll always be a little boy that misses his father and looks for your approval.
I guess this is partly why I decided to throw my hat in the ring and fight back. No kid should have to miss out on having a family and no family should miss out on having their kid. Mental Illness is a bitch. And so is lifetimes but I know you knew that,
I have to say that it was nice when the guard opened the door to let me out.
I suppose he was in ear shot of my group.
He told me, “That’s some good stuff ya got there.”
Then he told me, “Merry Christmas, Benny. I’m sure wherever he is now; I gotta believe your Father is very proud of you.”
Sometimes the best way to help or encourage people is to remember one thing above all, which is that we are all human before anything else. So, reach out to the human in each other. It sure as hell beats yelling.
Ain’t that right, Pop?
“I’m sure it is, son.”
I’m sure it is.