I’m driving a rental car through snow flurries from Seattle to a small town on the Olympic Peninsula. A woman I’ve just met is sitting in the back seat with a vomiting three year old.
As snowflakes fling themselves against the windshield and the car skids a bit, I wonder if I could possibly have taken on a bit too much this Christmas.
The child bringing up his stomach contents is my nephew, Conner. I’ve flown across the country to spend an early Christmas with him; his mother, Maria; and my own mother, who lives in an assisted living facility.
Conner’s father, my younger brother, has spent the last few months as a guest of a county jail, charged with about seven different offenses, ranging from drunk driving to violating a judge’s “no contact” order with his girlfriend (a felony) to domestic violence. The innocent victim in all this: his three-year-old son.
I spent 17 years employed at Prison Fellowship, and every one of those years I took joyful part in Angel Tree, the Christmas gift-giving program for the children of prisoners. The irony of having an Angel Tree child right in the family does not escape me.
Of course, Conner is not an official Angel Tree child; Angel Tree doesn’t serve jails. But Conner qualifies in all other respects. His dad—let’s call him Sam—is going to spend this Christmas locked up, unable to buy presents for his little boy or even help pay the bills. Like many Angel Tree children, Conner lives in near-poverty. Like many other fathers behind bars, Sam desperately wants to keep in contact with his son—to let him know he has not forgotten him, or stopped loving him. He wrote me a letter from jail, asking me to help him do this, telling me what toys Conner is hoping Santa will bring and what size clothes he wears.
And now, here we are, on a two-hour drive through wind, rain, and snow, to Grandmother’s house—or at least, to Grandmother’s room in the facility she’s lived in for the last two years, suffering from advanced Parkinson’s Disease. Partly because we live on opposite coasts, and partly because my brother’s life has always been rather chaotic, I’ve never met Conner’s mother, who speaks little English. She is brave, I think, to get into a car with a total stranger who claims she wants to take her little boy to see his paternal grandmother and give him Christmas gifts. For all she knows, I’m planning to take her to be deported.
When we arrive, finally, we find that the staff has kindly decorated the facility’s “friends and family” room for us with poinsettias, a wreath on the window, and a Christmas quilt slung over a sofa. We pile the gifts on the sofa and encourage a now-overexcited Conner to begin opening them.
This is the part of Angel Tree I’ve never before seen. I’ve chosen the Angel ornaments, bought the gifts, wrapped them up, and either returned them to the tree or mailed them to the children, often in faraway states. But I’ve never seen the look on the face of an Angel Tree child as he opens the gifts from his missing father, joyfully tearing off paper to find exactly what he wanted for Christmas. I’m amused that Conner is so eager to see what he’s received that he hands gifts to me and his mother so we can help speed up the unwrapping. Everything stops when he unwraps a Thomas the Train puzzle; he takes the time to put it together before moving on to his other gifts. And then, he plows into the decorated cupcakes, which he’s had his eye on ever since I brought them in, and the grape juice.
A three year old doesn’t understand about prison. All Conner knows is that his father is gone—has been gone for some time. And these presents—flannel-lined jeans, monkey pajamas, and books—are somehow linked to him. That I—the strange lady who showed up at his trailer-park home that morning—am a link to him.
Over these past few weeks, I have experienced, for the first time, what the families of prisoners experience: the shock of a family member being locked up; the letters asking for help, the promises to do better in the future—promises that are too often broken. There’s also a need to comfort my recently widowed mother, who cannot understand why her younger son is living his life this way, who no longer has her husband to rely on to figure out solutions, and who fears her small grandson will disappear between the cracks if someone doesn’t help his undocumented mother pay her bills.
I’m still thinking of Conner and his mother as I sit at SeaTac Airport, watching carolers, decked out in Victorian garb, lustily singing “Away in a Manger” to the confused passengers sitting beneath the Air Emirates sign.
I think of that wryly amusing line by poet Robert Frost, who observed that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
This is, in a funny way, a Judeo-Christian statement: that you have to take care of family no matter how badly they mess up—and may continue to mess up in the years to come, given the vicious hold addiction has on its victims. At least—with as much discernment as possible—you have to try. You have to help their children.
Some people learn this truth far earlier than I have done because the life of a family member fell into chaos much sooner than someone in mine did. Since my father died three months ago, that “you have to take them in” stuff now falls to my older brother and me. It’s hard, and sometimes frustrating. We’re learning as we go along.
With my own sons grown, Conner is the child in my life this Christmas. It’s up to his extended family to reflect, not only the love of his earthy father, locked away behind bars, but also of his Father in Heaven. It’s a painful, but joyful, task.
Anne Morse is a writer for BreakPoint.