You would think that walking out of prison after almost 24 years would probably be one of the happiest moments of my life — but you would be wrong — because it was actually one of the most frightening moments.
Sure, going to a level-four war zone prison as a 22-year-old was a frightening experience. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't, but none of that could compare to the level of fear I felt walking out of prison as a 47-year-old!
I was literally shaking by the time my parole officer arrived to pick me up from R&R (Receiving & Release) and drove me to the parole office where my sister was waiting to pick me up. Sadly, I hadn't seen her in almost 24 years, so even that did a number on my nerves.
Once I was processed and finally released to my family, we drove to my sister’s house where friends and family had gathered to welcome me home. Most of the people there weren't even born when I went to prison, so I didn't know what to think or how to get in their presence. My sister had kept me in the hearts and minds of everyone in our family, even with those that didn't know me, but at that moment I was so nervous.
I had been in the SHU (special housing unit; solitary confinement) with absolutely no human contact, so just the thought of walking into a house full of people really had me frightened. Then to make matters worse, when we pull up in the driveway my sister tell me that there’s someone special in the house waiting to meet me for the first time, but she wouldn't give me a clue as to who it could be. That only added to the anxiety I was already feeling.
I thought it could be one of her friends or co-workers, but once we walked inside, she asked me to wait by the door because she had a wonderful surprise for me.
She quickly disappeared and returned with a beautiful young lady who looked as if she was on the edge of tears. She just stood there staring at me, without saying a word. I try and smile, as I said hi. She smiled at me and I noticed the tears starting to roll down her cheeks. Then my sister said, "Jesse, I want you to meet someone who’s been waiting her whole life to meet you. Say hello to your daughter, Quameeka!”
And at that moment, hearing the words I've been waiting almost 24 years to hear, I completely lost whatever composure I was holding on to. We grabbed each other and held each other tight as we all cried!
Dream come true
I had never seen my daughter — she wasn't yet born when I was arrested. I had been waiting for this moment, dreaming of this day, the day I would finally get to meet and hold my beautiful little girl! The happiest day of my life.
Standing there holding my beautiful daughter for the very first time in her life was like a wonderful dream come true! I had dreamed of this moment and there I was holding my baby. I felt as if I had stepped out of prison right into heaven.
We stood there holding each other, face full of tears, neither one of us wanting to let go. When we finally did, we stepped back just enough to look at each other and then at the exact same time we both reached up and wiped each other’s tears, which made us both smile, and then with the cutest voice I had ever heard in my life, she says, “Hiii daaada,” and everyone in the room fell out laughing, including her!
It broke the ice as we walked hand in hand into the living room and sat and talked, laughed and joked about just about everything.
The room was packed with probably 20 people. Some I knew but most I had never met till that moment, but even those whom I didn't know seemed to know me, probably from some of the stories I'm sure my sister had shared with them. Either way they were there to welcome me home.
As we all sat around talkin’, the people who knew me began to tell stories of things I had done when I was younger. Everyone who knew me had their own "Jesse story" to tell. Most of them were about how I stayed in trouble as a kid so much that I got blamed for things that I didn't do.
So we all laughed and joked and then I caught my sister's eye looking at my daughter, and as I looked over at her I saw tears rolling down her cheeks. She then got up and walked into the kitchen. So I got up and followed her. When she turned around and faced me I could see her face was full of tears.
I asked her what was wrong. It took her a minute to gain her composure. When she finally did, I asked her again what's wrong. She looked so sad as she began to tell me that as she was sitting there listening to people talk about me and share their memories of me, she began to realize that she had no memories of me to share. That she had not one memory of her own father.
So she had no idea about the person that everyone was talking about and it hurt her so much that she was tempted to lie, and make up a memory just so it would seem like she knew me. Hearing her say that just broke my heart in a million pieces because it made me realize just how much my actions have hurt so many people.
Not only did I rob my daughter of a father, but I also robbed her of many memories of a father, and that hurts me beyond words. I never realized that my actions could hurt so many people in so many ways. But as I stood there looking at the hurt in my daughter's eyes, I can see the pain of my choices rolling down her cheeks with each tear she shed, and I find it so hard to forgive myself even to this day.
Jesse Jackson, 52, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.