Why do we wait for a crisis to make amends? Do it now.

From inside my wing of the D.C. jail, even more isolated than usual due to pandemic precautions, I watch story after story on the news about people who weren’t able to be with their loved ones as they lay dying from COVID-19, alone in hospitals all over America. And they remind me of how finite life is and how absolutely essential is the support of friends and family.

I mentioned in a previous post a special experience in which I was privileged to participate, just before the novel coronavirus swept in and eliminated visits: Family Reunification Day (something we never were granted in federal prison, in part because we were so far away from our relatives). I relive that memory here, in honor of the special people who shared it with me and who have stuck by me through adversity. I hope it brings some cheer or love into your heart during these trying times.

On February 29, the Young Men Emerging community was blessed with the opportunity to gather in the gym of the Central Training Facility with relatives, friends, staff members, former YME mentors and outside guests in a celebration of the family unit. I witnessed fathers who had been incarcerated before their children were born lovingly holding their newborns for the first time. I witnessed fathers coloring or playing other games with their kids, almost as if they were in their living rooms at home. I witnessed grandfathers who had been locked up for decades carrying grinning grandchildren on their backs. I witnessed families eating together at large tables, which reminded me of Thanksgiving Day dinners at home. And I even was transported back into my childhood, as I hand-danced with my mother to DJ music, just like I used to do as a child. I witnessed family.

As my fellow writer for the jail newsletter, Inside Scoop, Warren Allen (aka Black Love) always says, “Love is the key.” Family Reunification Day was one of the best days of my life. I have not been that happy in a long time. What was most impactful was everyone’s willingness to forgive their loved ones for whatever may have stood in the way of reunification.

Our keynote speaker, Dr. Roger Mitchell, D.C.’s chief medical examiner and an associate minister, gave an emotional talk about the importance of celebrating family and granting forgiveness. I am sure his message resonated with many in the room, but at our table, I could see that it did in everyone’s eyes. When he told everyone to “turn to the loved one next to you and forgive them,” my son took it to heart. He immediately turned to me and said, “I forgive you, Dad.” Rodrick was born just after I was incarcerated. I have been locked up for my son’s entire life and now, he is incarcerated in the same jail with me. But he said he forgave me for not being there for him as a child, and his words shook me to my core. I never knew how he felt about my absence all those years, and our relationship since he has been here with me has been rocky. His words told me I have been granted a second chance. Medical director and preacher.

Family Reunification Day. This is what the day was all about: bringing families together. For the first time in my son’s life, he was able to be in one room with both of his parents together. And we were able to memorialize this occasion with a picture, something he and I will cherish the rest of our lives.

The memory of that day is all the more special to me today because as I write this post, my son has been placed in isolation after coming into contact with a person in his unit who tested positive for the coronavirus. (In case you weren’t aware: The number of people incarcerated in the D.C. jail who have been infected with the coronavirus has quintupled from five cases to 28 in little more than a week. In fact, the D.C. jail system has more confirmed coronavirus ­cases than all but four of 142 Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities nationwide.) I’m worrying about him, of course, but I am comforted by remembering that day with him in “freedom,” surrounded by love, the spirit of his forgiveness and family.

I remember when Deputy Director of Operations Wanda Patten first told us about family day, saying it should not be just a normal visit. Instead, she said, “try to mend a broken family relationship. I want your visit to be with a family member with whom you have had a problem and use this time to reconnect.” I can’t thank her enough for creating this opportunity and I encourage all of you to do the same in your life: reconnect and forgive. Reach out to family members or friends with whom you have been on the outs and tell them you forgive them. Attempt to make amends. If you are fine with them, but just haven’t said you love them for a while, do it now.

You never know; it might be the last time you get to tell them!

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at MoreThanOurCrimes.org

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