This episode is based on a true story, and dedicated to Scottie Barnes, founder of www.ForgivenMinistry.org, and the one who shared this story with me.
I think this story will mean a little something to everyone who hears it. But it will mean even more to that group of people who fall under the label of believers. As believers, there is much mystery to the Truth we follow – most of which will not be revealed until we take our place in the stars. But not one of us can deny that our creator holds three words in highest regard – love, grace, and forgiveness. This story is about all three.
In case you haven’t already guessed, Prides Hollow is a southern town. And so as you might also guess, there is no shortage of churches. Most of them called First something. First Baptist. First Methodist. First Presbyterian. If I ever start my own church, I’m gonna have a sense of humor about it, and name it 27th Baptist church. Where we’re not afraid to come in last – as long as we get in.
And so every Sunday morning, you can bet that the heavens will receive an abundance of choirs sending praises up into the clouds. That many heads will be bent in prayer, sending their aches and pains to the one who promises to listen. And pulpit driven words of biblical wisdom whispered into the wind, with enough strength to carry folks through the next week.
Many of us will walk down the bright blue hallways adorned in famous lines from our old testament heroes. And have the songs we sang as little children sitting on a colored carpet making play dough wise men, still ringing through our hearts all these years later.
No matter where we walk on the path of our belief, most of us stumbling if we are truthful about it, there is one thing we come to realize at some point in the journey – that the words written on the walls of Sunday School are often much easier said than done.
And that no matter how much we hear about love and grace and forgiveness. Some of us still feel like we don’t deserve it.
That we’re not good enough – even for the one who made us.
Sometimes what we know as truth, is not strong enough to overpower what we feel.
And it’s not always easy for us to imagine a father who loves us, when we didn’t have one.
Which brings us to the three people in today’s story. The father who doesn’t believe in second chances. The mother who can’t find the strength to forgive. And the daugther caught in the middle.
Her name was Isabel, and like most teenagers, she knew her list of favorites. Favorite color – purple – the light kind not the dark kind. Candy – sour gummies. Hearthrob – Robert Pattinson – Twilight! Favorite show – American Idol. Favorite song – The Rose. And sometimes in the shower, she knew she sounded just like Bette Midler when she sang it.
On the outside she was just like all the other giggly silly teenage girls – in her denim jacket with purple heart patches on the back, and the matching purple braces that were coming off in two days, and she couldn’t wait to chew gum again! And the other day, in the cafeteria, she could swear that Jimmy Patton, hottest guy in the entire school, had stared at her for like two whole seconds. Hashtag OMG.
And like most girls, she found her mother completely exasperating and why did she insist on picking her up from school every day. Did she have to sit right out front? Couldn’t she just meet her a block down the street? And why couldn’t she ride the bus like all the other girls.
It was a common phrase in Isabel’s head. The other girls. And she worked very hard to fit in with the rest of them. To make sure she said the right things. Wore the right kind of jeans.
She was only five when her mother moved them here. But she could still remember that first day in Sunday school. Sitting by herself. Watching the other little girls in their shiny shoes and pretty dresses. Without even realizing it, they were already sizing each up other to see where they fit. It’s hard to believe that Jesus loves you, when nobody will come sit by you. But the worst part was when all the parents came to pick them up after church was over. All the dads. Except for Isabel’s. You might not think it would be that big of a deal, unless you’re the kid whose dad isn’t there.
As she grew up, whenever anybody asked her about her dad, she would just say what her mother had told her to say the day they left. I never met my father. He’s not in the picture. And that seemed a good enough answer for all these years, in a world where a missing dad wasn’t that newsworthy.
But her dad wasn’t really missing. She knew exactly where he was. In the state penitentiary. Doing time for armed robbery and a bunch of other stuff. He was the reason her mother made them move to a small town. She said they were getting as far away from gangs as they could. They may have taken her brother, but they would not take away her child.
Isabel had not seen him since she was five, earlier really, as he had skipped out even before that. So she wasn’t even really sure what he looked like anymore. But she had this one memory that would sometimes just pop into her head in the middle of the night. Of her dad dancing with her in the kitchen. Holding her hands up high. She was in a fluffy pink skirt. And bare feet. Standing on his feet while he twirled her across the cheap rust colored linoleum ballroom. And she knew she was supposed to hate him like her mother said. But in this moment. She didn’t.
When Old Man Withers put out his challenge for people to be brave, it was the last thing on Isabel or her mother’s mind. All they could think about and talk about was her Quinceaneras (Kin-sin-nyar-a). The very best part of her culture for a 15 year old girl. It was a big deal. Like wedding big deal, she explained to her friends who didn’t know what it was. And she was right. It was one of the greatest moments in a girls’ life – the moment she would officially cross over from being a teenager, to being a young woman.
