Larry, one of the nicer jailers, rapped on the door to my cell, “Jed.” I lazily looked over from my bed. “You got a call,” he jerked his thumb, “Downstairs.”
I immediately sat up. I’d been paging through a National Geographic, thinking about my big afternoon plans. Lunch was over and it was snowing outside, so my one hour of exercise would have to be indoors today. I envisioned lifting weights and then playing basketball, getting my ass kicked by Shamal and JJ and some of the other brothers, cellmates with me in long term lockup in the Hennepin County jail. When the ass kicking was completed, I’d come back to my cell (or room, as the Department of Corrections liked to call it) and go back to the article I’d been reading about an archaeological dig in England in someplace called Kent. Sounded like a fun time, right? A perfect way to spend an afternoon in incarceration? Okay, okay, I’m just kidding. But, seriously, the article I was reading reminded me of my son and that was a good thing. I was looking forward to getting back to it.
I stood up fast. I hadn’t been expecting the call.
“It is Ben?”
Larry nodded. “Yeah. He said it was urgent.”
Urgent? Shit. I grabbed a pen and paper and jotted down a quick note, ‘Sedgeford,’ to remind me I’d been reading about the Sedgeford Archaeological and Historical Research Project. Then I hustled the three steps from my bed to where Larry stood. He unlocked the door and let me out. We hurried to the end of the hall and took the elevator down two flights to the common room where the phone was. He pointed at it but didn’t have to say anything. I knew the drill: ten minutes to talk and that was it. I eyed the clock on the wall. 1:06 pm. I hoped it’d be enough time, but doubted it. It never was when it came to talking with my son.
I wouldn’t say Ben and I had been estranged from each other for the last twenty years, but we had certainly lost touch. While my life had spiraled out of control into a blur of an alcoholic haze, my one and only child had gone the exact opposite direction – he’d kept his head above water and actually accomplish something with his life.
During those twenty years, I had been a hack mechanic and failed long haul truck driver. (Seven DWI’s and multiple DUI’s will do that.) Ben had gone to the University of Montana where he’d graduated in four years, majoring in archaeology. He’d obtained a masters degree and had been an instructor at the university for the last fifteen years. I lived in an efficiency apartment twenty miles west of Minneapolis in the small town of Long Lake. Ben and his fiancé owned a home and lived in Missoula. I’d seen pictures. It was a charming white stucco bungalow on a tree lined street located near the Clark Fork River, just a short walk from the university campus. I lived alone with not even a cat as a companion. Ben and Mya had been together for seventeen years and had two wonderful children, Merry, age eight, and Cole, five. While Ben’s life was stable and meaningful, mine was…What? Stable? Well, if you counted the stability that came with the rules associated with living out increasing longer sentences in jail or the workhouse, maybe. Meaningful? Anything but.
But that was beside the point. While I was serving thirteen months for my third drunk driving violation in twelve months, Ben had found a way to contact me (through the internet somehow) and we’d gotten back in touch.
“It’s been too long, Dad,” was the way he’d put it six months ago, when, out of the blue, he’d called me last August, “Life is too short.”
Hearing his voice was beyond wonderful; it was the best thing that had happened to me in…In…Well, I don’t know. How about in a long, long time? When I heard his voice that first time I realized how much I missed him. I nodded to his statement about “Life being too short,” agreeing whole heartedly before I realized I was on the phone and he couldn’t see me. “I know, son,” I managed to blurt out, hoping I didn’t sound like an idiot. “I really know what you mean,” stammered some more, realizing right then how idiotic my words sounded. “I’m glad you called,” I blurted out before finally finding the wherewithal to just shut up. I had actually begun sweating. I retrospect, I know I really had sounded like an idiot.
Initial surprise and discomfort aside, I was incredibly happy to hear from him. I’ll be the first to admit I hadn’t been the best father in the world. I’d married Ben’s mom when she became pregnant, and the marriage was doomed from the start. She was nineteen and I was twenty. If she was mature enough to want a child, I certainly wasn’t ready, willing or able to take on the responsibilities that came along with having both a wife and a son to care for. She divorced me two years later and I’m amazed we lasted that long. We both moved on with our lives, me seeing Ben on the average every other weekend until he graduated from high school. As long as I wasn’t in jail, anyway.
