I thought that I’d grown into a man knowing exactly what it meant to love someone from your heart. I thought that saying the words “I love you,” like the rest of the world, would be enough to exchange those core emotions with another human being that you’d become attracted to.
But what do you think? What is it to love if there’s no deeper significance in just the three words I love you, alone? Does loving someone or something enough set you internally and physically free?
For myself, it had come in the form of an ah-ha moment — in the forces of a woman and her three daughters that fell in love with me, despite the past wreckage of my life. Those forces created a freedom for me through these stone walls and wires of razor that nothing up to this point in my life ever had. Forces that penetrated my confinement and led me out of my own darkness and back into the light.
These kinds of forces cannot be ignored. They drive you towards perfection and the desire to be an even better person. I know because I’m driven that way today.
Her name is Jamie. A mother of three spunky and beautiful daughters. If you were to look into her eyes you wouldn’t see the afflictions or the sacrifices that she’s made for those she loves. But they’re there in every bit of strength and determination that’s been driving her to survive the cards life had dealt her.
I knew right away that I loved her and I knew that God had been preparing me for years to become a better man so that I would be worthy of her love. Nonetheless, it would take me a moment to feel that I’d actually been so worthy.
Trust and the roller-coaster
Have you ever been driven by someone or something greater than just yourself? To want more in your life when you knew that it was no longer just you counting on you? That’s what makes the strongest fighters the best in the ring; that inner warrior becomes driven by something greater than just his own self-pride, to be more than his own expectations of oneself.
Loving Jamie and her children are no different. With her, I’m elevated by them to become an even better fighter; a champion. And it’s her own strength that I’d fallen in love with just the same. A strength that would eventually give me the freedom that I could otherwise not find on my own.
The funny thing about finding your place in life with a person is that you’ll go through a series of roller-coaster emotions that will test the validity of your love. How much can two people endure in such a short amount of time? Will they find excuses to give up on each other? Can circumstances make the odds against them seem so much more? Or, will they hold on to one another that much tighter because their love is bigger than the both of them? That was us, Jamie and I. Where God brought us together and all we had to do is trust in the process. Trust, trust and trust.
Because there I was, a man in prison serving a life sentence. I’d spent much of my life being part of the grease in the axle of this well-tuned machine of incarceration. I am, in fact, a convict. Freedom for me was superficial in the sense that I sought freedom in the smallest of things, selfish things.
I’d walked away from being a prison gang member, earned two different college degrees, became involved in all the right prison programs and self-help groups, but, how free was I really? At the end of the day all the good things I’d been doing and all the now selfless acts I’d found myself doing still felt selfish in the light that I had no one to share them with. My focus had become to one day get out of prison, yet only for the sake that I was not going to grow old and die within these walls. I guess I never thought about walking out of these gates and pretty much having to face the world again all on my own.
Not until I got a taste of what real freedom is. Them!
When someone loves you and refuses to give up on you, you begin to search your soul for answers to those once blocked-out questions you’ve long had for yourself. Who am I? I thought about that the more she would praise me for the positive changes I’d made in my life. My being in prison became irrelevant. She, in fact, taught me how important it is to love myself deeper than I had been. The reflection in the mirror today is a man I can honestly say I love. If that’s not what real freedom is, I don’t know what is.
Who am I? I’m kind. I’m sincere. I’m loving. I’m compassionate. I’m understanding. I’m humble. I’m giving. I’m all of these things because someone, she, showed me what it truly means to love.
Today I received another letter from my Jamie and her daughters. We call them “our daughters” now — and the words “I love you dad” remind me what freedom to me means now. Freedom is the four faces staring back at me captured in the photographs upon my wall.
This is not my home. My home is with them. I am only in passing within these walls. I will be free. I will.
Keith Erickson, first incarcerated at 14, was convicted of murder in 1993 and is now in Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Calif.
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.