“I had a complicated relationship with my father. Deep down I knew he loved me. When they sent me to jail, it broke his heart. I know that’s why he died only a few years after I was arrested.
“When a boy is growing up, he looks up to his father. The father defines what they think being a man is all about. And that was the way it was with me and my father. But he had a drinking problem. He told me to respect women even when he didn’t. He had many girlfriends, and some of them convinced him my mother was stealing money from him. When I was fourteen, my father got drunk, pulled out a gun, and threatened my mother. I still remember the scene . . . my mother running away in her nightgown while my father was shooting at her. I ran in and started fighting with him over the gun. There were holes in the roof from the gunshots. I remember how ashamed he felt the day after. After that incident, my parents separated. Fortunately, I was old enough to know it wasn’t my fault they separated.
“I see a troubling relationship between De’Jaun and his father. Sometimes when he gets tired of Martina telling him to do his homework or his chores, he’ll go to his father’s house and spend a weekend there. I’ve told him so many times, ‘Don’t you see how much your mother cares about you? She wants you to work hard and do your chores because she loves you and wants you to have some discipline. She wants you to make the most of your life. Your dad may spend a few days with you here and there, but he doesn’t truly care for you the way your mother does.’”
I thought about my relationship with my own father. Growing up, I wanted to be exactly like him. He wanted me to go to MIT and become an engineer, so I wanted to go to MIT and become an engineer. He wanted me to play chess, so I played chess. He thought it more important to study than to play sports, so I studied and stayed indoors.
He was for the death penalty, so I was for the death penalty. But when my parents divorced, he sank into a deep depression, which I knew even though he would never admit it.
He would come home from work each day, thoroughly defeated. He clung desperately to my two sisters and me; he had few friends. He was moody, hypersensitive to any criticism, and too afraid to put himself out there in work or in love.
As I grew up, my rose-colored lenses faded and I saw a man who was irritable, clingy, cynical, and terrified. He was also intensely loyal, wickedly brilliant, and never hesitated to sacrifice for his children. But fairly or unfairly, I viewed him as narrow-minded, a conformist, pessimistic, and above all, afraid. I blamed him for inculcating those traits in me. Fairly or unfairly, I resented him for it.
Troy’s voice softened as he spoke of one more person.
“Her name was Nikki, and she was my fiancée. She was special. Unlike our previous relationships, we decided to save ourselves until marriage because our bond was so strong that we knew it would be worth waiting. That’s why I went to Atlanta to get a construction job. I wanted to earn some money and get us a home so we could start building our lives together. When I got locked up, she would visit me. She always believed I was innocent and said she would wait until I was free. Then we could create the life we planned, the life we dreamed about. But I couldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t make her wait for me. I had to give her the opportunity to live her own life the way she wanted it. I knew our life together would never be. She eventually got married and had kids but would still visit me from time to time. One day she told me she still loved me, and all I had to do was say the word and she would leave her husband. I could never ask her to do that. I would never want to play any part in breaking up a family. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She said she would keep waiting until I was free. When she said that, I knew what I had to do. I removed her from my list of visitors so she could never see me again. It still hurts today, but I know I did the right thing. It wasn’t just about me, it was about her. I couldn’t let her throw away everything she had just for something that would never be.” Troy paused, and I looked away. I didn’t want him to see the tear rolling down my cheek.
When guards rattled on the door to warn us time was up, Troy approached and whispered to one of them. He waited there until another inmate walked in holding an ancient Polaroid camera. Troy handed him three slips of paper, and the inmate motioned for us to stand together. My mother opted not to be in the photo, so it was Troy in the middle, Priya on his left, and me on the right. My eyes were glazed over, the result of waking before sunrise and sitting hunched in a small room for nearly six hours. Priya awkwardly smiled, while Troy’s warm smile broke through. The camera clicked, and the photo slid out of the slot in front. The inmate grasped it and fanned it back and forth in the air before handing it to Troy. He looked at the photo, smiled, and handed it to my mother before we hugged and said our goodbyes.
We were later told the camera “broke,” and were never able to take a photo with Troy again.