Picture Day at Polunsky Prison
I hadn’t seen my dad’s face or heard his voice since I was a kid
My mom loved my dad, and I think he really did try to love her back. Together, they brought me and my brother into the world, and they wanted to make us a happy family.
But our family broke and fell to pieces.
I sobbed as my mom told us she was divorcing him. I was eight years old. I understand now that she couldn’t live anymore with his unwillingness to get the help he needed for his mental illness. He stayed home while she worked full-time at the courthouse. We were dropped off at mediocre babysitters — the only ones our mom could afford.
When I was eleven, 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 went into survival mode, and told her, “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 me through a process of healing. She tried to bring it up throughout the years, but I had made it an off-limits topic.
I was ashamed and terrified that the kids at school would find out 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 just four months later. I remember a conversation we had 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 amazing things in your life.”
Since then, I’ve been on quite a journey.
After graduating from college, I was invited to move to Downtown Phoenix, to help start an intentional community. That beautiful little community became a safe harbor where I was known and loved.
In my early 20’s, I was bright-eyed and passionate, but I was also more injured than I knew. I was limping in all the ways— mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
I was extremely sensitive and when an unhealed wound got triggered, I lashed out at the people I was closest to. When my behavior led to the end of a significant relationship, a flood of raw, agonizing pain erupted in my heart.
Friends in my community encouraged me to take a much-needed season to mourn and heal. They even supported me financially so I could take time off work, and start unpacking my story with a professional counselor.
I pinned a large burlap cross above my bed and for two months I wept and ached in the presence of God. I lost 15 pounds because I couldn’t eat. I tossed and turned through the night, begging God to fill what felt like a gaping chasm that spanned the full length of my torso.
And somehow, right there in the middle of all that pain, I felt held and loved and protected. Everything seemed more vivid and sacred. My soul began to heal.
That process became a catalyst for restoring my relationship with my dad.
A few years ago, my brother Cliff called me and said “Amber, I think it’s time for us to go visit our dad.”
We had written to him and received some cryptic letters back, 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, 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 my dad to come. His letters had revealed significant mental 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 with gray hair. He was wearing an all-white jumpsuit. “Well, that’s not him,” I whispered. But as he came a bit closer, my brother 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 steps. We threw our arms around each other.
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.”
On the long drive home, I started writing a song to process some of the intense emotions crashing inside. It’s called Freedom Road.
And it really has 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. Forgiveness doesn’t minimize the wrong that was done. Instead, it acknowledges that, ultimately, I’m not my dad’s judge and I can release him to God, who is both completely just and merciful.
Forgiveness has opened my heart. I love my dad so much!
My dad, James Hunter, is an artist. He sends me his creations and I turn them into art books that I send 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 his many works of art, I feel proud of him and thankful that we’ve found this way to collaborate and make beautiful things together.
I can’t imagine the pain of spending life in prison, let alone with serious mental struggles and in one of the toughest prisons in America. He’s starting to become more open with me, even sending a drawing of the inside of his cell.
My brother and I went back for a second visit, and it went beyond our hopes. We arrived on the rare picture day and were able to get a photo with our dad. I didn’t even think that was possible.
Our dad has a sweet smile. Cliff says that it’s his favorite thing about our visits. This time, dad shared some sad stories from his childhood. He sang for us a song he had written. Yep, it turns out all three of us are songwriters. His voice was gentle and his tears made his chin quiver.
He said it was the best visit ever, and that he felt like “a free man, outside of the fences.”
As we were leaving, and he was headed back to his cell, I got the urge to run back and give him another hug. It caught him off guard, and he smiled.
We left the prison with a mix of joy and sorrow.
It hurt to leave our dad behind.
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 amazing things in your life.”
I feel an ache as I write these words.