Heather Jarvis was awarded the Fielding Dawson Prize in Memoir in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.
A million different emotions flooded through me like a hurricane of despair and euphoria. It was Family Day at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. The day was drawing to an end.
How do you look your father in the eyes, the person who raised you, knowing it is the last time you will ever see him? It’s terrifyingly tragic.
The day went too fast, filled with the chaos of sticky-faced children who ate way too much candy from the pinnate running every which way between activities. The face painting station was packed with children expectantly wanting Spiderman or butterfly faces. The sounds of children and line dancing music filled the gym. The bowling pins were being trampled like grass at a yard sale by young ones too little to even put their fingers in a ball correctly. Mothers gleefully chased after them, even if it was just for a day.
Unlike them, that day was all I had.
Family Day was the only chance I had to look in my father’s eyes. To feel his soft weary touch. I rubbed his hands, scaled from chemotherapy. I longed to go home and rub lotion on his hands. He had never been much of an emotional person, but that day was an exception. He caved in like a house on a sinkhole—just like me, he knew. All the wishes in the world wouldn’t stop his stage four cancer from attacking every organ in his now frail body. Despite the pain, I was proud of him. He was not letting cancer win. He wanted to live. He refused to bring a wheelchair, turning the short trek from the entrance building to the gym into a marathon. He endured three hours driving—getting lost a couple times with screaming kids—to come here and find me.
We smiled in front of a beach-themed backdrop of an orange and yellow sunset on a horizon. There was a little sailboat riding against the waves and a big palm tree in the sand. There was a boardwalk along the beach. I wished I could take that boardwalk and go far away where cancer couldn’t find us. I wished we were really in paradise. I wished there wasn’t a tsunami headed straight toward us.
I felt selfish because in those final moments—instead of being with my children like the other mothers—I lay on my dad’s shoulder crying. I clung to him tightly just like when I was younger and wrapped myself around his leg while he walked around the house. Only this time he wasn’t trying to shake me off. I sucked it up in the funnel of my mind like a tornado. The memories of us spun round and round in my mind. Tears of pain: The only thing being spit out. I was awed. He was my father, my hero, my best friend. The one man I never had to question depending on.
When my mom went to prison, my father stepped up. He took care of me. Picture it: A big, manly construction worker with calloused hands and a sad fragile little girl who just wanted her mom. He did it despite all the obstacles we faced, despite the fact he had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t know how to comb my hair or what I liked to eat but we figured it out.
He would sit me at the table right next to him during his weekly poker games with the boys and teach me all about my poker face. I never had a good one but he did. He still had the best poker face on Family Day. He wouldn’t let me see his pain even though I imagine it was unbearable. He did his best.
I think the birthplace of all my creativity is his willingness to indulge me. He never told me I couldn’t. He always believed in me and let me explore and figure things out for myself.
I wanted a clubhouse; he gave me wood and nails and let me create whatever my young mind could think up. It took me seven stitches from a hammer, but I had my clubhouse. Movie Director? My father bought me a video camera. It took me a hundred takes but I made my movie. Have you ever seen a Christmas tree decorated solely by an eight-year-old girl? You could say it’s interesting. It was covered in lots of annoying icicles and fruity candy canes, decorated with whatever shiny bulbs he let me pick out at the Big Lots across town. On Christmas morning under the tree, there was exactly what I asked for. Nothing more, nothing less. He would stand watching me, rubbing his head with excitement when I became giddy, knowing he had pleased me.
He sang me his own little made up tunes every morning repeating, “It’s time to get up for school.” He taught me how to be a kid and I taught him how to be a parent.
My daughter, Adessa, never had her dad around, so she became my dad’s, too. It was interesting because by then he knew all about raising a little girl. It gave me comfort to know she was overprotective of him at the Family Day visit, like I’m sure she was at home witnessing his decline. Adessa cared so much even in her adolescence that she trailed behind him going to the bathroom. When he dropped his oxygen tank she just picked it up casually like she did it all the time. She shouldn’t have had to worry about oxygen tanks.
Despite my best efforts, I fell apart like New Orleans after Katrina. As I’ve said, I’ve never had a good poker face. I’m not as strong as my dad was.
Adessa rubbed my hair back in an attempt to comfort me as I wept. Onlookers invaded my moment with sympathetic smiles, then moved on because they knew there was nothing they could say. The oxygen tube curved across his body like a slithering serpent; it was a clear indicator that he was sick.
Yes, they went about the day. A day that was filled with joy for them. I was envious and it was pathetic. I was filled with nostalgic daydreams and what ifs. I wanted to know my dad would walk me down the aisle when I got married. However, as much as I wished it wasn’t true, it would never happen. Cancer is a bitch.
