Last November, my mother called me around 10 p.m. My boyfriend and I were in the middle of dinner — we eat late because of his work schedule — and I squinted at my phone before answering. I’d been trying to spend less time messing around with my phone, especially during meals, but my mother had worked the same job in Indiana for two decades and was almost always asleep by 9. Seeing her name flash on the screen, I was worried.
She said she had something to tell me. Then, she hesitated. I left the table and walked into the bedroom to pace on my own. My worst fear was that something had happened to one of my three siblings, a worry that literally fuels my nightmares. She let out a long sigh before responding.
“Your dad is getting out of prison.” I stopped pacing.
She sighed again. “In two weeks. I just found out. Are you okay?” I wasn’t, but I said I was, so I didn’t have to talk about it more. I went back to the table and told my boyfriend, Kelly. I laid my phone on the table, face down. Then, I went right back to eating while he stared at me, eyes wide and mouth open. “Well, how do you feel?” he asked me warily. “I don’t know,” I said. I looked at my phone, wondering if I should call my mother back, and say more. But what would I say?
I stopped eating and began to cry. “I really don’t know.”
My father went to prison when I was only a few months old. He and my mother were married. She was 22 years old, and he was two weeks from 21. His crime and subsequent incarceration devastated her. She discovered she was pregnant with my brother after my father was already gone. She didn’t talk about him much. No one did, except to say how much I looked like him. My Uncle Clarence, my father’s closest brother, would just stare at me. Sometimes I caught him. “You gotta excuse me,” he’d smile. “You look just like my brother, but smaller and with pigtails.” Then he’d hug me, and we’d laugh. I always wished he’d say more about his beloved brother, my absent father, but he rarely did.
I’d seen my dad approximately four times over 30 years, but I only remembered two of them: a visit when I was 12 years old, and one when I was 25. When I thought of visiting my father, I pictured the beige rooms, the beige uniforms, and how everything seemed to be nailed down. I always brought bags of change to use at the vending machines. I knew he had a sweet tooth, and I wanted to buy him something sweet. He always got reprimanded by guards for holding my hands too long.
The only real information I had about my dad came in his letters; he sent me dozens. Photographs included in those letters were precious. In the 30 years he was locked away, I only received four. That was the best he could do.
Phone calls were too expensive, plus, my mom, siblings and I kept moving. He was wasting money he didn’t have calling numbers we had left behind. He had no access to the kind of technology people were using more and more on the outside. I’d gone to the library and signed up for a Hotmail email address. I thought I might be able to give it to him the next time we spoke, but they didn’t have email in prison. Meanwhile I became obsessed with communicating with strangers online, a compulsion that was only tempered by the fact that we couldn’t afford the internet at home.
I wrote him back by hand approximately three times. I had been receiving his letters since before I could read, and wanted to respond much more often than I did. How do you catch someone up on your entire life? I didn’t know how, and so I rarely tried. Our relationship existed in sparse correspondence and our own imaginations.
Back then, our relationship wasn’t real. I felt like I knew him, and he felt like he knew me, but really we were both building versions of the other we couldn’t confirm or deny. We dreamed of one another — what we might be like — long before we met. Each meeting, though pleasant, bowed under the weight of all our expectations. We were happy to see one another, but we could not always say the thing we most wanted to say and risk spoiling the other’s dream. We never talked about it, yet somehow agreed on these terms. An unspoken pact between an emotionally desperate father and daughter.
“That’s okay, Baby,” he’d say, when I tried to apologize on the phone for not writing. “You write me when you want to. I’ll be waiting patiently, and happily.”
He kept writing: that I was his favorite girl, I was brilliant, and I was the best daughter anyone could ever hope for. For a long time, that was all I needed. Until, of course, I needed more.
I made a special playlist on iTunes before going to see my dad for the first time as a free man. I sat up in my hotel room in Indianapolis, having arrived from Brooklyn at nearly 1 a.m. The room was dirty and badly designed, but I’d booked it last minute using an app. Now, I was back in my favorite Midwestern city, preoccupied with the phone in my hands, trying to answer the question, “What songs will I want to listen to on the way to see my father for the first time outside of prison?” I didn’t want to hear anything too loud or too fast. I wanted familiar and soothing; 60 tracks later, the list was lousy with Anita Baker, Lauryn Hill, and ‘90s-era Kenny Loggins.
Sleep did not show up that night. As scared as I was of the bedbugs I assumed surrounded me in that atrocious hotel, I was more afraid what would happen when I saw my father. Would the man who showed up be anything like the one I’d been imagining, and would I be anything like the daughter he thought he had? Would he be proud of me? How were we going to make this relationship — the real one — work? I lived in Brooklyn, and he would be staying with his sister in Indiana. More importantly, he had been in prison for 30 years and had no contact with modern technology.
He didn’t have an email address, while I was tackling multiple inboxes every day. He’d only seen photos of cell phones, but I was blocking apps in an effort to get my time and attention back. The social aspect of the internet I’d always enjoyed had recently begun to feel like something I was trapped inside of, something at odds with my desire to be close to people. And yet, I was constantly logged in, logged on, or scrolling. We were on opposite ends of this technological spectrum, but if we wanted to know each other, we would have to meet somewhere in the middle.
