Captured by Leah Rhyne
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
Those words, written by Harper Lee for the iconic fictional lawyer Atticus Finch, seem to have been written about Chris, a Turning Leaf student whose path through the program has been full of complications.
To the outside world, Chris might resemble any other black man who has led a life of crime filled with drugs, guns, and brutality. But inside his skin, you’ll find a life full of loss and a man grappling with his future. You’ll find an aching heart. You’ll find an earnest desire to do better.
This is Chris’ story.
Chris grew up in the country. On his grandparents’ farm his grandfather instilled in him his work ethic: if Chris stayed there, his day included hard work. “Wake up, feed the livestock. Go to school. Come home, feed the livestock. Do your homework. Maybe then you have some play time,” he says. On Saturdays in the wintertime, he and his grandfather cut wood for the family – Chris’ mother, auntie, and grandmother.
Sundays were for family. There was church in your Sunday best, he says, and “then back to grandma and grandpa’s for Sunday dinner.” He knew the joy of love, the satisfaction of being a provider.
At the center of it all, for Chris, was his mother. His Moms. His rock and his anchor. She was a schoolteacher known for her sternness, her strength, and her favorite aphorism: Excuses only satisfy those who make them. “She was a pillar of the community, says Chris, “and of the family.”
When Chris lost his father to lung disease, he was only 9 years old, and he lost the closest male role model in his life. “I understood what was happening,” he says. “But looking back, I can see it distanced me from people. I was outgoing before he died.” From his father he learned a love of motorcycles and cars; trips to school on the back of his pops’ Honda 1000 chopper ended, but his love remained.
Chris and his mother grew closer in their shared grief. “She had to take on the role of a father,” he says. “She tried to teach me the things a man has to do.” His very best memory of her is from a trip they took to Disney World about six months after his father passed. “We talked a lot while we were there. She was telling me how much she loved me, and about my pops, how much he loved me too.”
The best part of the memory, though, is, “It was the first time I watched my mother let her hair down and have fun. We’d jump on the rides and just kind of relax.” He remembers Space Mountain best, as he loved science and his mother had been teaching him about the planets and the solar system.
Things started to fall apart for him back home, though, despite his mother’s best efforts to teach him right from wrong. “I got a little rebellious,” he says. “I started talking back. As time passed, my rebellious streak grew. I started to engage more outside in the streets, watching more. I had uncles and older cousins engaged in the streets. I dabbled in smoking weed.”
Chris had his first run-in with the police when he was only in middle school. After a hurricane, a few towns had to combine schools, and there was a definite town rivalry. “I started taking weapons to school,” says Chris. “Razor blades. One day a friend got into an altercation. He asked me for a razor blade, and I gave it to him.” The friend got caught and said the blade came from Chris. “They called me to the principal’s office and searched me and they found where I kept my blade.” The result was a trip to the station downtown and an overnight stay.
“Moms was a teacher at the same school,” says Chris. “She wanted me to learn a lesson. She didn’t even come pick me up. She had a friend, a mentor, come get me, and she let me know what was going on.”
The result, though, was a little slap on the wrist for Chris, which did nothing to curb his rebelliousness. “After the slap on the wrist,” he says, “I started progressing. I’d sneak out to go to a hangout, a little hole in the wall where we’d watch the guys on the streets. I started picking up tricks, rebelling, sneaking out even more.” He smoked marijuana, and though he dealt, he never “dabbled” in any of the harder drugs himself. “The height of my criminal activity was a lot of drug selling and robberies. Dumb crimes,” he says.
By the time he was 19, his mother kicked him out of the house. She knew what was going on and saw she couldn’t stop it. She tried to teach him a lesson. It didn’t work. They continued communicating, but they weren’t as close as they were when Chris was small. “I had a choice back then,” he said. “I had to make money. I could work hard or try to make fast money. I chose the fast money.”
Chris caught his first big charge for robbery when he was 25. When bonding out from charges for possessing both marijuana and firearms depleted his stash of cash, he and a friend decided to rob a colleague. They planned it, executed it, but the colleague turned Chris in. The charges were strong arm robbery and possession with intent for both marijuana and cocaine. Chris was sentenced to three years and served 18 months.
“After prison,” he says, “I felt like I had to make up for lost time, and I got right back in the game.” The simple charges added up – driving with suspended license, assault – until things got violent with a girlfriend and Chris caught another three-year sentence, then another in 2016. Everything was spiraling out of control.
Through it all, his mother stayed in the picture, albeit from afar. That changed when, with 20 or so days to go on his last sentence, Chris got called down to the chaplain’s office. “That was the longest walk of my life,” says Chris. “That’s where you get the bad news.”
His mother was sick. His daughter’s mother had called to tell him his mother was in the hospital. “My mom was strong, though,” he says. “I kept telling myself, she’ll be alright, she’ll be alright, she’ll be alright.”
His first stop when he got out of prison was her hospital room. There, he got a major reality check. “She had knee problems, but now her legs were the size of tree trunks. She couldn’t walk, she couldn’t do things for herself. To see the woman you’ve known your whole life look at you and tell you she’s hurting…but I’m still thinking, ‘she’ll get better, she’ll get better.’”
Once his mother came home, he realized how bad the situation was. Chris began to work hard to support himself and his mother. He got a job and kept it. He rented a house across the street from where his mother lived with his grandmother and his auntie, and had his girlfriend move in. Together, they tried to help nurse his mother back to help. It was a lot of pressure but there were benefits, too. “Growing up,” says Chris, “my moms and I had a bond, but it wasn’t as close as it was before she passed. That’s when I got closest to her in all my life.”
The night before she passed, the two talked for hours. “She was talking about my daughter,” says Chris. “My daughter was her heart. She was telling me what she was going to order for my daughter for Easter. An Easter dress.”
That night, too, she said, “Chris, take care of yourself.” He says, “She told me she saw me make some changes in my life that she was proud of. She saw me working hard, getting my own place, trying to get my life together. I promised her I’d be alright.” By the time Chris went to check on her the next morning, she was gone.
It was like a bad dream. “I never thought I’d see that day,” he says. “The life I was living, I always used to tell myself, ‘I’m sorry for Moms – she’s gonna have to bury me.’” Now Chris had to plan her funeral.
Chris found Turning Leaf a month after his mother’s death. His journey here hasn’t been an easy one. He had to take a few weeks off to get his head straight and handle some family issues, and his grief is still raw. The program is helping him, though. “I’m learning how to use skills I never really knew how to use. Communicating with others, problem solving. They’re teaching me how to deal with my aggression. How to calm down, how not to let my emotions take over.”
His goal is to get his CDL and one day own his own trucking company. He knows his mother would be proud of him if she could see him now. “Moms didn’t show a lot of emotions, but you’d know what she’s thinking.” He pauses for a moment, his own emotions on full display. “You don’t appreciate a person when they’re here as much as you appreciate them when they’re gone.”
Chris, for you to be working so hard right now, in the middle of your grief, shows us how far you will go. We are here for you every step of the way.