the things they carried
When Tim O’Brien wrote “The Things They Carried” I can guarantee you he was not watching his younger sister pack up all of the things she might need to take her breast-fed two month old to visit his grandfather for the first time in prison.
1. One transparent coin purse, maximum two compartments, maximum size of 6" x 8".
2. Fifty dollars per adult visitor and twenty dollars per minor visitor, coin or one dollar bills only.
3. Two keys on a ring with no other attachments.
One (1) transparent diaper bag, six (6) disposable diapers, three (3) factory sealed jars of baby food, any combination of the following: two (2) factory sealed serving size, ready to feed bottles of baby formula or two (2) transparent plastic baby bottles, either empty or containing pre-mixed formula/milk/juice/water, two (2) factory sealed, single serving size packets of powdered baby formula, one (1) change of clothes, single layer baby blanket, one transparent pacifier, factory sealed baby wipes, one baby feeding spoon (plastic), one burp cloth, and one infant carrier.
Last month my dad celebrated a birthday. As a late birthday present, I drove my sister and nephew four hours to visit my Dad in prison. I drove this route so that my Dad could see his grandson for the first time. So that my nephew could meet his Pop Pop for the first time.
My sister sat in the backseat with my nephew. He demanded her full attention. Over the course of the ride he hollered to be fed, whimpered if she didn’t pay him enough attention, let his diaper talk for itself when it was time to be changed (he’s particularly talented in the art of pooping up his back. He’s a gravity bender).
We had a late start, having already committed to a day of events before driving down in the early evening. When the night came on the road and I felt every part of the day weighing on me, I imagined what I needed to listen to on the radio in order to stay awake and drive us the rest of the ride.
Persevering down a dusty dark road with nightbugs flying recklessly and smashing against my windshield and cows smelling through the air vents for miles, I sang along low under my breath to the Hamilton soundtrack so as not to wake my nephew. Only a story could keep me awake for this ride.
I bet when they wrote the Hamilton soundtrack they didn’t visualize two sisters and a small infant rolling down the middle of a dusty California road to see their father be a grandfather for the first time behind high, sharp gates.
I hadn’t seen my father since 2012. Five years is a wicked amount of time to spring on anyone. I couldn’t believe that much time had passed.
When we got into the motel in the town in the middle of nowhere we found out that it was actually a town that was founded on top of the largest pile of horse shit on Earth. In fact, it smelled like the mountains in the distance were made of it, the roads paved with it. I honestly feared I might get pink eye just from being outside.
When we got in the room and settled for the night, my nephew was awake and ready to party. My sister set out all of the things that would need to go in a transparent zip bag for the next day—a larger one for my nephews belongings and a small transparent coin purse that I’d brought for each of us. The two smaller bags had lived different lives as bags from some promotional biotin vitamins I’d gotten from a clinic some years ago. The larger zip bag for my nephew’s things was probably home to a sheet set, initially. I bet these bags didn’t know they was ever going to see the inside of a prison.
We tiredly modeled for each other and talked through why each of the outfits we packed would be acceptable attire and would get us in to our visit with no challenges. Right?! We both knew so well the urban legend story of the woman who had brought extra clothes in her car just in case and got her visit cancelled because she went to change into them in the parking lot. We didn’t drive four hours for something like that to happen.
We were aware of the level of discretion and control that is everpresent when visiting a loved one in prison. It’s in the stagnant air.
We both knew the sounds of people talking about us over our heads. We both knew the touch of learning that someone had made a decision about us by what they were already doing to punish us—patting down between a bra, denying eye contact so we don’t know who they’re talking to, wearing other people’s clothes, having delinquent tickets and being denied visitation for it. I’ve never met anyone so petty as the CDCR.
Luckily, this visit was not as difficult as the other ones and things were mostly easy sailing. Besides the hassle of packing and jostling a two month old around a small visiting room or ‘outside’ in a barricaded corridor made of stone and topped with a grated gate with barbed wire that made the natural light come in as just shadows.
For anyone who feels any type of way about an infant visiting a loved one in prison (apparently there are a lot of y’all), forever hold your opinion for yourself. I can guarantee you that it is of no value to me, my family or anyone who has an incarcerated loved one. The incarceration of a loved one does not take away the validity of our decisions, tinker with our moral compasses, dumb down our common sense, or serve as a giving up of our rights to steer our own ships. My sister is a phenomenal mother who has managed to navigate systems and fight fiercely to create a bond between my father and his grandchild despite incarceration, despite distance, despite literally walls made of stone and sentencing laws made of trash. All while feeding an infant on her breast.
My dad is a good grandpa (Pop Pop). Part of the worry about the visit was that my nephew is only breastfed and will not take a bottle. We were terrified that he would throw a fit during the family visit because he was hungry and my sister would not be able to respond or do anything about it because breastfeeding is not permitted in the visiting room. Bathroom breaks are every hour or so and take about 20-30 minutes to get ushered back in and out.
It was like moving a chess piece across a board. Hungry baby in a place he can’t eat. My sister pumped milk at night and again in the morning while he was feeding on one side. It was a source of worry—that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the visit because the baby might be hungry and fussy and unable to actually eat during it. My sister packed the bottle unoptimistically but it was a gesture of hope—my nephew had taken a bottle from her maybe once since birth.
When we got to the visiting room, there were no more buffalo wings in the refrigerator vending machine. I rotated around twice until it began to witch and rotated on its own. There was one vegetarian option for me—it was a little cheese pizza that cost too much money. I wondered if my dollars had ever been in a prison before.
A woman lined up her food by the microwave one pizza behind one plate of barbeque wings, behind one hot dog on the counter to save her place in line before going back to sit down with her family—they were all women, visiting her little brother.
Even though I’d never visited at this prison, all of these people looked familiar. There was a father there with a toddler daughter who didn’t want to hug him or sit by him or hold his hand and I wondered what messages she’d already received from the world that her father was a bad person because she could only visit him on the weekends in a small room. That she could only walk outside with him in a confined space that you couldn’t even feel a breeze in. That wasn’t outside at all.
Everybody was watching the guard watch everybody. When they moved toward any of us we all froze up. They were coming to give back the ID cards to certain people. That meant that they would be called to leave their visit during the next transition.
My nephew has our eyes. Eyes like my father. Cunning and knowing and glinting with joy and light and life. As a young mother there are so many people dead-set on telling my sister what she should be doing, without her ever soliciting. I’ve never seen anything as perfect as my Swooney’s eyes meeting my sister’s with deep love over and over again.
This meeting of eyes happened in a different, beautiful iteration during the visit between Pop Pop and Swooney:
When the baby fussed, Pop Pop stood up and walked around the small room. Talking to the baby about why he might be upset.
Pop Pop fed the baby the bottle like a pro. He was the only one the baby would take the bottle from.
The night before, I’d made sounds blowing out of my mouth and fluttering my lips, rocked that baby until my arms were sore. Jiggled. Pat his back. Rubbed his back. Rocked. Sang until he finally went to sleep.
Pop Pop put him to sleep FOUR OR FIVE TIMES in the course of one family visit.
Nearly all of the people visiting their loved ones in the prison that day were women. All of us had driven roads and paid for gas, and booked hotel rooms, and pre-paid for pictures with our loved ones during the visit, had bought food in the visiting room, paid the toll to cross bridges, broken water in half to see our loved ones for too little time. We all left without them that day.