*Featured Artwork: “Yearning for Spring” by Elisa Peterson
It was a cloudless May morning in 1996 when Danny drove the girls to school for the last time. We’d waited two years for this day. Since his arrest in 1994, our lives had been consumed by discussions about the lawyer’s advice, the psychiatrist’s evaluations, managing the pending bankruptcy, and our home foreclosure. And, most difficult of all, how to prepare the children. The waiting was unnerving. Alli asked almost daily when Daddy would go to jail. For a second-grader, jail was something imagined from cartoons. We did little to dispel her beliefs.
I waited at home and when he returned he told me that after pulling up in front of the high school Julia hugged him hard, letting him know that despite everything she remained proud of him. He was choking on his words as he described her heartbreaking farewell. I thought it was remarkable that she was proud of her father who was about to go to jail even if I understood she was proud of the loving father he had been all the years of her life. She was also proud of the dad who had been in recovery for the past two years and continued to support his daughters, accompanying them to school events and helping with homework. Finally, Julia was proud of him for taking responsibility for his actions and stoically facing imprisonment. But, for me, these same two years had been exhausting and now that the day of reckoning had finally arrived, I felt an uneasy relief. It had been tough to carry on the ordinary aspects of daily life while the reality of prison loomed in the distance like a storm ready to flatten everything in its path.
Danny and I spent the morning running errands for the practical aspects of spending the next few years in jail. We visited LensCrafters for sturdy eyeglasses to replace his wireframes, hoping the thick plastic will hold up if someone’s fist happens to knock them off his face. We had lunch at his favorite burger place, knowing it would be a long time before he tasted chopped sirloin or enjoyed an overloaded plate of French fries. We took the dog for a walk on a quiet wooded trail while Dan said what he had said many times before―I am sorry and I love you. And then, we returned home. We slipped in a few CDs and played Kathy Mattea’s, Life as We Knew It―a song we enjoyed when we vacationed at a dude ranch. Her lyrics, “this is the end of life as we knew it…I still can’t believe we threw it away” resonated in a particularly meaningful way that morning. We followed this by listening to our wedding song, Bridge Over Troubled Water suggesting our younger selves at twenty-three were able to see potential disaster on the horizon. We held one another, swaying to the sound of sad songs and spilling tears for the opportunities lost while Danny acted recklessly and chased misguided visions of success and I tagged along, hoping beyond hope that it would all work out in the end.
In the weeks leading to that day, we weighed the possibilities and discussed the far-reaching hope that the judge might allow him to pay his debt to society through an alternate sentencing arrangement with the promise of community service.
“So, I think there’s a good chance I won’t have to go to jail.” Dan announced one evening as I was brushing my teeth and getting ready for bed.
“Really, you think you’ll get off? You won’t be sentenced?” That didn’t seem very plausible, but as he and I discussed, prison didn’t make sense for financial crimes. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to work and to pay back the people from whom he embezzled rather than wasting away in prison? The alternate sentencing possibility brought him comfort to consider. He liked thinking about serving time at home with an ankle bracelet.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. I agreed that jail is a bad place. Bad things happen to people in jail and it is rarely rehabilitative. I questioned then as now if prison serves society or the incarcerated. Prison isn’t structured to improve an individual’s character, and in fact, many people leave prison angrier, more aggressive and less able to live within society’s expectations of independent housing and income, particularly when those expectations are biased without support for mental health.
Despite my intellectual understanding, I secretly wanted him to leave. I wanted the chance to reset my life and that could only happen if he was gone. Of course, I wouldn’t say that, and I felt ashamed for thinking it. The whole idea that I wanted him to leave challenged my belief about love. Did I love Danny, and if I did, how could I want him to leave, worse, go to jail? And if I didn’t love Danny, how did I remain married to him for twenty years? Did I love him once, and at some point, stopped loving him? I didn’t remember that happening. What is love? I knew as a loyal wife who presumably loved her husband, I should have wanted him home where he could be a part of his daughters’ lives and my own. And yet, the truth was I wanted him to leave.
“Yeah, Greene says that I need to get everyone I know to write a letter to the judge, testifying to my character, to all the good things that I’ve done. We need letters from Bruce and Rick about being a soccer coach and making a difference in the lives of kids in our town. I have clients who I’ve helped, and they can write letters, and of course, you need to write a statement to read in court about how sending me to jail will deprive our kids of their father during a critical time in their development.”
“Okay, Sure. I’ll write a letter to everyone to ask them to write the judge. And I’ll write a statement. We have a few months so there’s time. Let’s try to get some sleep and talk more about this later.” I turned off the light and got into bed. Danny left the room to wander the hallways of our home.