In looking back, though, to be perfectly honest, being around Ben was the highlight of my life back then. I made it a point to not drink when I was with him, probably the only time in those years I could ever say I was truly sober. I should have known how detrimental drinking was to me, but I was young and stupid back then, and, later, older and just as stupid. It took a long, long time for me to figure things out.
My memories of us together when he was growing up are as precious as any I could ever hope to image. Ben’s mom lived in Minneapolis, so I would drive in from Long Lake, pick him up and we’d do our thing. We went to the park at Minnehaha Falls a lot. He enjoyed swinging on the swings and playing on the slides and jungle gym; pretty much everything at the playground. I’d take him back to my apartment and fix him stuff to eat like spaghetti or corn or ice cream; food he liked. (Me, too, for that matter.) I taught him to tie his shoes. I worked with him on his reading when he was young and, later, his homework when he got into middle school. I taught him to throw a baseball and shoot a basketball. In short, I did my best.
Ben was a great kid. His mom remarried and had a son and daughter and Ben was as good a big brother to them as anyone could expect. Probably better. I don’t know, there was just something in him. He was a good natured person. He liked people and he had an easy going, take life as it came to him, kind of attitude. One thing was certain, he was way smarter than I ever was. He loved school, he loved learning and, as he got into his teens, he developed an interest in ancient civilizations. After high school, he wanted to move away from Minnesota and, as he told me once, “Try something different.” He applied at the University of Montana, got accepted and moved out there to start a new phase of his life.
When he left, I’m embarrassed to admit that I went on a prolonged downhill slide. I’m not sure why I upped the ante on my drinking, but I did, an unfortunate decision that lead to longer and longer jail terms. Now here I was, stuck in the Hennepin County jail for another two months and nineteen days. But who’s counting? Ha, ha. Well, obviously, me.
I picked up the phone. “Hey, Ben. What’s up?”
“Hi, Dad.” My son had a deep, rich voice, the kind I imagined would be the perfect voice for a college professor, which, of course, he was.”How’s life?” he asked.
“I’m good,” I told him, “It’s always good for me to hear your voice.” And it was. Ben brightened my day. Since he’d contacted me I looked forward to his calls. Over the last six months we’d caught up and put the years we’d been apart behind us. I know I’m his father, but, I have to say, I was also now starting to look at my son as my best friend. We were that close.”So how are Mya and the kids?”
“They’re good, Dad. Great. Every things great.” Then he paused, and in that pause I got the feeling everything really wasn’t all that great. It may be surprising to hear (well, maybe not), but if you spend enough time in jail, you really start to see through people’s bullshit. It must have to do with the closed in environment or something. Nothing gets past any of us here in lock up.
I got the feeling there was something important Ben wasn’t telling me, “Hey, son, what’s up? Come on, you can tell me.”
The phone went silent. I watched the second hand tick fifteen seconds off my precious ten minutes. Then Ben said, “Well, there are two things, Dad, two things I wanted to tell you about. One, Mya and I are finally going to get married. We’re planning on the middle of April.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. That was good news. Great news, actually, and certainly not the bad news I was expecting . “Well, I guess congratulations are in order, so congratulations,” I said. After all the years with Mya, two kids and almost a lifetime together, it was great news. “I’m really glad to hear that. Good for you guys.” Then I had a thought. “So, why now, if I might be so bold in asking?” I asked, joking with him a little. “Why the big rush? You’ve already got your kids, so that can’t be the reason. Right?” He was sounding so serious, I wanted to try to lighten the mood a little.
He paused and then said, “Well, that’s the other thing, Dad. There’s something important that I need to talk to you about.”
I could hear a different tone in his voice right away. My heart jumped and there was catch in my throat. Something was up. Something big. I barely was able to croak, “What’s is it?” Was it good or bad news? Which? Shit. I knew better. The way he was acting, it had to be something bad.