I went to my aunt’s house, and my father wasn’t there just yet. My mother, my aunt, and I sat around chatting for over an hour before we heard the garage door open. I stood up — he didn’t know I was there. He didn’t even know I was coming to see him, and I wanted to be the first person he saw. And I was. He walked over to me silently, put his arms around me, and kissed my temple. My aunt began to cry and yelled, “Thank you, Father God! Thank you, Jesus!” My Uncle took dozens of photos of me and my father that I knew I’d want immediately. I only ever had one picture of us together, taken in the prison visiting room: my brother and I seated on either side of a father we did not know; our faces a mixture of happiness and confusion. On this day, my father and I silently looked up at each other, wondering who the other might be, and excited to find out. My aunt cried behind us, “God is so good!”
I stayed in Indiana for a week. My dad and I went shopping for new clothes for him. Stores were a lot for him. He didn’t understand why everyone walked around looking down at their phones. He couldn’t fathom what could be happening on the phone that kept them so entranced. I tried to explain that there were often other people to talk to or look at on phones. Sometimes those people were far away, or people they didn’t even know. There were mostly no long-distance fees; there were photos and videos — basically the whole world could be on these screens. He thought about that for a minute and said, “But there are people all around right here. A lot of people we don’t know. Why not just look at them?” I didn’t have an answer to that. I thought about taking my phone out of my bag and showing him, but I also didn’t want to bring my Phone World into Our World. We were shopping together for the first time, shooting the shit for the first time, and despite all my usual inclinations, I had no desire to rush to document it. I didn’t want to share it with anyone else.
When my dad asked for my number, I wrote it down on the back of a receipt and handed it to him. “Is this your New York number, or your Indiana number?” he asked. I looked up at him and grinned. “There’s no difference between the two, Dad. That number follows me wherever I go.” I wondered if he’d ask me how that worked, but he didn’t. He didn’t really seem to care. All his questions were about me. Where did I work? Did I love it? Who was I dating? Did I love them? Would he get to meet them? What was my home like? What was my favorite food? Did I remember telling him I was proud of his art? Did I know that that’s why he got one of his degrees in art? Would it be alright if he called me on Wednesdays and Saturdays? Would I spend the night tonight so we could sleep under the same roof for the first time? Was I sleepy? Was I happy? By the time I fell asleep, I didn’t even know where my phone was.
I left the next morning emotionally exhausted, my phone screen crowded with notifications I didn’t want to answer or know about. I did not want to leave my father, and yet, I couldn’t relax until I was finally on my way back to Brooklyn. I ignored my phone the entire drive back to Indianapolis, the flight back to New York, and most of the day after. When my Uncle Clarence started texting me the photos he took while my dad was holding me, I couldn’t help but open and look. I cried while I scrolled through them, then immediately distracted myself by digging into my inbox, my iMessages, and various social media alerts. A hundred people were trying to reach me, and I felt too many miles away from the one person I wanted to see. I closed the phone again, downloaded an app that periodically blocks me from social media, and called my aunt’s number to see if I could speak to my dad.
Over the past five months, my father and I have taken on the monumental task of getting to know each other. I’ve visited him once more, pulled into the driveway listening to “Almost There” by Michael Jackson, just to walk into the house and hear him listening to the very same song. In many moments, in person and over the phone, we’ve marveled at how alike we are. We share similar tastes in music, art, and humor. We’re stubborn, but not hot-headed, and given to daydreaming as long as we can. We had our first argument, a miscommunication really, and once it was resolved I giggled and thought, Wow. I just had my first fight with my dad. A real fight with my real dad. He keeps calling, and I keep answering. He has a job and a smartphone now, but he doesn’t really know how to text. I just send him pictures of me, my home, my city, and I know he can see them, even if figuring out how to respond still eludes him on most occasions.
When he calls, we talk about our days, our weeks, and our hopes. Occasionally, we rant, but not often. Because of how much time we've lost, we're constantly catching each other up. He tells me about his childhood, and I tell him about mine. He's called at least once when I was deeply depressed. He asked if everything was okay, and I didn't have the energy to lie. I told him I knew I wasn't much fun when I was like this or interesting to talk to. He said, "You're my daughter. Everything you do is interesting to me. I know you're upset, but if you'll let me, I'd like to try and help. Can we just keep talking?" I smiled at the longing in his voice. This was what he never got to do, be there for me in hard times. I could give him this.
"Sure, Dad," I said. "I'd love to keep talking." And so we did.
At least once a day I open my phone to scroll through our one-sided text conversation. There are a few sentences from his end, words separated by periods. He has trouble with the space bar. I see the uninterrupted column of my selfies and views of my surroundings. I know he appreciates the technology that allows him to see my current world so clearly, as he missed so much of my past. Because he has trouble responding with text, he calls to say how wonderful I am, how proud of me he is, and how much he wishes he could see the things I see every day. If I can't answer he leaves minute-long voicemails. He is a talker, and I am his rapt audience.
I know someday he’ll figure out how to text exactly what he wants to say. When that happens, I’ll miss how much we’ve had to fit into phone calls, and how I’ve had to describe all the things he can’t see about who I am and where I am. I’ll miss his voice, too. His strange and familiar voice that sounds so much like my brother’s, and his brother's, though the thoughts often sound just like mine.
Yes, one day, he’ll think to text before he thinks to call because that’s what everybody does. It’s quicker and more convenient. Less intimate. Traditionally, with most people, I’ve preferred it that way. With him, it’s different. I’m different, and I want to talk to my dad on the phone more than I want him to text me. But I don’t have to worry about that just yet. For now, I wait to hear his voice on Wednesday and Saturday nights. I wait patiently, and happily.