A daughter’s collect call from jail interrupts Thanksgiving dinner
To look at Everett and Ella, you’d never know they’re the parents of a troubled, incarcerated daughter. They’re both successful in careers they love and they both espouse the family values with which they were raised, albeit modernized ones. Their home, where my wife and I were guests for Thanksgiving dinner, sits on a nice street in a neighborhood just about any set of young parents could happily work with.
When the phone rang the air at the table thickened slightly, as if a fly had entered the airspace. If the fly knows what’s good for it, it had better not land. A second ring offered a perspective on what it’s like to be the fly, buzzing in during dinner, which for Everett and Ella is a consistently early evening affair.
It was their old-school land-line ringing, and because, like a lot of us, they live and work by their iPhones, that meant that whoever was being ignored was family. Who else, besides mom and dad, first dials a land line these days? Regardless, ring number three provided satisfaction in the parental example they were setting for their four-year-old boy: no matter who’s buzzing around, during dinner, nobody touches the phone or the television.
The fourth ring triggered the answering machine, a joyful throwback to a time when apps were mechanical. The thing engaged with plastic snaps and metallic clicks, the sounds of something doing its best to be allowed to stick around. Then a beep, followed by a robotic: “You have a collect call from ––EMILIA–– an inmate at the Los Angeles County Jail.” Though it was too late, Everett pushed his chair back and stood just as the the voice asked, “Will you accept the call?”
I felt heavy unease. Oh God. This is what my parents went through on this very holiday (and any other day I could get to a phone without a fight). In an instant I was looking at life through the eyes of someone in custody. In this case, those of a daughter from a previous marriage.
Emilia’s story is simple: you can’t tell her anything because she has all the answers. Of the few rules that seem to apply to her, most are codes provided to her by boyfriends, drugs, and an all powerful middle finger of defiance.
Across the room, Everett reached for his cell phone, already buzzing with Emilia’s second option. With a move of his thumb it went quiet and he walked out of the room.
Unable to look up from my plate, which had turned into a prison dinner tray, I said, “The turkey on the end of my fork doesn’t look anything like the turkey she’s eating, if she was lucky enough to get any.”
“He hasn’t spoken to her in a year,” Ella whispered once Everett rounded the corner. She’s supportive of his decision to take a break from Emilia, as are we all. Everett isn’t the kind of man to kick his daughter to the curb completely, although for whatever reasons many parents have done so for much less. Emilia has repeatedly demonstrated her allegiance to meth and morons and her indifference to the lives of her special-needs toddlers: an endless conveyor belt of excuses, dishonesty, and tragedy.
Everett knows that, Thanksgiving dinner or not, by answering the phone he runs the risk of being played by his daughter yet again. For now, his concern must remain within the limits of his and his wife’s dignity. And they have a four-year-old with a positive outlook to protect as well.
We speak about Emilia often. He and Ella know how I feel about consequences, accountability, and the agonizing road on which respect is either earned or burned. If I didn’t believe that the wake-up call of incarceration kicked off events that helped turn me around, I might be resentful toward Everett when he chooses to ignore his daughter’s call on a special family day.
As an inmate, my heart sank like a rusty boat anchor during the holidays, but that was just too bad. I’d taken my parents for granted. It still took way too many of my father’s four-hour journeys to visit for me to appreciate the position I’d put him in, but we’ve been building on that since. And every so often, when something like this occurs, I see things from a different perspective that lets me understand a little better. That’s when the new life my lessons are given advances my gratitude so much I think my heart might burst.
For a second there, staring down at the turkey on the end of my fork, I was enormously thankful for how useful my experiences could be to someone else.