When he spoke, that rich, mellow voice of his had dropped almost to a whisper. I could barely hear when he said, “There’s no easy way to say this so I’ll just come right out with it. I’ve got cancer. A tumor, actually. In my brain. I’ve got a brain tumor, Dad.” The phone went silent. I could hear blood pounding in my ear. Then he said, and I’ll never forget the words, the next words he spoke to me when he said, “Dad, I’m scared. I’m really scared.”
For a moment, my vision went blank. I felt my knees give way and I swear I almost fainted. Then Ben’s words came rushing back and I recovered. “I’m scared,” he had said. Ben was afraid. Possibly terrified. I knew right then and there what I had to do. What I wanted to do. My son needed me. He needed his father. Okay, get it together, Jed. Be the man your son needs you to be.
With no plan in place other than to let him know I cared and would be there for him (at least emotionally, in the short term, until I got out of jail) I said, “Ben, I’m so sorry. Let’s talk.” I know those words sounded kind of weak and pathetic, but the words weren’t the point. The point was to let Ben know he could talk to me and that I’d be there for him. Because I was. Jail time or no jail time.
So we began talking. Unfortunately, after a few minutes Larry came over and told me to get off the phone. “Come on Jed,” he said, poking me on the shoulder, “Time to call it a day.”
At the touch of his hand I swear I almost punched him in the face. Instead, I covered the mouthpiece, looked him in the eye and said, “Listen man…” And I told him what Ben had told me. When I was finished I honest to god pleaded with him, “Please give me a few more minutes with my son. He needs me and I need to keep talking to him.” I didn’t care how pathetic I sounded.
Larry stood back, folded his arms and took a long look at me, judging my honestly. I totally understood where he was coming from. Believe me, career criminals, which I guess you could call me, are excellent at lying. He looked at me for few moments and then his gaze softened. He even touched my shoulder in what some might call a comforting manner, “Okay, Jed. That’s fine. Take your time. I’ll be right over there.” He pointed to the wall and moved away. Who knows, maybe somewhere out there he had a son, too.
Relieved, I went back to my conversation. Ben and I talked for over an hour, which, I’m guessing, is a record for the Hennepin County Correctional System. The upshot was this: Ben and Mya were getting married because of the tumor. They wanted to get as much in health care benefits as they could and getting married would accomplish that. I had to admire my son’s desire to do the right thing concerning his family. I couldn’t help but compare it the decidedly poor example I’d set all my life. Fortunately, Ben turned out to be a way better family man than his dear old dad.
Then there was the tumor. An operation was scheduled for the day after the wedding. Ben assured me that his doctor and surgical team were very confident that there was every reason for success. But, still, it was surgery on the brain after all. Anything could happen, at least to my way of thinking.
After Ben told me about the surgery, my hand holding the receiver began to shake. Badly. Adrenalin was flooding my system, I guess. Plus, there was a lot to take in: marriage, brain tumor and surgery. On top of all that, there was one more thing, and it was huge, as far as I was concerned. It was a request on the part of my son. He wanted me to come to Montana, and not just to visit, either.
Ben put it this way, “Dad, I’ve been talking to Mya, telling her about you and how good you were with me when I was a kid and all.” He paused, I’m sure he was thinking about what to say next, but his pause left me to fill in the blank space that was the last twenty years or so of me being out of Ben’s life; twenty long alcoholic years of me being a drunk and not the kind of father I should have been. I’d call the entire memory overwhelmingly embarrassing except that would be putting the feeling way too mildly.
I was thankful to have the image erased from my mind when Ben continued, “Dad, I have a huge favor to ask you. Mya and I would like you to come out for the wedding and stay with us afterwards. We were thinking that you could help her out with the kids after my surgery. You know, help out around the house. Stuff like that. We could fix up a room for you in the attic. You’d have your own space. A place all your own.” He paused and in that moment I envisioned anything being better than the ten by six foot space I now called home. Then he added, “But more than that, Dad, it’d just be nice to see you. For us to be together again.”
It’d be great to see you, too, is the thought that jumped to the front of my brain. But I didn’t say anything. Here’s why: Ben’s request was a lot to take in. Was I ready for that kind of commitment? Those kinds of responsibilities? Was I ready to give up my life and move to Montana to be with Ben and help out with his family? Was I ready to be a hands on dad? Among other things, it would mean some major league changes in my lifestyle, that was for sure.
