Would it be the Best of Times or Worst of Times?

– It’s time for visits. Inmates take visiting days very seriously. Most guys keep a spare uniform that is pressed and sharp just for visits. They want to look as good as they can for their loved ones, many of whom have driven hours and spent hard earned money to get here.

This last weekend was my first visit. Kristin, Andrew and Kate were going to make the trek out to Lewisburg. I too was excited, but also quite nervous and pensive. I wasn’t sure what to expect. My family had never seen me “in federal prison.” What would they think? Would it wonderful to be with me or unbearable for them? Would we enjoy our time together or would our emotions overcome us all? Would it be a time to share with each other or would it be forced and artificial? In short, would it be the best of times or the worst of times?

There’s good reason to feel nervous. Despite all the excitement of visits, I have noticed that visiting day is the providence of those with shorter sentences. It becomes obvious that inmates that have been ‘down’ (incarcerated) for longer periods have fewer visits. Time just might be the strongest physical force in the universe and time erodes everything, including relationships. Given enough years, friends move on, parents get older, kids grow up, and wives find new love. They say the half-life of a marriage is about three years in prison. In other words, after three years half of all marriages will fail. After six years seventy-five percent will have failed and by the end of a decade only a very small portion will have survived. After several years many people find themselves alone in the world.

On Friday afternoon, the day before their arrival, I spent the afternoon with an iron and ironing board trying to make my khaki uniform something I would have been proud of in the Navy. I cleaned my shoes. I even attempted to shave for the first time since being here but managed to hack my neck with the single-blade Bic razor that was issued to me at check in. I need to upgrade my razor. It may seem silly, but I really wanted to present as good of an image as I could.

I had coordinated with Kristin over the past week to arrange timing and details. We had made plans that she would arrive at 11:00 AM on Saturday morning. Despite our detailed plans I was still nervous and had her send me an email as she left the house that morning. Sure enough, at 7:24 she sent an email. Six minutes ahead of schedule. Check.

Of course by 9:45 AM I couldn’t stand the wait any longer and called her on her cell phone anyway. “Hey, just checking that you’re still on track?” For good measure I added, “You’re using GPS right?” Military invasions have been launched with less planning and double-checking.

At 10:45 AM, dressed in my fresh-pressed khakis, I made way toward the administration building where the visiting area is located. I took my place on the wooden benches in the hallway with half a dozen other guys waiting for people that love them.

After what seemed like hours of waiting the CO (correctional officer) came out and called, “Bryson?” I leapt from my seat and headed toward a small anteroom off of the visiting area.

“ID.” I handed him my ID card.

After a quick entry into the logbook he said, “Arms out.”

Then, he conducted a quick search. As I walked through the door and into the visiting area the room seemed to be exploding with the sound of laughter, kids running around and conversation. Sounds I had not heard for several weeks. There were maybe 100 people at tables and sitting in chairs visiting, playing board games and holding their small babies. I scanned the large room for Kristin and the kids. I didn’t see them? My heart beat faster and I momentarily thought, “They must be lost on the highway. Maybe the car broke down?”

But, as I walked deeper into the room, dodging small children at my knees, I caught a vision of them through the crowd.

The sun might as well been focusing its entire energy just on them. The rest of the room faded into the background and ceased to exist.

We hugged, we kissed, and then, yes, dust must have gotten into my eyes, because I cried. Of course this completely blew my hard-earned tough-guy prison reputation.

A wave of emotion washed over me. It might have been the most joyous moment of my life. Not the kind of happiness you feel most days — that’s just contentment disguised as happiness. Seeing them for the first time in weeks was something deep. Something you feel physically in your gut. Something primordial. Pure happiness and joy.

I wonder if we, as a society, often confuse contentment with happiness? We chase contentment all the time. Great vacations. Great meals. Nice cars and homes. These things make us content and make us feel good. But, they certainly don’t give us true joy. That type of happiness comes from our deep relationships with those we love — our trusting friends, our family, and our God, and even ourselves.

I am entirely confident that I will never again confuse simple contentment with true joy.

We spent the next two days catching up on recent events, talking about my life here at Lewisburg, talking about their life in Ridgefield, playing cards, and just being together as a family. We sat at a simple picnic table in the hot August sun and just had the chance to be a family for a few hours.

There were more tears when the second day came to an end. But, for me they were as much tears of anticipation of our next visit as they were tears of sadness. In the end, it was the best of times. Far from artificial. It was real. As real as life gets.

After they left the building to drive back to their busy lives, I slowly walked back to the dorm unit and lost myself in fiction for the rest of the evening.

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