It’s possible, I thought, that after Judge Garcia heard testimony from a woman Dan counseled during a difficult divorce, or a friend he supported when that friend was on the verge of homelessness, she would be generous. I considered the possibility that his sentence would amount to only a few months of jail time. While he harbored optimistic thoughts, his lawyer warned him not to expect leniency. He mentioned the possibility that Dan could be sentenced to eight years, ten, or even twenty years. Twenty years seemed incomprehensibly cruel, exacerbating my guilt for wishing he was gone.
I wrote my statement. In it, I reminded the court that the man they were about to convict had been an active community member and an excellent father and husband (even if there were times when I could not stand the sound of his breathing). I detailed the late nights spent reviewing history papers with his daughter and other times he comforted a sick child when her vomiting threatened to cause my own. I wrote that he had been sober for nearly two years and in that time rebuilt his life. I didn’t mention the time he was so intoxicated he awoke in the night to pee onto our radiator, mistaking it for the toilet. I did say he is not the same man who committed those crimes, who stole money from client funds, who wholeheartedly believed he was building a business that would one day be outrageously successful thus paying back the money he was only “borrowing.” Finally, I pleaded with the judge because his daughters needed him. They were young and sending their father to jail put them at risk for any number of conditions. Certainly, the judge knew this as well as anyone. Children of incarcerated parents experience social and psychological problems that can lead to their own criminal activity in the years to come.
Danny and I drove together to the Hartford courtroom. He sat with his attorney, and I sat on a bench holding the hand of a girlfriend I’d known since childhood. We listened to statements by his former clients, both those robbed of savings and those Dan helped during his career. His forensic psychiatrist attested to his narcissistic personality disorder, hoping that would engender sympathy and provide a possible defense. The prosecuting attorney presented an effective case citing a woman made penniless by Dan’s actions, emphasizing he put his interests before his family. We listened to the defense Danny’s attorney presented.
It was my turn. I stood before the honorable judge and recited my prepared statement. It was intimidating. My voice was unsteady, my face flushed as I tried to save my children and husband from the consequences of incarceration. When I finished, I looked up at the judge, who regarded me with a mix of pity and pragmatism.
She stated, “I am sorry Mrs. Millstein for you and your children, but I cannot absolve your husband of his crime. Too often, men like him believe they are above the law and that narcissistic belief undermines their professions and ruins the lives of many innocent people who trust them with their life savings.”
On cue, the guards approached and cuffed Danny’s wrists behind his back. They led him to the exit and as he walked out of the courtroom, he turned to smile at me over his shoulder. I saw him mouth the words; I love you before the door closed behind him.
Outside the courthouse, I hugged my friends, one at a time. I felt like Dorothy when she said goodbye to her loyal companions before leaving Oz to return to dreary Kansas. A friend offered her condolences. “Oh Wendy, I’m so sorry.”
“Thanks, thanks for coming today.”
Another said, “Let us know what you need.” I promised to reach out. I said good-bye, thank you, see you soon, and thanks so much. My childhood friend, the one who held my hand, was crying the tears I felt too numb to release.
I drove home, alone. My daughters had arrived from school and were waiting to hear about what happened to Daddy. It was my job to tell them their father would be gone for the next three years and possibly more. He was sentenced to six years. That was the cost of embezzling 1.7 million dollars, even if the plan was to pay back every last cent, that is, as soon as the import business took off.
Friends brought pizza for dinner. They didn’t stay because they wanted to give our family privacy. Another brought a grocery bag of canned foods as if we were preparing for the end times. Alli asked if she could try the creamed corn. I’m sure the picture on the label of creamy, softly shaded yellow corn evoked a sensation of comfort. I heated it and placed it in a bowl before her. I left the kitchen and returned in a few minutes to find her sitting alone at the table, tears streaming down her face as she struggled to swallow the gelatinous mass. I moved to place my arm around her shoulder but she pushed back her chair and ran downstairs to her room to grieve her loss alone.
Our family had died. And, in many ways, this death was more grievous than the mortal death of a loved one: a parent, a father, a brother, or a spouse because those deaths are not accompanied by shame. Incarceration and the deeds that lead to it bring a lacerating shame that children often bear more than the culpable adults. In our case, the shame was exacerbated by our small-town, neatly-constructed environment that provided no hiding ground.
When the pretense of eating was abandoned, and three young girls were tucked in bed with the promise they would see their father within a few weeks, I went to my room and laid on the bed, staring at the ceiling. I was drained, not only from the day in court but from the months beforehand when Danny’s all-encompassing, overwhelming presence occupied every corner of my existence. I breathed in the awareness that I was alone―alone to make decisions, manage finances, and guide our children. I felt liberated. At least for a few hours before I woke to face a new day as a single parent, married to an inmate.
Truly meaningful. Thank you. I recently learned who my father’s biological parents were, and it turned out his bio father and bio grandfather had both been in prison. Your essay is a window into what they and their families experienced.