It was a lot to consider, and probably a hundred arguments, pro and con, raced through my mind in an instant. They all came down to this: What should I do? What the heck should I do?
Then I said to myself, to hell with it. What it really all boiled down to was just this one thing: My son needed me. He needed me right now. Maybe this was my chance. Maybe this was my chance to start over again and make up for all the years I’d missed with him. Maybe this was the chance for me to not only be sober, like I was now, but to stay sober into the future. Maybe this was the chance to do something with my life and help someone else out for a change rather than numb myself with booze, living for days if not weeks in an alcoholic haze. Maybe this was the chance to be a real father, and not just some wasted, poor excuse of one.
At the end of the fraction of a second it took for all that to go through my mind, I said, “Of course, son. I’d be happy to.”
Life works in strange ways, and I’ll be the first one to admit it. I got early release (due to good behavior, of all things.) I sold my restored ’68 Ford Mustang (and got a lot of money for it), cleared out my bank account and was on the plane to Missoula a few days before Ben and Mya’s wedding. It took about ten minutes to get comfortably set up in my attic room, and by the time the ceremony was conducted I had been completely welcomed into the open arms of Ben and Mya and Merry and Cole.
The day after the wedding, I looked after the kids while Ben had his surgery and Mya was at the hospital awaiting the outcome. Afterwards, I spelled her between being home with the kids and at the hospital with Ben.
That was then, back in April, and it’s now late summer. I’m happy to announce that Ben is recovering nicely, as well if not better than expected. In fact, the doctors think that by October he and Mya will be able to enjoy the wedding gift I’d presented them with the day after their marriage and the morning before his operation. I’d gotten them a vacation. It wasn’t just any vacation either, mind you, but one Ben had hinted both he and Mya had always wanted to take but were never able to work into their busy schedules.
Mya taught high school English outside of Missoula in the small town of Lolo. She had a love of English literature that was both passionate and deep rooted. Her ancestors could be traced back to the eighteenth century in northern Yorkshire. Ben had a love of archaeology and had discovered some digs going on in ancient sites all around England. I did some research and found out that if I booked them into a cottage in the midlands near Yorkshire, they could travel around most of that part of England and visit archaeological sites for Ben, and they could also check out interesting literary places for Mya. So that’s what I did. I used up the money from the sale of my car and all the rest of my savings to set up a month long trip for them. When I showed them the itinerary, they both started crying. I’m sure the upcoming surgery had something to do with it, but, hey, at least they had something exciting to look forward to after the operation (along with Ben’s recovery, of course.)
As fate, or luck, or whatever, would have it, it turns out we all have something to look forward to this fall, the kids included. Merry and Cole have the summer to help their dad recover. They also are spending a lot of time learning, among other things, the ins and outs of one on one basketball. From a pro (me). Lucky them! Then next fall, while their mom and dad are enjoying a month in England, I get to take care of them full time. (Even more luck for Merry and Cole.) Seriously, though, they’ll be in my good hands, and I’m totally looking forward to. The kids tell me that they are, too. (They call me Grandpa Jed.) They’ll be in fourth grade and kindergarten by that time and I honestly can’t wait.
So life is good. Ben’s healing and he and Mya are overjoyed with my wedding gift. But it’s me who’s the big winner in the gift giving and receiving department, here. I’m sober. I have my son back and I’ve been welcomed with open arms into his family. They’ve accepted me for who I am, past faults and all, and I have no thoughts of ever leaving. Why would I? I’m part of a loving family now, and they want me to stay living with them. That’s what I’m planning to do, because I love them all, my son, Mya, Merry and Cole. It’s the love of one man for his son and his family. A love he helped me discover. You know what, when all is said and done, that’s the greatest gift of all.
I live in Long Lake, Minnesota. I enjoy walking, gardening, bird watching, reading, writing, bicycle riding and playing with my fantastic grand kids. I’m retired after working many years as a sales and technical development and training instructor. I collect old marbles, vintage dinky toy race cars and YA books from the 1900’s and am a passionate yo-yo player. Life is good. I am a fortunate man.