IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Dad Died in Prison Years Ago, but He Keeps Breaking My Heart

I love my dad. I hate my dad. I don't know if I ever knew my dad at all.
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Dese'Rae L. Stage
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I love my dad. I hate my dad. I don't know if I ever knew my dad at all.
Dese'Rae L. Stage

Dese'Rae L. Stage

My father died at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital on March 1, 2008 at 12:08 p.m. It was a Saturday. I opted to stay home and watch TV all day because I was in the midst of a months-long depression.

The phone rang the first time at 9:56 p.m. It was my mom. I knew to sit down even before I picked up and heard her sobbing on the other end. She never calls at night — unless there’s something wrong. I don’t really remember what she said, just that my dad was dead and she wanted to be the first to tell me.

The phone rang again at 9:59 p.m. I don’t know if my mom had already hung up and left me to wait for the call, or if they beeped through. The caller was a woman from one of the many correctional institutions he’d been transferred back and forth to over the two months prior, unbeknownst to me.

She told me that Marc A. Stage, inmate DC # 407861, had expired. In the next beat, she asked me if I’d like to claim the body.

--

CIRCUMSTANCES OF DEATH (per the autopsy report, received August 2008): Florida Department of Corrections inmate with known cirrhosis, hepatitis C, and end-stage liver failure. Admitted 2/26/08 to a Jacksonville hospital for altered mental status. Hospital diagnoses of end-stage liver disease with hepatic encephalopathy, ascites, coagulopathy, failed Denver shunt/TIPS placement attempts, and recent umbilical hernia surgery with wound dehiscence. Suffered cardiopulmonary arrest on 3/1/08 which did not respond to CPR/ACLS efforts.

--

His nickname was Bear. He was barrel-chested, rotund, with strong forearms. He wore his long, thin hair braided into a ponytail, and his hairline had receded enough that he always wore a baseball cap. He had a lion tattooed on his right arm (he was a Leo) and a skull with a Confederate flag and a banner that declared him “Southern born and bred” (no comment) on his left. His voice was deep and gruff, and he always called me “little girl,” no matter how I’d grown.

Dad, as he normally looked.

Dad, as he normally looked.

He had a good sense of humor, but he was an angry drunk, and drunk was how he stayed. Then, he was distrustful, prone to bar brawls. Smart, but not smart enough to stay out of trouble. An entrepreneur with little to show for his efforts. A womanizer. A rebel.

His moral compass, in general, was decidedly broken.

--

One of my first memories is of my dad throwing an alarm clock at my mom’s head. They broke up when I was two or so. They moved on, built new lives, and managed to, somehow, stay friends. She didn’t divorce him because she knew he’d be gone if forced to pay child support. He didn’t divorce her because it was an excuse not to marry any of his girlfriends.

He wasn’t around much, but I always knew to expect him for birthday parties and Christmas.

He’d occasionally show up on a Saturday morning and take me to the skating rink down the street. He taught me crossovers, scissors, how to skate backwards and turn around again, how to skate fast. He bought me my first pair of quads (a white pair of Carreras — I immediately regretted not asking for black ones) and I’d race around the rink like I was flying.

He moved to the Keys. I remember visiting him only once. We fed the deer on Big Pine Key. He had a pet raccoon that stood on its head in a dinner bowl.

--

By the time I was a teenager, he’d been in and out of jail regularly: possession of various substances, indecent exposure (this got him discharged from the military), grave robbery, assault, stalking, and a handful of DUIs.

He tried to touch my breasts once when I was 16. He said I was starting to look like my mother.

It was around this time that he stopped being my daddy and, instead, became a man I didn’t want to be left alone with.

--

When I was a senior in high school (I had two jobs and was in a high school/college dual enrollment program), I asked him for money to help pay for my prom dress. He told me to get another job. I paid for it myself, and instead of inviting him to my graduation, I wrote him a letter cutting all ties.

Dad and I, on the day I was born.

Dad and I, on the day I was born.

--

My mom is a firm believer in the psychic power of dreams (not to mention the magic of a mother’s intuition, which has, grudgingly, resulted in a “Mom was right” tattoo on my left ankle).

When I was about 20 years old, she called me one day to tell me that she’d had a dream: If I started speaking to my dad again, he’d finally agree to a divorce.

I called him, lying on the low-pile beige carpet in my barely furnished apartment, wrapping the long cord around my fingers, unwrapping, wrapping.

Highlights sans long, awkward pauses: I told him I was gay. He told me he’d been diagnosed with hepatitis C (he’d been put on the transplant list for a new liver at the VA) and bipolar disorder (this became a key piece of information in the puzzle of my struggles with my mental health).

--

I made a trip back home to Miami just after my 21st birthday. Since I was newly minted to drink legally, my mom, dad, and godmother (the latter two of which I hadn’t seen in several years) took me dancing at a biker dive in Homestead. It had an exceptional jukebox.

My mom threw out her hip teaching my girlfriend how to dance (“the roll”). My dad offered to help me buy a car. That never happened. He gave her the divorce, though.

--

I saw him again a year later, just after I’d graduated from college. It was Christmastime. He handed me a folded sheet of lined paper with a scrawled note telling me how proud he was and $200 tucked inside. He had a black eye. Another bar brawl. I took a photo (it’s the last one in existence, if you don’t count the mugshots).

The last photo I took of my dad.

The last photo I took of my dad.

My graduation note.

