Today is Father’s Day — but to be honest I don’t feel as if this day really applies to me — I mean how could it, when I’ve never been much of a father to you — I was loyal to all the wrong things and chose the streets over my family — and as a result of my choices I spent most of your life in prison.
I feel as if I robbed you of so many things and forced you to grow up without a father — and believe me, I know exactly how that feels because my father did the same thing to me — and I really believe that I spent so much time hating him and blaming him for all the things that have gone wrong in my life that I became the person I hated the most — and I did to you what was done to me — and now here you are in prison for many of the same things that I went to prison for.
I’ll never forget the day I got the letter telling me you were now in prison with me — that broke my heart in a million pieces — for I never thought for one second that my son could possibly end up as my cellie one day. I was so mad — but what’s crazy is that I was mad at everyone but me! I blamed everyone else — even writing your mom a letter accusing her of not being a good mother — taking no responsibility of my own — I even convinced myself that it couldn’t be my fault because I wasn’t there! And if I was there I never would have let this happen — and what’s even crazier is that it never entered my mind for one second that maybe my not being there was partially to blame for your being in prison — that had I chose my family over the streets and been a father to you maybe you would have made better choices and not followed in my footsteps.
And now you have a son — and if we don’t break this cycle then your son may follow in your footsteps. We have to stop this — you still have a chance to be a father to your son — please don’t be me — don’t do to your son what I did to you! Be the father I never was — the kind of father you always wanted me to be — be the father your son desperately needs and deserves to have! Don’t make him have to grow up wondering where his father is at — and why he’s never there for him — and if you do hate me then please don’t be like me — be better than me!
And although I can’t change the mistakes of my past I can change the direction of my life — it’s not too late — it’s never too late — and I am determined to do just that! To be the man — a father and grandfather I’ve always wanted to be — to be a positive influence on my family — and I’m not going to let anything get in the way of that! I refuse to be remembered by my mistakes — or allow my mistakes to define me!
Yes — those things are what I’ve done — but they are not who I am. I get to decide that — I get to decide who I am and who I’m going to be! And I choose to be someone I can be proud of — and my family can be proud of. So I choose to live instead of just existing — sobriety over drugs — freedom over jail and my family over the streets.
And now you must make some real choices about your life for yourself and for your son because he needs you for everything — your presence will be the most important thing in his life — he never has to know what it feels like to grow up without a father — he never has to feel as if he’s not wanted or loved! Your choices now will determine what kind of life he has — and if you choose the streets over him the way I did to you — he may end up feeling about you the way you feel about me! And the cycle will continue.
This shhh has to stop! If not, we will have four generations of incarceration — think about how crazy that sounds! But it doesn’t have to be that way — we can still change the directions of our lives, so that your son will have a positive path to follow. Imagine how wonderful that will feel to know that we changed our lives to give your son a chance at a real life! That’s real fatherhood — and it’s never too late to be a father.
I love you, and although I was never there for you — you have always been with me!
Love, Your Father,
Jesse J, San Francisco County Jail
Jesse Jackson, 51, is currently in the San Francisco County Jail for a probation violation. He has spent the better part of the last 35 years in and out of the criminal justice system.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.