When I leaned on his shoulder and smelled the faint linger of laundry soap I realized how heartless cancer is. How devastating, how hopeless. It was the stuff of nightmares and I still can’t wake up. It was tearing through my family with an effortless force like ripping paper. Cancer didn’t care that my dad was all I have ever had. All it cared about was spreading, growing, slowly killing him. No treatment had been able to stop it and doubtful any treatment would. If he were a house after a flood, he would have been condemned. His insides would be covered in black mold. No matter how hard you scrubbed it, it would just keep coming back.
My dad died almost a year later. Cancer spread like a rumor from his lungs to his liver and eventually to his brain. I felt guilty for being in prison. I felt relieved he was at peace.
The day I wasn’t expecting it, it happened. The day I didn’t freak out when the phone just rang with no answer, it happened. Many times I had called and panicked when there was no answer, when really my dad had been racing around on a motorized wheelchair at the mall, his oxygen in the basket and his best friend, who also had cancer, right beside him. They were a pair, that’s for sure. One day I called and my dad had just gotten back from a sports bar, drunk. He proceeded to tell me how at the bar he and Jerry smelled each other and proclaimed they didn’t smell like death. Imagine what the bartender must have thought.
Just once I didn’t freak out. I thought I knew better than to worry my ass off when really he was off somewhere being his ornery self. Maybe he was pushing his rickety walker to play the slots which he refused to admit triggered seizures. Maybe he was flirting with the nurses too much to answer the phone.
I went to a routine appointment in the worn down, grungy mental health building to renew my treatment plan. I couldn’t imagine going through this without Prozac. Walking through the quiet corridor and up the stairs I never expected it. I was two minutes into the appointment when she got the call.
She was a newer counselor; I had barely brushed the surface of my problems with her. I was telling her about the slow torture that was my dad’s cancer—the not knowing. The phone rang and I thought it was so rude to take a phone call during a session. Later she told me it was the most eerie feeling she’s ever had. The odds that I would be sitting right there were slim to none. She said the words I had always known were coming. I tilted my head and just stared at her. This is it, my head said.
At first, I just looked at her confused. What did she just say? No tears boiled up. This is it, my head kept repeating as my heart began to race.
“I need you to call for Kansas Grube. She lives in Hale dorm.”
The liaison didn’t even question my request—just did it. Unusual treatment for an inmate.
“Are you okay?”
“I have been preparing for this for a long time,” I told her.
Kansas hit the hallway outside the office. She had no idea who had called for her. I made eye contact with her. All I could say was: “He is gone.”
“Oh, fuck,” she responded. Kansas is a hardcore Christian; she never cusses. My mental health liaison—as far as I’m concerned—was not qualified to deal with me right then. Kansas was. She knew me, and she had heard enough stories that she knew him.
We walked to the chaplain’s office together. You see the problem with God’s timing is it’s always perfect. I was scheduled for Kairos—the biggest Christian retreat on the prison farm—the next day. Kairos means “God’s time.” It was supposed to be a walk with God. Very few are selected to attend. There were 24 of us. I guess God wanted me to know for a fact that he was carrying me through this. I’d mourned since 2015. It had been slow agony every day, the uncertainty.
The thing about time is preparation: Nothing is left unsaid. I knew every time I talked to my dad it might be the last. I had the luxury of saying goodbye. I told that man how much I loved and adored him every day for two years.
“I know, Heather. You say it every five minutes,” he would respond.
I got time to apologize and spill my soul to him for all the wrongs I had done during my rebellious years. I asked him what he wanted me to do with my life and he answered. I know what dreams he had for me. I know the life he wanted me to live.
I’m told he went peacefully in his sleep. I prayed for that relentlessly every day. I wanted God to end his suffering. People told me that in the end I would beg God to take him. I didn’t believe them. Now I do. At the end, he was only exhaling every five minutes.
When I returned to the crowded dorm—surrounded, but alone—I told no one. Only Kansas knew. I didn’t want pity. I almost craved it while he was sick. I wanted people to know I was suffering right along with him. I eventually told those close to me. All evening my friends comforted me, coming to my aid like the Red Cross. I surprised them with how calm I was. I surprised myself.
When I found out my dad had cancer, it was like a volcano of emotion erupted, threatening everything about my life. The lava slowly took over everything in its path, relentlessly. The cancer inched slowly, consuming my dad’s body. Taunting my whole family with heat so close to our home. We could smell the plastic lawn chairs burning. We knew soon it would consume our lives and we would no longer be able to deny its lurking presence. We went over countless emergency drills in preparation. He always fought.
