Read an Excerpt
A NEW KIND of NORMAL
Hope-Filled Choices When Life Turns Upside Down
By Carol Kent Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2007 Carol Kent
All right reserved.
SYMPATHY CARDS AND RAZOR WIRE
When Despair Tries to Take Me Under ... I CHOOSE LIFE
Life isn't like a book. Life isn't logical or sensible or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived in the midst of that mess. -CHARLES COLSON
It was Christmas morning, and my husband, Gene, and I were standing in line at the prison, waiting to get through the razor wire so we could visit our son. The stark buildings were not decorated with colored lights, evergreen wreaths, and holiday bows. There were no Christmas carols amplified over loudspeakers, and there was nothing celebratory in sight that would remind a passerby that December 25 was the most notable holiday of the year.
Actually, even the idea of a "passerby" was remote. To find Hardee Correctional Institution on deserted State Road 62, we routinely scanned the landscape from the highway and looked for the prison water tower. Once it was identified, we knew we were getting closer as the image grew larger against the rough and undeveloped landscape on this little-traveled road. The driveway from the road to the prison was a quartermile long, ending with the cement lot where visitors parked while they spent time with their family members inside this maximum-security facility.
How different this Christmas was from my growing-up years! It was also considerably unlike the last holiday season Jason spent at home. My mind flashed back to December 1999. Jason had married just three months earlier, and he brought his family to our home in Michigan for what was sure to be a joy-filled holiday. We were eager to make lasting memories with our new stepgranddaughters.
The girls burst into the house with eager enthusiasm and rushed to the Christmas tree. "Wow!" our six-year-old said. "It's so beautiful!" The three-year-old was already chasing the cat, hoping for a little nose-to-nose intimacy with our furry Himalayan feline. I saw both girls scanning the brightly wrapped gifts that had been placed with love under the Christmas tree.
"Some of those gifts are for you, girls. We're so glad you are here!"
Their faces beamed, and I could see them evaluating whether they knew us well enough to risk an abrupt move. Gene and I must have given the right signal, because they dove into the pile of gifts, checking to see which packages had their names on them. The love I felt for these gorgeous little girls and the delight we experienced in having Jason and his new family join us for the holidays is beyond words.
That Christmas is like a treasured mosaic of giggling children, turkey and mashed potatoes, strawberry ice cream Jell-O, and homemade, decorated cookies-lots of cookies and hot chocolate (with marshmallows, of course). Our son and his wife were in the throes of young love, and I enjoyed watching them hold each other by the fireplace. Their love was deep and wide and tender and compassionate. I found myself wiping tears of joy, knowing my son had met a woman who was ideal for him. On Christmas Eve other relatives joined us, and the little girls were loved by all as their high energy ignited the house with the extravagant hope that should belong to every child.
None of us knew it would be our last Christmas to celebrate with such reckless abandon and with an unencumbered sense of "normal." Never again would our family conform to a standard holiday experience or to the type of Christmas celebration we thought we would enjoy for the rest of our lives. Jason's incarceration changed that picture forever.
I suddenly lurched back into the reality of where I stood in the prison visitation line, now six Christmases later. Three women were ahead of us in the line, and their conversation was loud enough that I could easily overhear what they were saying. They, too, were relatives of inmates-and I had instant respect for these women who chose to come to the prison visitation yard on a day that is normally spent on feasting, merriment, and gift giving in the comfortable surroundings of home, family, and friends. However, I wasn't prepared for the wave of emotion that engulfed me as I heard their banter:
"This is my last Christmas to stand in this line. My son is get- ting out in eight months."
"Oh," another mother said wistfully, "we have eight more years before we'll be spending Christmas Day at home with our son, but we're going to make it."
Another voice chimed in: "My husband will be home for Christmas in four more years. The kids and I can't wait."
Despite bursting into completely unexpected tears, I managed to smile at the three women in front of me. We were strangers in a social club we never expected to join-women from completely different backgrounds with a shared bond: a family member who was incarcerated.
"I'm so happy for all of you," I blurted out in a gesture of forced enthusiasm. But the tears rolling down my cheeks told the truth. My heart was broken, and I could no longer pretend that everything was going to be fine. My son was never coming home for Christmas dinner. He would be behind razor wire for the rest of his life-and today he was only thirty-one years old.
Inside, my heart felt pangs of anger and jealousy. All of the joy-filled comments I heard from the women moments earlier were drowned out by an ugly voice inside me that taunted, Your son will never walk in freedom again. All of the rest of the Christmases of your life will be spent standing in the visitation line at the prison. You'll be patted down as you go through while a stranger looks into your mouth to see if you are hiding an illegal substance and runs hands around your bra, looking for contraband. You will be scrutinized as if you are a criminal every time you visit your son for the rest of your life. You are a loser.
One thing was crystal clear. I had "a new kind of normal" that had nothing to do with the life I envisioned for myself, my only child, my family, and my ministry. The son of my womb, the boy-turned-man I loved so much, was not coming home-ever. I was running out of hope-hope that any of the appeals would result in a favorable court ruling, hope that our son would ever walk in freedom again, hope that we would ever be together in our home on a Christmas morning, hope for the happiness that everyone else appeared to have. I felt all alone in my despair.
Jason Paul Kent was born on a crisp fall day on a picture-perfect Sunday morning. To make the story even more idyllic, we were living in Fremont, Michigan, the town that was built on the success of the Gerber Baby Foods Corporation, and we were in the hospital "built by Gerber." Jason weighed in at 5 pounds, 14 ounces, and he measured 17 inches in length. A tiny bundle to be sure, but a genuine Gerber baby. After nine hours of painful labor, our long-awaited firstborn child, a son, was placed in my arms. Had I known ahead of time how painful childbirth is, I would have pleaded for drugs (or at least requested an epidural), but I was a mind-over-matter kind of woman and never asked for help if I could muscle through the pain. Our baby boy was worth it!
