Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Rachel Mascarenas Ford ~
My life has always been quite simple. My life partner and fiancé of 12 years, Mark, our two small children, and myself led a life filled with what we thought was joy but only now can I see how we lived a life of extravagance and as parents we were quite selfish. Still in our 20’s, there were many nights when our children would hang with their grandmother while Mark and I were vacationing, going to fancy restaurants, and just doing what we wanted. I often think about how we chose to spend our time. Time that should have been spent with our small children. Time that was ultimately cut short.
Monday, October 28, 2013, started as a normal day. I had my first parent teacher conference that morning. I was a bit bummed because I wanted Mark to share in this special “first” for us. It was exciting to consider all the praise we would hear about our little kindergartner. Mark was not able to take time off from his job so I went solo. Little did I know that Mark would never get the opportunity to attend a parent teacher conference throughout the duration of our children’s elementary schooling. This was just the first of many milestones Mark would miss.
We had no idea our home was under surveillance and later that evening would be the target of a raid carried out by local, state, and federal agents. I clearly remember sitting in the living room with Aubry, 5, and Elle, 3. The four of us were alive with excitement as the buzzer would sound while playing a game of Operation. Mark went to the front of our home to greet a childhood friend who was passing through town and stopped to say hello. I sat alongside the kids as they watched Blue’s Clues waiting on Mark’s return so we could resume our game. My attention was immediately fixed on the TV when I heard “POLICE! POLICE! POLICE!” I was so confused because the sounds were so loud and so close, I found myself saying, “what are we watching…?” at the same time I stood up to look out the window and could not believe the scene. Dozens of agents were sprawled across our front lawn, armed, and running towards our house, shouting, “POLICE! POLICE! POLICE!” I tucked my children close to me and sat on the floor, awaiting entry by the police. I knew once they opened the door to the living room that we would be out of their line of sight, I decided I would announce myself. As soon as I heard the door open I announced, “I’m a female alone in here with my two small children…” A male replied, “okay, do you have any weapons?” I told them “no” and they told me to “put my hands up” – only then did they round the corner and we were met face to face – the three of us with our hands up and several agents, guns drawn - staring at one another.
If I could go back and change the way that evening played out, it seems only natural for me to change the fact that my children were home to witness their father’s arrest. I mean it would be unnatural for me to say that I would not change anything about that night. But to be completely honest and for me to have meaning in what I’m doing right here, right now, there is nothing I would change about October 28, 2013. It’s been one thousand four hundred and twelve days since my children and myself were forced into a world of shame.
I’m not sure when it hit me that Mark was really gone and in a lot of trouble. I remember driving down a busy Durham road the day after Mark’s arrest and I began to cry uncontrollably. I was yelling at God and asking him to give me strength and I didn’t know how I’d survive without Mark. I passed a church and felt the overwhelming need to be close to the Lord. I didn’t have the courage to stop so I just drove around, weeping. About a week after Mark’s arrest it hit me like a ton of bricks that God felt the need to intervene in my life. I had allowed my family to live in a home that was not filled with the Lord whom I had grown so close to as a child. Even after realizing the magnitude of God’s intervention and knowing that I needed to be obedient to what he had planned for my life I still didn’t know how to listen.
Overnight, I became faced with not only the emotional challenges of life without a husband and my children’s father but also the challenge of maintaining a stable home environment while encouraging my children to be honest about their father’s mistake.
The best way for me to sum up my feelings about Mark’s incarceration and the stigma surrounding it is how bad I wanted to legitimize my family. I once told this to my doctor who sat there, silent and staring out, searching my face. While she searched my face, my mind wandered to a story I once heard about a woman who had a dream that she was approaching a bridge when she found that there was a bit of standing water. The woman noticed some drivers were turning around while others decided to pull to the side and park, in her dream she would look at the bridge and then look behind. When she woke up she realized, in life and on this journey that God has called us on, there are going to be lots of places on the road where you can pull off to the side and park but you can also decide to go all the way through and finish your journey. Hearing her dream really hit home for me.
“I want to legitimize my family. That’s a very powerful statement” interrupting my thoughts my doctor who was still staring at me, continued “I’m sure you’re tired of dealing with the stigma around it all.”
Bingo. But even more than me feeling tired of the stigma surrounding Mark’s incarceration, I was, and am more exhausted by the stigma that surrounds my children. I want the world to know that my son and my daughter are innocent children just like the sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews of the world. Countless times I’ve wanted to explain to my son’s sports team that, sure he may not be familiar with some of the techniques his teammates use but he also only practices once a week and his dad isn’t around to throw or kick the ball with him. Mark loves sports and he is an amazing athlete. #44 regardless of the game. As soon as Aubry turned 3, I signed him up to play soccer like his daddy. Mark was delighted when he was asked to coach Aubry’s soccer team. We didn’t know this would be the last time Mark would play his beloved sport with our young son. Aubry will be 10 the next time they will be on the field together.
Naturally, when I got an email about a sponsorship opportunity for Aubry’s sports league I knew I had to jump on it. The sponsorship would be a nod to Mark and our children. Often, I would visit the website for Our Children’s Place; I would sit and go through every tab, over and over. I was looking for answers or clarity to my situation. I decided to sponsor my son’s soccer league in the name of Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons (see a picture of the soccer jersey). My hope was to create dialogue, on the soccer field, driving in the car, or around the dinner table. This was my opportunity to inform the public about children in our community, schools, and churches who are suffering with a parent who is incarcerated. I wanted to let people know that when a child mentions their incarcerated parent, its okay to ask about the parent’s well-being. I was surprised at the lack of resources for children of incarcerated parents. I wish my children’s school had prior training on how to handle situations like ours. I needed someone to point the arrow because wherever we were going, we were going blind.
It seems like only yesterday when Mark and I drove, just the two of us, to the federal courthouse. I knew that after his sentencing I would want to be alone. It was weird knowing that I would leave without him. And that I wouldn’t see him again, free, for a long, long time. I remember thinking it's like our life has paused. But I was not going to allow life to pause because then how would that be fair to my children? There was no pausing their tender ages of three and five.
While those who experience incarceration of a loved one all do so under varying circumstances one thing remains constant, like the woman’s dream, we will all face the option to pull to the side of the road and turn around or we can choose to continue through the journey already chosen for us. I’m so proud and humbled that my family chose to continue our journey. The memories our children share with their father are different than most of their classmates, like celebrating birthdays with Mrs. Freshley’s cupcakes from the camp vending machine while visiting Mark. Soon I will be making the same trip to the federal courthouse and this time Mark will come home with me. There will be so much to learn as we reunite, a family complete, creating new memories at home.
Rachel Mascarenas Ford is actively involved with Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center. Our Children's Place is a statewide program in North Carolina committed to the children of incarcerated parents. Their mission statement reads - "We strive to be a leading North Carolina advocate and educational resource focused on these children and the need for a statewide response to ensure their well-being." You can learn more about the important work Our Children's Place does with families who have loved ones who have been incarcerated by visiting their website - http://www.ourchildrensplace.com.