‘My Mistakes Slap Me in the Face’: A Letter to My Daughter

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Photo by gnuckx via Flickr

The payphone receiver was still warm at the touch from the inmate who used it before me. It smelled of grease and sweat. My anxiety was building with every ring.

“Please wait while your call is connected” the stern automated voice said. My stomach dropped a little with relief.

My daughter was on the line

“You weren’t ready for me!” she said before I even had a chance to say hello.

I never knew who I was going to get on the other end of the phone. Each day she grows, each day she changes. Every day that I’m not there, her life goes on. She was inconsolable as she wept. What could I say?

Adessa is 13, a year younger than I was when I gave birth to her. I wasn’t ready for her: No 14-year-old is EVER ready for a baby.

She never stood a chance against the situation I brought her into.

I have spent the years since Adessa was born proving everyone’s worst predictions correct. They thought I wouldn’t amount to anything.  They were right. I landed in prison as a violent offender, and I’ve got a number.

My mistakes slap me in the face as I hear her weep.

The automated voice intrudes on our moment: “This call is from a correctional facility and is subject to recording and monitoring.”

I took a breath as tears rolled down my face. Other prisoners walked by, invading my moment with empathetic stares.  I was grateful for the pause so I could gain my bearings. I didn’t want her to hear how heavy my tears were.

“But baby, God was ready for you!” I assured her. I would have given anything to wipe away her tears.

Prison fences have separated us for five years. I came in truly remorseful and eager to change. I completed the hardest rehabilitation programs the prison offers: the therapeutic community, faith based programs, cognitive groups, expressive arts groups, mental health groups, bible studies, seminars, and retreats.

Anything I could get involved in, I did. I wanted to be different for her. I wanted all of this to mean something and I want to make her proud. I want us to have a future.

I had been eligible for judicial release at the halfway mark of my sentence. It was a hope and motivation we held onto. But none of it meant anything to the system. I was denied. The phone calls between us had been totally different since the hope of reunification was taken from us.

“A criminal court is a court of law, not a court of equity” the prosecutor had said.

They didn’t care that my conduct report was spotless. They didn’t care that she was waiting for me.

Redemption, it seems, has no place in a Common Pleas Court.

I’ve done everything they could ask of me. Why wasn’t it enough?

Dear Adessa: If you’re reading this I want you to know when I do get home to you, I’ll never leave you again.

It was unusual for her to be this upset. Her dad had called minutes before me and shattered her heart. I was left to pick up the pieces.. Her dad was never in her life.

He was doing a short stint in county jail, so for the first time in years, she heard from him. The phone number had been the same for years, he must have remembered it. There was money on a prepaid account meant for me to call and he pounced on it. He couldn’t resist the urge to call her, to sell her his jailhouse dreams. It reminded her exactly how messed up her life was when he called.

Nobody else would take his calls. She would always be there to answer and I hated him for that. Even if it meant she would always be there to answer for me too.

It is a heavy weight to drag those you love on this journey with you.

There is a thin line that separates me from him. It is what turns intentions into realities. It’s what turns addicts into survivors. He intended to get out and do right by her. I believe that, but he didn’t. Heroin had him.

I hope everything I am now will be enough. I hope my intentions will become who I am. I hope I have broken away from addiction and lost the desire to recklessly engage in a sick imitation of life and call it living.

Adessa was no longer the girl I had left. She had sass, my dry humor, and a fiery little boldness to her that I had never met.  It’s amazing the traits she developed –my traits—all on her own, with me nowhere around.

Breathe. Just breathe, I told myself.

The automated voice boomed: “60 seconds remaining.”  I was out of funds and my phone call was ending.

“I don’t want you to go, mommy!” she cried.

Tears rolled down my face as I banged my foot on the brick wall behind the phone. She is the causality of the life I lived. Her pain is my fault. Whatever she decides to do with it is also my fault. I hope when I do make it out of here it’s not too late. I hope my decisions haven’t destroyed her soul.

Think…think.

Heather Jarvis

Heather Jarvis

“Wake me up when it’s all over, when I’m wiser and I’m older!” I began to sing.

I wanted her to remember us bouncing on the exercise trampoline on the front porch singing our butts off. We were together, we were happy. It was warm and sunny, and the closest thing to perfect we ever had together.

“Thank you for using Global Tel-link.”  Click. The phone call ended.

Dear Adessa: If you’re reading this, I want you to know one day it will be over. I want you to know my love for you is stronger than the metal bars, the concrete bricks, and the barbed wire fence that separate us. I want you to know I won’t let them win.

I want you to know I’m ready now.

Heather Jarvis is five years into a 10-year sentence at the Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio. She describes herself as “a casualty of the opioid epidemic.” In 2019 she won the Fielding A Dawson Prize in Non-Fiction from PEN America annual prison writing competition, and is currently enrolled in a web design program through Ohio central schools.

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