I have a question for you. A letter arrived some weeks back from a friend I haven't seen in more than 10 years, a friend I may not want to see ever again. The letter-writer, whom I will call Ricky, is behind bars. Prison is where he has been for most of the years we have been out of touch.

When Ricky was about 20, he narrowly escaped a prison sentence on a drug charge. A public defender in Northern California--struck by the same qualities of intelligence, charm, and promise that struck me when I tutored Ricky in high school--persuaded a judge to sentence him to probation. Ricky was given fair warning that if he violated probation, the full sentence would be reinstated.

Alas, he did violate the probation. He came home to L.A., took a job as a salesman in an auto showroom, and excelled at it. The last time I saw him as a free man, he was nattily dressed, entertaining and photographing the guests at his brother's wedding. Not long after that, though, he was stopped for a minor traffic violation. A routine license check identified him as a probation violator. In short order he was locked up, serving his suspended sentence.

After his release, several years later, Ricky, now a convicted criminal with no right to a green card, was deported to Mexico. But how was he to live? When his mother entered this country illegally in the mid-1970s, bringing three of her children with her, Ricky was only 11. Everyone who means anything to him, everyone who might help him make a new life for himself, is here. Looking and sounding like millions of native Californians of Latin descent, he slipped back across the border without any difficulty.

Ricky is now 33. At the time of his most recent arrest, he was living with his married brother, Victor, working, and, according to Victor (who has never hesitated to criticize Ricky), never even going out in the evening. When I heard this, I told Victor, whom I see fairly often, that I wanted to have a reunion with Ricky. As a surprise gift, I bought a toolbox and started assembly a set of tools from the two sets of tools (and half of another) I have inherited from relatives. Ricky's high school ambition had been to be a contractor, then an architect. With a set of tools, I thought, Ricky could pick up work as a handyman.

As bad luck would have it, the reunion never came about. Once again, a traffic violation--an expired license on a motor scooter he had borrowed--was Ricky's undoing. Once again he is serving a prison sentence. Some months from now, he will complete his sentence and be deported again. Some days or weeks after that, he will turn up unannounced in the only city that feels like home.

And then, maybe, he and I will have our reunion after all.

I say "maybe" because in the interim, I have developed serious misgivings. Though Ricky is more victim than perpetrator, a nonviolent offender whose youth, if not his life, have been lost to needlessly vindictive laws, I'm afraid of anyone who has spent as much time in prison as he has, and my wife's feelings are even more mixed than mine. Years ago, when we lent Ricky my wife's VW bug for his high school prom, he borrowed it for keeps. Some months later, with the help of his guilt-stricken family, we caught up with him, and he was suitably contrite. Eventually, he even paid us a partial reparation. But whatever demons he was then fighting, he must surely be fighting worse ones now. Would it not be prudent to wish him well but keep him at a distance?

Perhaps, but his response to the news that I wanted to see him was the letter mentioned above, which included the following:

I will always remember carrying your daughter on my back when we went to search for the waterfall.

But before we meet again, let me let you in on a few things that I've learned:

I've learned that you cannot make someone love you. All you can do is be someone who can be loved, the rest is up to them.

I've learned that no matter how much I care, some people just don't care back.

I've learned that it takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it.

I've learned that it's not what you have in life, but who you have in your life that counts.

I've learned that you can get by on charm for about fifteen minutes, after that, you'd better know something.

I've learned that you can do something in an instant that will give you heartache for life.

I've learned that it's taking me a long time to become the person I want to be.

I've learned that you should always leave loved ones with loving words, it may be the last time you see them.

I've learned that you can keep going long after you think you can't.

I've learned that there are a few people who love you dearly, but just don't know how to show it.

And last but not least, I've learned that just because someone doesn't love you the way you want them, doesn't mean they don't love you with all they have.

And with that I think I'll stop.I don't believe any prison tutor could have coached Ricky to the level of grammatical correctness and near-eloquence that I see in the quoted letter. A sprinkling of misspellings and solecisms in it persuades me that it is his own work, but the fact that the sprinkling is no more than a sprinkling is a triumph. Ricky was a gifted boy 17 years ago, a boy as full of promise as of turbulence. Against the odds, he seems to me to have fulfilled some of his promise. His letter ended with a request for snapshots of my family and me. Victor predicts that these will come back to me as uncannily accurate pencil portraits like those that Ricky has done of Victor's family. A talented fellow, Ricky is, a standout.

Yet a lawyer buddy warns me that prison is a school of deception, implying that I may be corresponding with a graduate of that school. What could go wrong? Who knows, but why take a chance on finding out? My wife and I were burned once. Why risk being burned again? The words Matthew 25:36 come to mind: "I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." In a way, it would be easier to visit Ricky if he were in prison. I did so once before, some years ago. But that was a painful meeting, and he does not want another like it. Prison shames him. No, when we meet, if we do, he will not be a prisoner but an ex-con. Should I risk a reunion with an ex-con? What would Jesus do? Never mind what Jesus would do, what would you do?

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad