Today marks four years without him — son, oldest brother, grandson, USMC honor graduate, lifelong friend, 25 year-old with a laugh you can’t resist and a way of looking at you so intently that when he was a baby, strangers called him, “Buddha.” 

Have you missed him these past 4 years? Are you one of our friends, or a member of our church family, a professional colleague of mine, or a student at one of the Ivy league (and almost-Ivy league) schools his 2 brothers are attending on full academic scholarships? Or maybe you’re one of the family members we have decided not to tell about where he is right now. . .

He has only been seen in person by myself (his mother), 2 of his brothers, one of their girlfriends, one set of grandparents, and a childhood friend. Most of the world – most of the people in his world prior to that 5:00 am phone call — have not seen him in 4 years. They haven’t heard his voice on the phone or received any updates about him from any of us. Each year, I post the portrait with ALL of my sons and my daughter that they “gave” me as a birthday gift one month before he was taken from us. 

“Mom, I’m not going to make it this morning – you know, um, to take the little ones to school . . .”

“Wait . . . what?”

“Also . . .uh, mom . . . I want you to know, there’s no way I could have done what they are saying I did – my hands would have marks on them – but I can’t get anyone here to take pictures of my hands.” 

“Where are you? Who won’t take pictures of your hands?”

“I’m in the police station.  I can’t say anything without an attorney, but I just want you to know that there’s no way I could have done this.” 

Time stopped here. He was arrested — at 21 years-old — weeks away from being the big brother stand-in at his 4 year-old sister’s daddy-daughter dance. He was arrested, while still keeping the secret of his discharge (OTH – Other Than Honorable status) from the USMC. He was arrested – while under the influence of mind-altering substances, either a coping mechanism or a raging addiction, fanned by the shame of missing deployment due to an open court case (DUI). He was arrested – and time stopped for us too. 

You may not feel reality shift the way he feels it, or the way I feel it, but the arrest of my son has changed your reality as well. If you have a moment, let me tell you how.

This is a justice system we built, all of us. I never concerned myself with the voice of a convict until I heard my son’s “new” voice on the phone when he called collect. It was deep — a primal, animalistic tone. I heard the voices of guards barking at him and the sounds of other men barking and growling at each other. 

This is a justice system and lifestyle we never willingly approach — even jury duty is an inconvenience, right? Until I am in trouble for mouthing the words “I love you” back to my son, I’d never thought about what rules apply in a courtroom. I’m escorted out, told that communication wasn’t allowed. I put my hands up, telling him I didn’t know, since I’d never been in a courtroom except for jury duty.  Even seeing my own son wearing a prison jumpsuit didn’t stop me from feeling like someone who didn’t really belong there. Even when the bailiff looked at me like the mother of a criminal, I still refused to accept it as “mine.”  

My son committed a crime. Let me be clear about that. He kicked in someone’s door and put his hands on him. He does not remember doing this – he was in a substance-induced black out and remembers snapping out of it to find his hands on the man, with the moon lighting up his scared face. He was horrified and immediately let go of the man — you can hear this happen on the 911 tape — before leaving his house to go sleep it off.

This story is too long to be told at one time, so I will return to today, four years after he accepted the plea bargain of 14 years (instead of 56 years) that prevented him from having a trial, telling his side of events and facing his accusers. 

I wondered, for almost a year, about what happened that night, about what he meant in the 5:00 am phone call when he told me, “there’s no way that I did what they said I did.” I had to wait until I could finally visit him in person — after he was sent to the county prison for 6 months, after he made it through the “reception” process (no phone calls or visits), after I could get on his “approved” visitor list — to finally hear him tell me what happened on that night. 

It is my son we locked up, on first offense, but it is our justice system that we used to keep him from telling his story (even to his own mother), facing his accusers (the primary witness has admitted to lying), or having his day in court (the DA added time to the plea bargain agreement, every time he showed up in court). 

What if there was a justice system that, at the very least, allowed the accused to tell his own stories, face his accusers, and have his day in court? What if we stayed in the conversation long enough to find out why there are so many more black men in prison – oh, did I forget to mention that he is ½ black, raised in a white, gated community? What if we start telling our stories out loud, whether from the mouth of the felon, the felon’s family, friends from childhood, children, cellies? What if we found a place to speak and to listen? 

Would you let me reveal my shame but stay for my pride? 

Mother of son, named “Determined Seeker” at birth