My graduation note.

A month later, he was arrested for a DUI and possession of a firearm. When I heard the news, I remember thinking, good riddance.

He was taken off the VA’s transplant list.

--

I found out that his health was in a state of rapid decline in September of 2007. We hadn’t spoken in two years. It took me weeks, but I wrote him a letter — out of guilt or fear or some other mix of emotions I still haven’t properly processed.

He was more sympathetic on paper, coloring himself to be more than just a drunk with a history of [mostly] petty crimes under his belt. We found common ground in our mutual interests in religion and philosophy, our tendencies toward introspection, our resentment of U.S. political policies (albeit his views were far more radical than mine).

He talked about moving to an island when he got out, about anarchy, about how he’d been studying the law.

--

I visited him at FCI Miami, a minimum-security federal prison most famous for housing Manuel Noriega, on Christmas Day.

I was paralyzed with anxiety about what I might say to him, so I arrived later in the afternoon. I’d visited various prisons before, but always as a kid, and I didn’t realize how long the initial wait would be, or how long it would take to go through security (metal detector, extensive pat down). I was advised to leave everything but my ID and keys in the car. I followed those instructions to the letter.

By the time I finally sat down in the grungy, fluorescent-lit cafeteria and my dad came through the door from the holding area, we had less than an hour to talk.

It was then that I knew, without a doubt, that it was coming.

The man I sat across from was not the man I’d known all my life. He was gaunt and subdued. His hair was short, eyes sunken in. The cords stood out on his neck. His liver was failing and his belly was distended, pregnant with fluid that was building up much more quickly than it could be drained with the shoddy care he was receiving.

I remember two things about our conversation: he was simultaneously impressed that I had tattoos and confused about my aesthetic choices in them (valid: I had a gaggle of bloody stick figures on my arm at the time); and he never once acknowledged that he was dying.

An inmate circled the room with a Polaroid, tasked with taking photos of inmates with their families (in exchange for cash, of course).

My dad said, “Did you bring money?” I hadn’t.

I never saw him again.

--

I received a letter on January 8, 2008. It was short. He said that seeing me at Christmas was the best present he could have gotten; that I'd grown into a beautiful young woman with questionable taste in tattoo art; and he expressed curiosity at whether he'd ever become a grandfather.

When I didn’t hear from him by the end of February, I started to worry. I went to the Florida Department of Corrections Inmate Population Search and typed in his name. The only change to his profile was a new mugshot that reflected the man I met on Christmas Day. I figured that, if something was seriously wrong, someone would surely call me.

His final mugshot.

His final mugshot.

--

My father died alone, handcuffed to his hospital bed. There was no one to comfort him; no goodbyes, no closure, just a million questions left unanswered. He was 45 years old.

I was his next of kin. The Department of Corrections never once called to inform me of his status — not until 10 hours after his death, anyway, when he was reduced to a six-digit number and a body to claim, should I so choose.

I negotiated the bureaucracy of his death via the indifferent vehicle of the Florida correctional system: I authorized his autopsy. I signed his body away to be cremated (the other option was to leave him with the state, where they’d bury him in an unmarked grave). I arranged to have his few possessions sent to me.

I wrote his obituary.

A month later, my mom and I flew down to Miami. We picked up my paternal grandmother and one of my father’s ex-loves and drove his ashes through the Keys to the old Seven Mile Bridge (only after, of course, my mom missed the turnoff and we had to drive over the new Seven Mile Bridge — which I am terrified of — not once, but twice, in order to get back), where we threw them into the ocean. In one of the more surreal moments of my life, the ashes lingered around the flowers we’d thrown in with them, just long enough for me to take a photo, before dissipating.

--

I want to be clear that my father was not a parent to me. He didn’t raise me. He didn’t feed, clothe, or discipline me. He didn’t help with my homework or come to my various band concerts. And he certainly didn’t contribute to my belief system or principles. When I refer to my parents, I’m talking about the power trio of my mom and maternal grandparents.

He was 50 percent of my genetics — little more — and yet, I was (and occasionally still am) struck with grief at his loss. It’s a complicated grief, as they all are, but confused by years of anger, intermittent silence, and, near the end, a softness I never expected could be possible.

After we spread his ashes.

After we spread his ashes.

--

Three weeks after my father’s death, I was out drinking at a bar on the Upper East Side of New York City, then my new home. I was with a friend who knew the bartender, so I felt safe leaving my bag hanging on my chair when I went outside to smoke a cigarette (clear rookie move).

It was gone when I came back. I lost my camera, my ID and credit cards, and most importantly, my journal, which held every letter my dad had written me in those final few months.

I posted a Craigslist ad. “Keep everything else, but please return the journal,” it said. That never happened.

--

Now, I celebrate Father’s Day every year with a small group of friends who know that same pain. We call it Dead Dad Brunch. We drink away the afternoon, and I toast over and over to a man I barely knew.

--

In The Miami Herald, Sunday, March 9, 2008:

MARC ANDREW STAGE, affectionately known as "Bear," 45, of Marathon, FL, passed away March 1, 2008 at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital after a severe long-term illness. A former U.S. Air Force Airman and U.M. student, he settled into life running his successful underwater hull-cleaning business, Bear Divin'. Soon to make a triumphant return to the ocean he so loved, he is survived by his daughter, Dese'Rae Stage; his mother; his long-time friend and ex-spouse; and his siblings.