Christmas break, and I was home from college. I had arrived the night before to a warm house, warm hugs, and a nice, warm, home-cooked meal. A mere 24 hours later had me searching for my scarf and gloves as my mom, brother, and I got ready to visit my uncle. Discovering the errant gloves, I joined the other two on the short walk to the Buick parked in the driveway. Once we’d reach our destination, the walk ahead of us would be long—and chilly.
Navigating her way into a dark lot littered with yesterday’s news and bottles of broken dreams, my mom put the car in park. She turned the engine off. She bowed her head for a moment and sighed deeply. She flipped the key from the ignition, grabbed her purse, and exited the vehicle. My brother and I glanced at each other before we fumbled out to follow. My mom had been here before. Several times. He and I had not.
The three of us trudged down a mile-long sidewalk. Air puffed from our noses and mouths as we hoofed it toward the intensely illuminated brick building ahead. As we walked we passed similarly garbed figures standing statue-still on the flat, grassed “courtyard” area before the tall edifice. Occasionally the people spread there would twist and crank their hands in an odd form of sign language, communicating with their loved ones inside who were peering out of tiny windows.
The interior of the building was as bleak as the exterior. Gray-green walls, rows of plastic molded chairs, and about 40 other persons were our company as we checked in and waited for entrance.
A range of memories and feelings swarmed me as I perched on a seat. Sadness, resignation, anger, fear. I slanted my eyes toward my brother. In junior high, I thought with indignation, and he’s having to visit our uncle in prison! I knew both of us felt that we should support our mother—and show love toward our incarcerated relative—but I was angry with my uncle for putting us in this position, in this place.
Sadness also warred within me as I remembered all the good times. Before. Then I remembered when he’d come home drunk or high. Or when he filched my mom’s checkbook to support the addictive habits that had consumed him. I felt resigned to the fact that my mother needed us, tonight of all nights, the day before Christmas Eve. And I was afraid. What would he look like in his orange suit? Who would he be? How would it be to talk on the phone I thought I’d only ever see on TV?
My mom had explained how her brother had turned himself in years after a crime—once he’d gotten clean. He was convinced God was telling him to confess. The courts were not lenient, and this repentant man was tossed into a cell. A small room in which he read his Bible, wrote reams on theology, and preached to cellmates. My mom would visit him every couple of weeks. She’d lovingly mail him a few dollars too, on occasion, so he could buy pencils and cigarettes, which he used to barter for other things. I wondered: How does she do it? How can she look at her brother like this, visit him here? How could she forgive him? I didn’t think I could do the same.
Our Christmas visit was brief. The three of us talked into the phone and exchanged pleasantries of a sort. To my relief, the kind brown eyes of my uncle peered at me through thick glass as I told him about school. Still a bit on edge, I told him I’d pray for him. We said goodbye. As we stood and were herded to the exit, coats zipped again, I saw my mom’s wobbly smile. She whispered a thank-you to us. My brother and I looked at each other, at her, and shrugged our shoulders.
Pondering, I looked at my brother again. And knew that, yes, I would do the same.
Kimberly Luste Maran is young adult editor of Adventist Review. This article was published December 23, 2010.