With her 18-year-old daughter in a jail cell for stealing, one chance encounter in the bathroom of an Atlanta detention center changes everything about the choices we second guess when it all goes wrong.
Let’s start here: my 18-year-old daughter was arrested for shoplifting.
When you learn that your daughter has been arrested for a stupid crime — a crime made even stupider for the fact that she turned 18 just three days prior — you either cry or scream, right? I nearly always choose tears.
But somehow I didn’t cry. I heard the lady robot voice say the word “inmate” through the phone — it sounds exactly like the intro to Serial, by the way — and I didn’t cry. I drove without tears to the Atlanta City Detention Center in the freezing cold to pick her up. When the bored lady behind the counter turned her computer monitor so that I could see my daughter’s mugshot, she offered the commentary, “She need a whoopin’”, and I didn’t cry. I left her there overnight. I came back to the empty house, numb. I didn’t cry.
A friend who works as a prosecutor for the city advised me that showing up in court the next morning would go a long way toward leniency. I didn’t cry when I watched my baby, the child who made me a mother, come into the courtroom in handcuffs and red scrubs. Standing before the judge, I played the role of the distraught but remorseful single mom flawlessly, without a single tear. As the hours between the court appearance and her release from jail dragged on, I started to wonder if maybe this was the tipping point, the Thing That Happened That Finally Dried Up All the Tears. I wondered if maybe there just weren’t any left.
After passing through the metal detector at the Atlanta City Detention Center, I’d had to place two quarters in a pitiful little locker and lock up my phone to enter the waiting area. I’d forgotten to bring something to read, so I sat in the ugly plastic chair with only Steve Harvey on mute to distract me. I gave up hope of any good people watching because it turns out that the overwhelming majority of people released from the city jail walk right out the door alone. For most inmates, no one is waiting to take them home for a shower and a hot meal and a “what the hell were you thinking?”
“Was it that I had been so stubborn about not giving her a bottle that she’d starved while she learned to breastfeed? Had I deprived her tiny brain of nutrients?”
The afternoon wore on and my mind wandered. Was it that I had been so stubborn about not giving her a bottle that she’d starved while she learned to breastfeed? Had I deprived her tiny brain of nutrients? Was it that I hadn’t fought hard enough for the special services she needed? Was it that we didn’t have religion? Was it that we’d gotten divorced? Was it that my genetic You’re Not the Boss of Me Syndrome had been passed on to my oldest child? Was it that she did, in fact, need a whoopin’? Lots and lots of whoopin’s?
As my mind wandered, I started to crack. The tears that wouldn’t come suddenly began welling up inside. Welling so fast and so hard that it was like the ocean roaring in my ears. I briefly imagined my tears swallowing up every plastic chair in the room, the salty water rising and rising ‘til people and furniture and iPhones — freed from their lockers — bobbed on the surface. I got up and hurried to the ladies room, trying to look cool and not like a woman seconds from losing her mind.
In the safety and quiet, the tears became more insistent to be released. The ladies room at the Atlanta City Detention Center is exactly like you picture it, exactly as dark and cold and depressing as you think. I looked at myself in the dirty mirror and thought the word “haggard” seemed about right. I said out loud, “Stop. STOP. Get yourself together,” as I blotted my eyes with a rough brown paper towel. I turned to leave just as a girl I’d seen earlier pushed through the door. She was every Fox News trope come to life: a pregnant teenager in a black hoodie and pajama pants, whiling away the hours in a jailhouse waiting room.
Softly, sweetly, she tilted her head and asked, “You ok?”
I sort of chuckled and said that it had just been a really long day.
With an openness I can’t even comprehend, she asked, “You need a hug?”
Wearily chuckling again, I cast down my eyes and said, “No. Thanks,” and reached for the door. But before I could stop myself from saying it, I turned back to her and said, “You know what? I do. I do need a hug.”
“And then she wrapped me in her arms. She wrapped me up and held me while the tidal wave gathered strength and broke through everything I’d used to hold it back.”
And then she wrapped me in her arms. She wrapped me up and held me while the tidal wave gathered strength and broke through everything I’d used to hold it back. I sobbed freely. Sobbed for all of it: sitting alone on New Year’s Eve waiting for my baby to get out of jail, sobbed for all the times I couldn’t get through to her, sobbed for all the times people judged the way I parented her, sobbed for the fact that inside every mother is a scared kid who needs to be hugged and told it’s going to be okay.
I backed off a bit as I realized the hug had gone on awkwardly too long, and said, “I’m getting snot on your shirt!”
She never wavered, never released her hold, and just kept hugging me, softly saying, “This is a rough place to be, huh?”
I thanked her and we went back to our spots in the waiting room, she sitting beside her two friends and me sitting by myself near the counter, growing quietly impatient as the hours dragged on. (Jail isn’t really a place where you complain about poor customer service.) Eventually, the boy my friend had been waiting for was released. She hugged him and they made their way toward the door. The girl’s eyes scanned the room until they met mine. She waved and smiled, her eyes telling me it was all going to be okay.
A few minutes later, my daughter was released. There were no hugs; I had a point to prove. But we came home and we ate and we talked. She was appropriately remorseful and we cried and we eventually laughed that this would be the way we’d always recall the last night of the undeniably shitty year 2014.
Lying in bed that night, I thought back to the girl in the bathroom. And I realized that I had received grace. I’m not a Christian, but I’ve read enough Flannery O’Connor stories to be captivated by the concept of grace: the free and unmerited bestowal of blessing. “Unmerited” is the part that pushes on the tenderest part of my heart. I didn’t do anything to deserve that hug. And for that moment it didn’t matter. The girl in the bathroom gave her blessing freely and for a moment, it was enough just to be human.
She’ll be a great mom.