But even more important? The party. Her own party. She had never had her own party. Ever. And you’ll never guess where they were having it. The country club! Which was like super cool because they weren’t even members, but her best friend’s dad made it all happen because he’s a member and everybody knows he’s had a crush on Isabel’s mom since like forEVER. Duh. And her best friend said it would be totally cool if her dad dated Isabel’s mom, because her parents had been divorced like a long time and it wasn’t a big deal at ALL. And OMG we’ll be sisters.
And Isabel pulled her dress out every day from the plastic covering in her closet – just to look at it. And every time she would close her eyes and pretend like she was seeing it for the first time. And every time it was even better than she had remembered. It was fluffy and pink and had all these tiny white roses sewed into the skirt. And everybody was coming, even Jimmy Patton, who said to save him the first dance! And she knew it would be the prettiest dress anybody had ever seen. And she had a flashback of Sunday School while she hummed Jesus loves me this I know.
And as she lay in bed smiling and imagining how every moment of that night would be, her heart would always ping in this one moment – that was a tradition in every girl’s Quinceaneras (Kin-sin-nyar-a). The father daughter dance. Her cousin said he would do it. But that wasn’t the same.
She knew nobody would notice that they skipped that part. But still. It was just another moment her father would miss. Like he’d been missing her whole life. I mean, didn’t he even care? She was supposed to hate him. A man she didn’t know. That she might have loved when she was like two. But that’s the thing. It doesn’t take much to bury deep enough for you to miss something you don’t really remember.
Meanwhile…..a couple hundred miles away. In a concrete block neighborhood surrounded by high towers and chained fences. Where you never heard the usual neighborhood sounds of lawn mowers and children playing. In the last cell on C block – number 23 – sat Isabel’s father. Hunched over. His shoulders not as thick as they used to be. His tattoos not nearly as menacing. He was more tired than anything. Staring at an old photograph. From when she was two. Dancing on his feet. He thinks it was the last time he saw her. And he had thought of her every single day since.
He knew her Quinceaneras (Kin-sin-nyar-a) would be coming up soon. He wondered if she would get the letter in time. It was a long shot. And Lord knows he didn’t deserve a second chance.
The old man with the broom nodded as he passed his cell, just like he always did. “Nite Perdonado,” he said. Donado shook his head like he always did. “It’s Donado, you old fool. My name’s Donado.”
She didn’t know if she should show her mother the letter she had tucked under her pillow. It would just make her mad. Isabel hadn’t even opened it at first. She had found it in the mail. Saw it before her mother did. Which was good. Her mother would have probably thrown it away as soon as she saw the words state penitentiary. So she has quickly tucked it under her pillow. Waiting for the courage to open it.
Why was she scared to read it? Maybe she worried that the father she didn’t know might still be better than the one she did.
Finally one night she couldn’t stand it. And with shaking fingers she opened it up. It was just simple notebook paper. His handwriting was kind of messy, but she could still read it. He said he didn’t quite know what to say. Just that he missed her. And thought about her every day. He knew he had messed up. Really big. But wondered if maybe she would give him a second chance. If maybe she would come to visit him sometime. Maybe take a picture in her Quinceaneras (Kin-sin-nyar-a) dress? So he could show his friends. What few he had in here. And if she didn’t want to, he would understand. Wouldn’t really blame her even. He just wanted her to know that he wasn’t that same man he used to be. That she was the only thing good he ever did in his life. And he couldn’t take any of the credit for that. That’s for sure. And if all she wanted to do was maybe write back one day? Why he’d sure be grateful.
Isabel didn’t know how she thought about that. So she didn’t. She ignored the letter. She didn’t think about him at all. Just like he didn’t think about her all those years. It was a little late to be asking for a second chance.
Which is exactly what her mother said when she found the letter when she was making up Isabel’s bed. She said a whole lot of other words too, which we can’t repeat, but added five dollars to the swear jar. He doesn’t deserve to know you, she said and then slammed the door and stayed in her room the rest of the night.
And then sitting there on Sunday morning, the pastor happened to be talking on the subject of – you guessed it – forgiveness. Which isn’t that unusual, it’s a popular Sunday morning topic. But still. This time they heard it different.
The pastor said something that both of them tried not to hear. He said that forgiveness isn’t something we do for the person that needed forgiving. And it’s not just something we do for ourselves. That it’s something we also do for God. Because He did it for us. Plain and simple. And there you go – one of those writings on the wall that’s a whole lot easier to say than do.
