by Amber Hunter Jesse
My mom really loved my dad, and I think he really did try to love her back. Together, they brought me and my big brother Cliff into the world, and they wanted to make us a happy family.
But our family broke and fell to pieces.
I cried my eyes out on their bed, as mom told us she was divorcing him. I was only eight years old. I understand now that she couldn’t live anymore with his unwillingness to get the help he needed for his depression and mental illness. He often stayed home while she worked full-time at the courthouse and we were dropped off at mediocre babysitters, the only one’s mom could afford.
When I was 11, my mom cried as she told me that my dad would be spending the rest of his life in prison. He had shot a man to death. I remember my young and puzzled brain, trying to make sense of it. I think I went into survival mode. My immediate response was, “It doesn’t matter. I’m fine. He was nothing but a sperm donor to me.” Looking back, I can see that I was traumatized. My mom was limited in her understanding and ability to walk us through a healthy, healing process. She tried to bring it up throughout the years, but I had made it an “off-limits” topic. I was ashamed and terrified that people would find out that I was the daughter of a murderer. “Anguish” isn’t too strong a word to describe how I felt realizing I had lost my dad forever.
In the middle of my senior year of high school, my mom was diagnosed with a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. In other words, cancer. She died only four months later. I remember a conversation we had maybe a month before. She said, “Amber, there will be times in your life when you think, ‘I wish my mom was here,’ but I want you to know that I already know. I already know that you’ll do so many amazing things in your life.”
Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey! After graduating from college and spending a very inspiring summer in Pemba Mozambique, I was invited to move into Downtown Phoenix , to start community of people called “Apprenticeship to Jesus, (A2J for short).” These past eight years, we’ve tried to walk closely together, on a common path into the beautiful heart of Jesus. I’m so thankful for how God has surprised me with this miracle of community! It’s been a safe harbor where I’ve consistently felt known and cared for, and where I’ve had a sense that I belong. Our shared life has also been a place of transformation; we’ve come to understand that relationships are the context where God matures, heals, and forms us in Love.
When I moved into the A2J community I was very passionate about Jesus, but I was also more injured than I knew. I was limping, spiritually and emotionally. I was extremely sensitive and when a wound got touched I lashed out at the people who loved me the best. My A2J family supported me through a much-needed season of mourning. I pinned this large burlap cross above my bed and, for two solid months, I wept and ached in the presence of God. My community also gave me the courage to begin unpacking my painful places with a professional counselor. Over these years, I’ve experienced significant growth and heart-healing that, upon reflection, causes me to gasp in amazement.
What’s even more amazing is that my brother Cliff decided to jump on board! Cliff is one of my best friends and one of my very favorite people. You should see him! The love of God has completely transformed him, along with his beautiful wife and kids. It’s been a dramatic and beautiful thing to behold.
Four years ago, my brother called me up and said “Amber, I think it’s time for us to go visit our dad.”
We had reconnected with our dad through letters, but we’d never gone to see him in prison.
I knew Cliff was right, it was time. So, we sent him a postcard to let him know we were coming and, before hearing anything back from him, we drove the eighteen hours to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas to visit our dad for the first time. We hadn’t seen his face or heard his voice in over fifteen years.
My heart was pounding as I sat at that picnic table waiting for him to come. His letters had revealed significant mental illness and instability, so we had no idea if he would even come out, or how he would respond to us. Would he be angry or overwhelmed? Would he say strange things? I wasn’t even sure how he felt about me. Would we hug? Would that feel weird?
I looked up and saw a frail inmate in an all-white jumpsuit. He had grey hair, and he was unfamiliar. “Well, that’s not him,” I whispered to my brother. But as he came a bit closer, Cliff leaned over and said, “that is him!”
When our eyes met, my dad gave a hesitant smile. I found myself jumping out of my seat as he sped his own steps. We threw our arms around each other and I said, “Hi dad.”
As tears welled up in his eyes, my dad said, “do you remember the last time I saw you? I’ve replayed it over and over in my mind. I just can’t remember if I hugged you… if I told you that I love you.”
Our visit inspired me to write a song called Freedom Road.
It’s been a long road, learning what it means to forgive my dad for all the ways he wasn’t there for me when I needed him. I’m still learning to trust God with my dad. This process has opened my heart and allowed love to grow and to blossom.
Since then, our dad has sent me a lot of his amazing original artwork, and I’ve created art books that I’ve sent back to him. He said to me “they’re the best gifts I’ve ever received and that comes right from the center of my heart!” As I sort through all his creations, I feel so proud of him and thankful that we've found this way to collaborate and make something beautiful together.
I cannot imagine the pain of spending life in prison, let alone with his serious mental illness, and in one of the harshest prisons in America. He's starting to become more open with me, even sending a drawing of the inside of his cell. Art helps this dad and his kids to connect.
Last month, my brother and I went back for a second visit. It went beyond our hopes.
We arrived on the rare picture day and were able to get a photo with our dad! I was so excited! We didn’t even think that was possible.
Our dad has the sweetest smile. Cliff says that it’s his favorite thing about our visits. This time, dad shared stories from his childhood that made our hearts hurt, and helped us to understand him so much more. He sang for us a new song he had written. Yep, it turns out all three of us are songwriters! His song was gentle and emotional, and his tears made his chin quiver as he sang. He said it was the best visit ever, and that he felt like “a free man, outside of the fences.” We all agreed together that God is restoring so much in our family.
As we were leaving, and he was headed back to his cell, I got this urge and I ran back over to give him
another hug. It caught him off guard, and he smiled.
We left that prison with a mix of joy and sorrow in our hearts.
I remember my mom’s words. “Amber, there will be times in your life when you think, ‘I wish my mom was here,’ but I want you to know that I already know. I already know that you’ll do so many amazing things in your life.”
I feel an ache as I read those words.
I wish my mom was here to see this photo.