The jangling of the chains between his feet matches the rattling in my heart. I feel each beat viscerally as he shuffles in without meeting our eyes. We are the only ones in the room not there to build a case against him. I stare at the back of his head, willing it to turn our way, knowing it wont. His blue jumpsuit reads DJJ in faded white, and Adam and I clasp hands as his probation officer recommends him sent back to the Department of Juvenile Justice. The judge quickly agrees, barely even pausing long enough to look intently at the fifteen year old chained before him. And just like that it’s over. I silently thank Jesus that we didn’t have to be the ones to utter the no we had been agonizing over for days. The guard recognizes us from last time, and meets our eyes with a sympathetic smile, letting us talk to our Sabo (which really isn’t allowed he whispers). When Sabo turns towards us, his eyes flash the hurt and anger that war for his heart, and I long to gather him in a hug and whisper that we are still here. That we aren’t going anywhere. But when Adam tells him this very thing, he shakes his head and says he never wants to see us again. In my head I know the words bubble from the fear beneath, from the fifteen-year-old part of his heart and brain trying to process his future with bravado and swagger. And yet. My heart breaks raw and he still wont meet my eye.
We walk out of the courtroom, smiling shakily at the other families whose curiosity burns in their stares. We quickly confer and agree we will go to the jail anyways, even if he refuses to see us. We will just keep showing up every week. For as long as it takes.
His probation officer chatters at us excitedly about the fastest commitment he’s ever gotten. He pauses long enough to notice my pouty lip and remind me that he already gave Sabo far more chances than he should have, that there’s nothing we could have done. That our years and shared last names mean nothing in the eyes of the court. We march back down a sun-drenched-hallway that dances with the shadows of the birds flitting past, and I think of their freedom as Sabo shuffles back to prison in chains.
I write Sabo a letter. Because in person his narrowed eyes that flit over my face without seeing me, and his shrugging shoulders and refusal to hug, they make me nervous and unsure. But when I put pen to paper and think of who Sabo really is, I can remember and hold fast to the fifteen-year-old who is really more broken-hearted-boy than the bravado and frame he inhabits might lead me to believe. Tomorrow, I will mail it along with the picture Jayci drew him, though I don’t really even know if he will ever see them. It turns out that I navigate the whole prison-thing poorly, a result perhaps of my shaky fear of rule-breaking and getting in trouble. So when we show up for visitation and they tell me to change my pants and pat me down, I feel inexplicably nervous, and extra apologetic for not knowing that we should bring change to buy him snacks.
Last time we visited, we sat across, but not before I hugged him tight. This time we scrounged together change, proud that we know this now. We buy Hot Fries and Sprite without him asking, because we know. The guards wonder, he says, why we have the same last name. We laugh when he relays the fact that he told them Adam was his real dad and they just stared at him in disbelief. He reminds us, the day before his trial, that he doesn't want to live with us because we will make him go to school and stay in the house at night. We agree with his assessment, and ask where he would go, if he could hypothetically go anywhere. He tells us he just wants to go back to his corner; to the drug house they pulled him out of not even ten days earlier. And I am reminded that freedom hinges on more than whether or not we sit behind bars.
My eyes scan the room; the inmates wear faded blue jumpsuits and tennis shoes, or orange jumpsuits with sandals for those who threaten escape. Saviour says they in fact just let him out of the orange-suit after he drew up some fake escape plans. I glimpse the real Saviour during our visit, if only briefly tucked beneath his nonchalance and carefully-worded tales. I wonder about all the other boys, try to trace their stories in the tattoos on their necks and their afros and the lone light-skinned-red-head in the bunch. Context breeds grace, and I know from experience that every single one of them can be defined as far more than just a juvenile delinquent. In their complex identities, they become more than numbers, the truth of them looms far more important than even the most sobering statistics.
And I want to give Sabo wings, so he can fly free; rising unfettered from the ashes of his mother’s death, of his bad choices, of the drug trade and get-rich-quick promises, of his gang, his “partnas,” and every single thing that keeps him from freedom. Because rest assured, they run far deeper and stronger than the barbed wire fence and barred windows that encircle him today.
In birthing children, whether from our wombs or our hearts, we make ourselves vulnerable to hurt and disappointment, but also to joy and the kind of hope that only comes entwined with pain. I see flashes of this hope in the faces surrounding me, the hands clasped across plastic folding chairs, the kids who slouch and only reluctantly accept the proffered Hot Fries, and the ones who sit in their cells pretending not to care that no one visits. It is hope and grace that will give them wings, and grow beauty in the ashes of the stories that have led them to this place.