To make the day even more spectacular, my next-door neighbor, Mary, gave birth to a baby girl on the very same day in the same hospital. What a celebration! Family members and friends joined us in spreading the good news. "Gene and Carol have a boy!" This birth took place five years after our wedding day, and the grandparents had been waiting a long time for their first grandchild. To say that Jason was instantly enveloped with love is the understatement of the century.
The gift of life-a tiny infant wrapped in a flannel blanket, with ten tiny toes and ten delicate fingers, a wobbly head attached to a scrawny, exquisitely gorgeous pink body. A cute button nose and cherry-colored cheeks. That small bundle held all of the promise Gene and I needed for the assurance of a bright, purposeful, and joy-filled future. With God's help, we were determined to be great parents.
As Jason grew older, we got him a "big-boy" bed. It didn't take him long to realize that Gene and I would stay at his side longer at bedtime and stroke his head and hair if he kept talking. There were many conversations and prayers, along with questions and answers during our tucking-in ritual.
I often reminded him, "J.P, always remember God has something very special for you to do with your life. You can be anything He wants you to be. I can hardly wait to see what God has planned for you. I've been praying for you since before you were born."
One of Gene's early activities with our son was to read aloud to him. As soon as Jason was capable of listening to an entire chapter of a book, Gene decided to introduce him to C. S. Lewis. Over a period of several months, Gene read all seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia to a very animated and energetic listener. I once caught Jason searching for Narnia in the back of an antique wardrobe closet. If the mind could conceive it, he could believe it. He was ready to join Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy in the land of Turkish Delight. "Adventure" could have been Jason's middle name.
As Jason entered his teens, "my guys" loved running together-and they would often challenge each other with physical exercise goals. When Jason was in his senior year at the U.S. Naval Academy, Gene and Jason trained for and ran a half-marathon together. They challenged each other to physical and intellectual excellence. I loved listening and joining in as they bantered back and forth about global events, politics, and controversial issues. No matter what the topic, they would find a place for humor-both appropriate and irreverent. I would shake my head in mock disapproval, but my mother heart held those moments with tender gratitude to God for giving our family such a close and caring relationship. There were occasional conflicts, especially over teenage bedroom décor, but they were short-lived. Gene and I quickly decided to only make a big deal over things that were immoral or illegal. Most other issues were not worth a major conflict.
Between Jason's sophomore and junior years of high school, we heard about an academic Christian camp in Manitou Springs, Colorado, called Summit Ministries. They combined an aggressive academic program in Christian worldview studies with a rigorous athletic program. It sounded like a custom fit for Jason's growing desire to make a difference with his life. He couldn't wait to go, and during the two weeks he was there, he had a "defining moment."
One evening soon after his return, I found him journaling in his room. His Bible was open, and he was deep in study. As Gene and I talked more with Jason about his time at Summit, he said, "Mom and Dad, I really believe God wants me to serve in military, or maybe even in political leadership, and I believe the best place I could get prepared to do that would be at the U.S. Naval Academy."
FROM ANNAPOLIS TO ORLANDO
The rest of the story is history. Jason's nomination came from Congressman David Bonior, followed by an appointment from the Academy. On a hot day in late June 1993 we packed up the car to drive Jason to the next season of his life-"plebe summer" in Annapolis. With more than a few nostalgic tears, I marveled at how fast his high school years had gone by, while simultaneously anticipating his future that was sure to be filled with international travel and a wide range of opportunities to use his mind, his faith, and his determined focus to make a positive difference in this world.
Four years later, the whole family gathered in Annapolis for graduation week, and only two years after that, our son was married and enjoying being a father to two beautiful girls. Whenever our granddaughters visited us, they hunted for dress-up clothes. My closet was ransacked as they turned "flowy" skirts and silk scarves into ballroom attire. They found my high heels and jewelry and transformed themselves into regal princesses. The music was turned up, and our dancing girls tirelessly entertained us for hours on end. I had no idea being "Grammy" could be so much fun!
Gene would take the girls out for breakfast and call it "having a date with Grampy." As soon as they were invited out, they would rush to dress up in their favorite attire so they would look smashingly gorgeous at Perkins Restaurant or Bob Evans. Those eateries had never known such glamour-and Gene was in his glory!
I think God, in His mercy, doesn't let us see the future because we wouldn't be able to enjoy the present.
THE PHONE CALL
We were looking forward to watching this young family of four thrive-but everything changed on a Sunday afternoon in the parking lot of a Sweet Tomatoes Restaurant in Orlando, Florida. We didn't get the news until 12:35 the next morning when the familiar ring of the phone pierced the darkness and startled us from peaceful sleep.
Gene picked up the receiver, and the newspapers, television reports, and court records bear witness to the defining moment we were about to experience-one so very different from our son's just seven years earlier at summer camp. This moment turned out to be the pivotal one between our "old normal" and the life that would never be the same again.
Jason had been arrested for the murder of his wife's first husband, Douglas Miller Jr. I was immediately overcome by nausea. Disbelief. Sobbing. Heart palpitations. Sick waves of reality mixed with despair. A nightmare of gigantic proportion. Impossible facts-that Jason shot the gun, four bullets in the back of the victim. A stray bullet hit a van with children inside. No one was hurt, but the possibility was devastating. Not our boy! "No-o-o-o-o! Please, God, let this be a horrible dream!" I felt as if I'd been kicked in the gut by a horse. I could not walk. Doubled over on all fours, I crawled to the bathroom to vomit.
Excerpted from A NEW KIND of NORMAL by Carol Kent Copyright © 2007 by Carol Kent. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.