You can imagine my disappointment. For a week, I'd planned to pick up our granddaughter, Lilia, and take her to see her dad in Pekin at the Federal Prison Camp, a below-minimum federal correctional facility. I was supposed to pick her up on Friday, and we were going to stay two nights in Pekin and go visit Daniel three days in a row. It's been 10-1/2 months since they've seen each other.
On Wednesday Beth called to say she had changed her mind. I get it. Prison is no place for a little girl. Lilia is innocent. Lilia is sensitive. There would be guards with guns. Beth just couldn't do it.
I tried not to be angry. I understood that her fears were playing on her. I said you realize there are no cells, no bars. You realize it's only a building. (I didn't know for certain what it would be like, since I hadn't actually been there before.)
I was sad and disappointed, and I didn't agree. "You'll tell Daniel, right?"
On Friday I called from the road, and Beth hadn't gotten to tell Daniel. He hadn't called. That meant I would have to, something I was dreading.
But then, I don't know. I prayed. I asked Mary, the Mother of God, to intervene. I let go.
When I got to Pekin, I found my motel room and went over to the Prison. Not too bad. It was, indeed, only a building. There wasn't even a fence around it.
I went in thinking that visiting hours started at 3:00, and the Girl Guard With The Pony Tail said NO, 5:00 p.m. I thanked her and said I would come back. Even though she sort of barked at me.
I found a park by the river (Illinois River) and walked and wrote for a while, and then Daniel called. I was soooo grateful he called, so I could give him the news on the phone. I didn't think I could bear it, walking in without Lilia when he was expecting her. He had his hopes up. Didn't understand it, really, but I would see him soon. It would be good to talk.
When I went back over, I don't know. On a whim I just decided to take a picture of the Camp (see above) and texted it to Beth. "This is what the place looks like," was all I said.
I went inside and the Gunless Guard made jokes with a group of us. He should do comedy gigs instead of a prison guard gig, I thought. But no, they can use some levity in that place. I needed Daniel's prison ID number, and didn't have it on me. He teased me about, "what if you're not really his mother?" Then he let Daniel in the door to borrow his number badge, and I ran over and grabbed onto him. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," the Guard said. "You can't do that!"
He sent Daniel back out the door and handed me the badge and told me to give it back to Daniel in the visitors' room. (You can't take much in with you. Your driver's license and car keys and up to $20 in fives for the vending machines.) They check you over first with a metal detector. That's pretty much it. I was glad Girl Guard wasn't around.
It was good to have a long conversation with Daniel. We talked a lot about the future, and about his daughter, and about our very different philosophies about life, and even shook hands across the table twice when we agreed on something. At one point, he looked around the visitors' room with its low tables and chairs, the vending machines, the families, the kids, six in all, I know because I counted, and said, "You would never even know this is a prison, from the look of things." (Since I'd been his only visitor, he hadn't had a reason to see the visitors' room before.)
He was right. It was just a big room that felt a lot like a kids' school lunchroom, with the commotion and the noise level. A big kids' lunchroom with specific rules for some of the adults, was all it was. There was even a "leisure" room with children's toys and books. One of the inmates monitors the room, from a desk in one corner, and takes care of crayons and coloring books as well as the board games: checkers, scrabble, chess, cards. They all show some wear. There's a camo backdrop for taking family photographs, even.
Daniel and I decided to try harder to explain things to Beth. Once I learned that Tuesday evening he had even told Lilia she was getting to come, I was doubly determined. He said he would talk to Beth again, and I said I would drive back to the Quad Cities and pick up Lilia if Beth changed her mind.
When I left at 8:00 I texted Beth two more times: Just so you know. You would never guess it's a prison. No fence, no bars, no guns. Just a big room with families in it sitting at tables and playing games and eating snacks. If you will reconsider, I would be willing to come and pick up Lilia in the morning.
By the way. he looks great. Clean cut and nicely dressed.
Her answer: Can you call me?
And she agreed to let me come get Lilia. Only she wanted her to think it's where Daniel works, and I told her that was fine. It's something we can all live with.
We arrived at noon, and the Girl Guard With The Pony Tail still barked, and I explained to Lilia that they would check us the way they did at the airport when she went to Disney World.
And I can hardly describe what it was like when the two of them saw each other. Daniel scooped his daughter up into his arms, and they held onto each other tight. They laughed, and looked at each other, and she kept throwing her arms around his neck. "Daddy, Daddy!"
Then the three of us sat down, with Lilia next to her dad, and she held and held onto him and they gazed into each others' eyes and smiled and smiled and couldn't stop smiling. I just watched and wept.
We stayed the entire afternoon, and there were only a couple of odd moments, one when I was getting change and Lilia pulled her dad over toward a vending machine and someone told him to sit down. She asked why someone would ask her daddy to sit down and we said we didn't know. Another time, a guard walked through and asked me to sit on the other side of the table, opposite Daniel. When Lilia commented on that, I just said, "I think there are a lot of rules in this place, don't you?"
They talked and played checkers and he taught her chess and they made towers and buildings out of dominoes and knocked them down. It was like that all of Saturday afternoon and again on Sunday.
I watched people and let them have their time together.
One family was doing the same thing we were, spending the weekend close by so they could take advantage of every visiting minute allotted them. I had seen the woman and two little girls on Friday, and they returned on Saturday as well as Sunday. There were several inmates who appeared to be my age or even older. The young fellow next to us all but ate his wife's hand and arm, nibbling everything he could reach from across the table. His mother kept picking up their toddler and taking him into the toy room to give them privacy. There were lots of mothers and sisters and girlfriends and wives in the room, a few Hispanics, a high ratio of African Americans. One of the older inmate's two grown sons came in on Sunday, one of them in a wheelchair. I thought about all of the idleness, even though it's better than in the county jails. I wondered how much more time each of the inmates have, and I thought about whether some of them would be released and end up going back in.
I thought about all the pain and tears and anguish I'd felt, and multiplied it around the room.
Though she didn't want to leave on Sunday, Lilia was able to promise we'll be back in July. And she and Daniel had their picture taken together against the camo backdrop, and he promised to send it to her soon as he gets it, which thrilled her. He promised to call on Monday or Tuesday, the very first thing she reported to Beth when we got home.
And, thank God for a full, difficult, tiring weekend. It was so worth it. Worth driving three extra hours and wearing the same clothes two days in a row. Worth being barked at by the Girl Guard With The Pony Tail, who softened and smiled at me by Sunday. Worth the tears, worth the difficulty of working through everything with Beth, worth facing once again my son's confinement.
It was even worth the delays and disappointments, and the process that allowed time for me to have an adult conversation with Daniel on Friday, so that he could just be a dad on Saturday and Sunday. It was worth letting Beth think things through and resolve her feelings, yet another process, and for us to eventually reach an agreement, with all of us having to give. Because life isn't always easy, and there are other people to consider whether you like it or not. All on behalf of a six-year-old little girl. And because we all have her best insterests at heart.
That's just the way things sometimes work.