BBefore I went to prison, I was a devoted father despite my bitter divorce. I spent weekends with my boy, D., going to Philadelphia Eagles games and the Happy Tymes Family Fun Center in Warrington, Pennsylvania. We practiced soccer in my backyard with a net I put up. I let him dribble for cones and take shots while I was in goal. “Stick to the basics, son! Don’t brag until you’re good,” I yelled. Then I would intentionally miss the ball and bounce like Beckham himself had just zinged past me.
I lived next to a small private airstrip and we lay in the same backyard and watched rainbow colored hot air balloons float through the sky. In the fall, when there was wood smoke from nearby chimneys, D. asked for a campfire in the garden pit. I would wrap him in a warm blanket and sip Guinness while he would stick a coat hanger through a spongy cube of marshmallow and roast it to death. He giggled at the dripping mess of burning sugar and I memorized all the little details of his face so I had enough memories to get through another lonely week without him.
Still, I was so ashamed of being a part-time dad. My own biological father remarried when I was young and started a new family, only seeing me on the weekends. I felt like a phantom parent, floating in and out of D’s life like those hot air balloons – totally present and loving when we were together and unconcerned when we were apart.
Raising D. on weekends was tough. Trying to raise him while I sat in a tiny cell and pondered my mistakes was next to impossible. I first learned this at the age of 29 when I was addicted to alcohol, pills and cocaine and was jailed for three years for theft. This started a vicious circle of addiction and incarceration – and left my son growing up without a father.
It was my first time inside when D. was 6. I could talk to him on the phone on Saturdays when he was staying with my mother and stepfather. We yelled at their dogs barking and laughed at their playful bickering.
“Poppy says Grammy shops too much, and Grammy yells at Poppy for farting at the dinner table!” D. once told me. “You’re so funny, daddy.”
D. loved finding a corner of the house and demanding privacy for “dad time” so he could tell me all about his week in elementary school. Then I taught him guitar chords over the phone, counted the positions on the neck, and told him where to place each of his pinky fingers. We had distance learning up to a science and it felt good.
“Just keep practicing,” I told him. “You’re going to get better every day, just like football.”
“I almost forgot to tell you I scored a goal!” he would announce.
I was proud of him, but hearing news like this brought out my deepest fear: I was missing out on my son’s life. Trying to explain my absence, I clenched my fingers on the prison phone and fought back tears.
“You know I didn’t leave you on purpose, right D.?” I remember telling him once. “I love you very much.”
“I know dad. You’re just sick and Grammy says you’re getting help.”
But after a while, trying to stay within the prison walls of my child’s life felt futile. Visits, phone calls, letters, and emails are not the same as coaching Little League or teaching your child how to write a book report.
D. was 11 when I went back to prison for stealing. He was old enough to understand that I wasn’t out of town to get help, and the gulf between our affections was widening. We still spoke on the phone, but mostly on public holidays. The conversations were sad and distant. I sent him birthday cards and letters with no reply.
I was only gone 13 months but it was enough to do damage. For years, his paternal role models were grandfathers and uncles and cousins. Athletes on TV. heroes in novels. All except me.
D. was 15 when I made my third bid: 10 years in prison for burglary. Through sporadic emails and an annual call at Christmas, I learned that he excelled in school and was still crazy about football.
When D. graduated from high school, I should have shouted from the stands; Instead, I got into an argument with my cellmate. Later that day, I opened an email from my mom and saw a photo of my beautiful boy in a hat and dress.
Since he didn’t want to make any more phone calls, I kept emailing him. His replies varied, and the occasional emails I received were difficult for any father to read.
“You failed me so I don’t need you anymore,” he once wrote. “Just leave me alone.”
My love for my son was unconditional, but it wasn’t enough to keep me clean. It was selfish to be arrested and left to fend for himself, an unthinkable act of devotion that cut him to the core. I know this because he told me.
He told me with unanswered letters and when he ignored my videograms. He told me with curses he’d typed into emails expressing his anger at a dead father who chose drugs over his son. He told me with the years of silence that followed those emails.
The harshness of prison paled in comparison to the existential crisis of missing my child who was growing older. When he got a scholarship to play soccer in college, I told everyone I knew. “I taught my boy to play,” I boasted.
When his junior college’s Division I team went to the NJCAA championship game this year and lost, he played ahead of other dads. Thousands watched him for as long as I could imagine, staring at a photograph of a young man I barely recognized.
Years had turned my child into a man. His face, once round with crooked teeth, was now square and handsome with a perfect smile. His hair went from brown to strawberry blonde as his shoulders broadened and his confidence grew. He had a new freckle on his neck. A friend I had never met.
After seven years and three months I will be released at the end of the year. I spend every day connecting with D. I know now that I didn’t leave my son because I don’t love him; On the contrary, sometimes it feels like I love him more than myself. The irony is that when I was a terrible parent I had every chance to raise him right. But now that I’m finally focusing on my recovery and becoming a good person, my boy wants nothing to do with me.
However, things can change. I know this because my own father and I made up while I was in prison. Although my father recently passed away, we spent the last few years of his life making weekly video visits, which I have come to appreciate.
I’ll make up with my own son someday because I’m fixated on reconnecting. If he accepts me back into his life, we will be able to get to know each other again.
I missed his high school graduation, but I’ll be in the stands when he graduates from college. I haven’t met his first girlfriend, but I will be there for his wedding and the birth of his first child. Even though I couldn’t cheer for his college football game, next year we’re going to go to an Eagles football game and rant from the stands.
If one day he breaks down and yells at me for not growing up in his life, I’ll be in his life to hear it, happier than any man in the world to be yelled at by his son. No matter how hard it gets for us, I believe we will heal the pain and never be apart again.
Ryan M. Moser is recovering from his drug addiction and serving a burglary sentence in Florida. His work has been published in dozens of literary journals and news outlets. Ryan received an honorable mention in non-fiction from PEN America in 2020. He is from Philadelphia and is the father of two children.