Getting a good view of the night sky wasn’t easy for Kenny. He had only one window, and if he was in his bed, the only thing he could see was the drab, gray bricks of the building across the way.
Undeterred, every night, he would pull his mattress to the ground and place it in the only spot that afforded him a glimpse of the stars. There wasn’t much for Kenny to be happy about, but his nightly trip to his makeshift observatory always lifted his spirits. Kenny’s routine had become so automatic he was sure he could actually see through the bars in the window as if they weren’t even there.
Kenny’s mother used to say that he was a good boy who made one huge, life-altering mistake.
She was wrong.
The man Kenny killed didn’t deserve to die. It wasn’t an accident. He wasn’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. He simply spoke to Kenny’s pregnant girlfriend, and it was the last thing he did on earth. No, Kenny wasn’t a good man who made a mistake—he was a bad man who got what he deserved: thirty years in jail.
That is where Kenny’s story should have ended, a murderer sentenced to prison for his crime. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t because of June, not the month, but the daughter he never had the chance to meet. Kenny was willing to give up on himself, but over the course of the years, he found he wasn’t ready or willing to give up on the chance to meet his little girl.
On Kenny’s first day in prison, he realized he didn’t have a window in his cell. He didn’t have anything but a notebook and a pen, given to him by one of the other prisoners. “Write your thoughts down,” his benefactor encouraged him. “It’s the only thing that will keep you sane.”
Ironically enough, that was the only time he ever met the man, yet that simple act of kindness changed the course of Kenny’s life.
Dear June, his first letter began. I am your dad and I love you. That was it. Eight words. Not even a complimentary close. Truth be told he wasn’t even sure he did love her; he didn’t even know her, but he was angry at his ex-girlfriend and a letter from prison just might piss her off.
Kenny didn’t have an envelope, and he didn’t have a stamp. All he had was an address: 11454 Pruder Street Apartment 23-R, Fargo ND 50504. When he handed the letter to the guard, he had no idea if the guard would mail it or if his daughter still lived on Pruder Street. He wasn’t hoping for redemption or forgiveness—he didn’t feel worthy of either. He wrote his daughter a letter because he had nothing better to do.
That night as Kenny tried to sleep, he stared at the wall in the darkness. It was almost as if he were trying to will the wall to open up so he could see outside.
As he would soon find out, much about prison was familiar. He ate, he worked out, he even had a job. It was no different from the outside, except he couldn’t see the outside.
The second day of prison, he wrote another letter. He still wanted to annoy his ex, but he also wanted to tell his daughter about her grandmother. Kenny’s mother was an anomaly. She hadn’t completed middle school and was a single mom before she was eighteen, yet she always gave wise advice and never complained about her situation. Her main flaw was a mother’s blindness in that she only saw good in Kenny. It might have been out of boredom or just an instinctual need to protect his own child, but Kenny hoped in some way his letters brought his mother and June together.
Without ever intending to do so, Kenny found himself writing to June every day and wishing to see the stars every night. Writing the letters, short and perfunctory at first, became a cherished ritual for Kenny. He would recount stories about his childhood and tell jokes and just share whatever happy moments he had.
It wasn’t until the anniversary of his first day in prison that Kenny realized he had written a letter to his daughter each day. It had become a labor of love that wasn’t a labor at all. 365 letters had been sent, and in a small way, had made the year more bearable. He had no idea if his daughter would ever see the letters, but the thought she might, sustained him and buoyed up his soul on the hard days. In those early years the letters were his only window.
Mail call is both anticipated and dreaded by those in prison. Notes and letters from home are smiles and laughs neatly folded into envelopes and written on the backs of postcards. For an instant, shorter than a second, it makes the recipient feel free.
But when the last name is called and the realization sets in there is no more joy to be dispensed that day, it makes the locks on the doors seem stronger and the endless days seem longer.
For Kenny, there were frequent letters from his mother, but he always held out hope that one day he would receive a letter addressed in crayon with gleefully misspelled words. That would be a truly joyous day, one that never came.
As the years passed, Kenny became a different man. Gone were the impulsive urges of his youth and the recklessness of his heart. In their place came a quietness of spirit and unexplained contentment. He still waited every day for a letter from June. He knew there would be no childlike drawings or elementary school craft Father’s Day projects, but he thought maybe a handwritten card or even a typed letter would be extraordinary.
Each day he was disappointed. Never enough to stop writing to June, but disappointed nonetheless.
It wasn’t that there wasn’t any joy in Kenny’s life. After more than 5000 days and 5000 letters, he finally was moved to a cell with a window. He would spend almost thirteen more years in prison, but each day after he wrote his letter, he knew he could lay his mattress in one particular spot in his cell and stare out at the stars and imagine June was looking up as well. In that, he found happiness.
There is a phenomenon experienced by long distance runners that is almost trance-like. It happens midway through a race and has been described as being on autopilot. There is a similar happening with prisoners doing long stretches of time. The end is so far away, they almost lose track of time.
Kenny’s letters and his nightly ritual were his salvation, and almost without noticing, he wrote his 9,999th letter to his daughter.
He had served more than twenty-seven years of his sentence and was due to come before the parole board in less than a month. It had become a foregone conclusion that he would be paroled and that his time in prison was coming to an end. That night, laying on his mattress, looking at the stars, Kenny made a decision.
The next letter to June would be his last.
Over the course of the years, Kenny had written long letters and short notes. He had laid his soul bare and spoke of the mundane. He had written every sort of letter imaginable, but he felt the last one would be the most important.
I don’t think you could understand how important you are to me. I’m not sure if I will ever see you, but being able to write to you all these years has kept me alive. I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I’m asking for it anyway. Please write to me and let me know if I can come see you. If I don’t hear from you, I won’t try to contact you again. Please know I love you more than life itself. This is my last letter. All my love,
Tears streamed down Kenny’s face as he sealed the envelope and affixed the stamp. The moment he handed the letter to the guard, he slumped to the floor and sobbed. 10,000 days of emotion were released in a single evening.
He waited and waited and waited, but no letter came.
The day of his parole was bittersweet. He dressed in the suit provided to him by a charitable organization, but found himself wishing he wasn’t leaving prison. He wanted to write more letters—he wanted a chance that hadn’t come.
As the gates opened, giving him a freedom he hadn’t had for almost twenty-eight years, he felt no joy. He only felt numb.
Then, he saw her. Standing in the parking lot with two large black crates was a woman he instantly knew. She held a sign with his name on it.
As he walked towards her, she began to cry. Any thoughts of uneasiness or unfamiliarity were instantly erased as she flung her arms around him.
“Hello, Daddy. It’s nice to meet you.”
The two embraced for what seemed like hours.
“What are these crates for?” Kenny asked.
“Your letters,” June replied as she opened them up. Inside were 10,000 letters. Every single one Kenny had written, with the first one prominently displayed on top. “And here’s one for you,” June added as she handed Kenny an envelope.
Kenny could barely find the strength to open the letter, but when he did, there were just three words on the long awaited paper in his hands. Welcome home, Dad.