In the car on the way home, Isabel’s mamma didn’t say much. Finally she looked at Isabel and in a quiet voice said, “Do you want to see him?” And while Isabel up until that very moment would not have been able to answer that question, in this moment she could. “Yes, Mamma,” she said, “I do.”
Her mamma didn’t say anything for a while, and then she got that firm look she always got when she made up her mind to do something she didn’t really want to do. “Well,” she said, “I guess it’s not our decision to make. Forgiving your daddy. Which is good, ‘cause I’m not strong enough to make that choice. So we’ll let God make the choice to forgive him instead. Just give me some time to see what He wants me to do. You want Bojangles for lunch?”
The pastor couldn’t have spoken truer words that Sunday when he said that the Lord works in mysterious ways. Because it felt like it was pretty much close to a miracle that they were able to pull it off. Or maybe just one determined mother who had found a way to put aside her anger for one day in exchange for a grace she still didn’t feel, but was willing to move aside for.
Nobody could believe that the warden had allowed it. Much less that a handful of inmates would volunteer to help decorate. Or that somebody knew somebody who could come and film it for them. Nobody had ever planned anything like this before – and in a prison of all places. And maybe not everybody inside felt like Donado deserved it, but, well, church isn’t the only place where people can stumble into a change of heart. And not everything has to make sense. Sometimes you just have to believe in something you can’t see. Or at least move aside for it.
If you’d been driving by the prison few days before Isabel’s Quinceaneras (Kin-sin-nyar-a) you would have thought you were seeing things – watching this young girl dressed up so pretty – just like a bride, daintily tiptoeing through the parking lot – her mother holding up her dress in the back so she didn’t get it dirty.
She walked through the wire gates and chain link fences, trying not to think that this was where her father had lived for all these years. Wondering if it was as bad as the TV shows made it out to be. Her mother smiled at her and it made her stronger.
Their giggles sounded out of place as the gruff armed guards helped her get that big dress through security without getting it dirty or messing up her hair in the process. Taking pictures on their cell phones because their wife isn’t going to believe this.
And now there was just one long shiny glossy floored hallway that stood between Isabel and the father she could barely remember. But she just kept taking one step after another, remembering that she could do this. With the strength of her mother at her side, and the spirit that her pastor was always going on and on about.
Donado had run with some bad people in his life. He had looked evil and death in the face more than once. Men had feared him. But he wasn’t sure he had ever been as nervous as he was in this moment. Standing there in a borrowed suit. Waiting for his little girl to walk through that door. There was nothing he could think of that would have been worth more than this moment right here. And he knew it might not come again. So he would remember every single second for the rest of his life.
She stood in the doorway with a nervous smile as her mother stepped back and trusted grace to hold up her daughter, as it had held her up so many times. How hard it is to step back so that our children can step forward.
Donato had to tell himself to breathe as he watched that faded photograph come to life. She was so beautiful. Her smile. It looked just like his own mother’s. And he hoped that somehow up there, she was looking down to see the one good thing he had done.
He reached out a shaking hand, just as they had planned, not even sure she would grab it.
She reached out a shaking hand, not even sure he would grab it.
And on cue, the inmate who sat off to the side, began to strum with fingers bearing the tattooes of his crimes on a borrowed guitar – the song that Donato had requested in return for three packs of cigarettes. A song about a rose.
And time was suspended as their fingers touched and the little girl in bare feet and a pink tutu, grabbed hold of her father’s hand and stepped up on his toes, while he twirled her around the cheap linoleum kitchen.
And just like that – the dingy gray visitation room of a prison strung with cheap paper white streamers – became the moment of a million answered wishes. Where the past was tucked away to make room for grace and second chances. And she got her father daughter dance – just like all the other little girls.
Isabel’s Quinceaneras (Kin-sin-nyar-a) was perfect. She got her first kiss (yes, from Jimmy Patton) and it was a night she would truly remember forever.
Yes, it symbolized the night she crossed over from being a child to being a woman.
But in truth? The real crossover happened earlier. At her father daughter dance. Where she (and her father, and her mother) saw what it looks like to forgive. And that sometimes even if you don’t feel it – you just have to step aside and let there be grace.
Donato got more moments with his daughter. And even got to smell the sweet face of his grandson. But just as sweet, was the sound of that old man shuffling past his cell with the broom whispering “Good night Perdonado” a name that means forgiven.
The words written on the walls of Sunday school are often much easier said than done. It can be easy to hear that we are forgiven, but not so easy to believe it. It can be easy to say we need to forgive, but not so easy to actually do it. Which is why sometimes, we just have to step aside and let God do it. He’s quite good at it. As any believer will tell you.
That day all three of them did something very brave. Old Man Withers would be proud.