If I dared to picture what my life would be like after my father passed, I saw myself screaming and crying in distress, begging God to put the pieces of my internal city back together again. I never dared to imagine it was possible to rebuild a city after an eruption. When it happened, I found myself silently sweeping through the thick soot and picking up the wreckage. I was fully aware that the chaos was over and I could breathe. My pre-grief was hard. The death was expected.
Months later I am still learning to live without him. It still hits me like aftershock. I still dial his number on the phone only to realize he isn’t going to answer. Grief sneaks up on me with something as simple as a treacherous commercial. “OPDIVO®,” it says. “A chance to live longer.” And then it thanks the patients of the clinical trials. OPDIVO®was the last thing my father tried. It didn’t save him. He didn’t find refuge. However—thanks to how he lived—I did. The memories of us keep me sane.
When I was about 16 years old, I found myself soaked, walking aimlessly in the rain. I was in the middle of nowhere in Lubeck West Virginia with my friend Amanda, lugging a case of beer. My phone beeped, alerting me the battery was almost dead. I did what I always did: I called my dad. Drunk and frantic, I asked him to come get me. Problem was I didn’t know where I was. I was coming down a back skirt black top road surrounded by woods to a clearing.
“Look around. What do you see?” my father asked.
I looked around and described to him what I saw. A little abandoned church with an overpass behind it up a steep hill. Then nothing, my phone had died. Amanda and I were both rebellious, both fighting a war with adolescent insecurities and fitting in. I don’t know why we left the party, maybe somebody pissed us off or maybe we just got bored of the usual beer pong and drunk advances. I do know Amanda and I had found ourselves lost, sitting on a curb drinking cheap beer while the wind and rain fought around us. We were out of options. We couldn’t find our way back and we couldn’t find our way to the main road. We were stuck in a drunken maze. The highway taunted us from up the hill with sounds of passing cars. The hill was an impossible trek.
For a moment we had forgotten where we were. We just enjoyed the rain and the beer. We were living young and careless. Amanda yelled into the empty church parking lot.
“Helloooooo out there!”
“Aughhhhh,” I yelled, impersonating George of the Jungle.
God himself was probably laughing at us in that deserted church parking lot.
Eventually, a horn’s blare answered us from the highway above. We looked up the steep hill to see my dad’s little blue Dodge Dakota two-seated truck with its rusted steel toolbox pulled over on the shoulder of the highway. The window was rolled down and he was honking down at us. He was yelling, prompting us to climb up the hill. Amanda and I just looked at each other, then at the soggy case of beer. Fuck it.
Amanda’s drunk ass had the idea to put the beer up her soaked hoodie. We thought we were so slick and so inconspicuous. Amanda and I began to trek up the hill to the truck, falling and sliding down the wet grass. She was struggling with the beer. One falling out here and there. We were trying to grip onto flimsy grass only for it to rip from the ground. My dad was rooting us on the whole time like we were on the three-yard line at the Super Bowl. Finally, we reached the top, feeling triumphant. We were soaked with rain and sweat. We stumbled over the barrier and flung the case of beer into the back of the truck as if my dad didn’t hear the thump, and as if he didn’t see it fall out of Amanda’s hoodie and roll down the rill right along with us during our failed attempts to scale the hill. But we eventually made it. We got in the cab acting casual like my dad hadn’t just rescued drunk us from the middle of nowhere.
She was on the seat. I sat on the console of the small truck close enough to my dad that my wet clothes were seeping into his.
“You girls didn’t bring a case of beer with you did you?” he asked, smiling. He wasn’t stupid but he played dumb. Now that he had found us he was done with the worry. He had moved onto entertainment.
I managed to get the radio on and we drunkenly sang all the way to town. “To the window, to the wall,” we sang in our Lil Jon voices.
When we came onto abandoned seventh street it was late, deserted. My dad took us through Hardee’s fast food restaurant. He was cool like that. It was open 24 hours. We ordered their famous six-dollar burger with greasy curly fries and large, thick, strawberry milkshakes with whip cream and lots of apple turnovers. My dad just laughed and paid.
We stumbled into the house. My dad ushered us to the kitchen table where we ate our food like homeless people at a soup kitchen. Then he made us go to bed, which really consisted of us drunkenly laying in my queen size bed talking about what-ifs, watching the ceiling spin. “Y’all alright?” he kept yelling up the stairs every time the floor creaked from movement.
We answered “yeah” down the attic stairs, half annoyed. He just cackled.
I knew he was rubbing his head, his signature gesture. Happy, sad, mad: He always rubbed his head frantically. A quirk I truly cherish now.
My dad always found me. ALWAYS. So even in death, even when I die, I know he will find me. I know when I’m lonely and missing him he will find me. Even if it’s only in my dreams, he will always find me.