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I said nothing and walked away. I looked over to the police car where my son was sitting in the back seat, waving his hands like a person trying to flag down a car in traffic. He shook his head from side to side and mouthed the words no, no, no. He knew what his mother wanted, and maybe he knew what I’d been thinking. He was scared.

But I just couldn’t do it—I couldn’t have him arrested. How would I explain to his brothers that I’d locked him up? They wouldn’t understand. Despite what they’d witnessed in our home, I still wanted them to believe that their older brother was a good person.

So I walked back over to my wife: the woman I loved, my life partner, the mother of our children. She deserved so much more than this, so much more than me or this family, and I felt I’d let her down. Still I told her, “I can’t do it. I can’t have him arrested. Not for this.”

“Why not?” she asked, angry and pleading. “Why can’t you?”

“I just can’t. I won’t do it,” I said.

I saw the disgust on her face as she turned and walked away. I watched the policemen enter their respective vehicles and drive off. One of them had our son, but he wasn’t taking him to jail. He was taking him back to the Dunkin’ Donuts, where it all began over $20.

The truth is that I didn’t have any more faith in my son’s redemption than did the police or my wife. Maybe I should have allowed them to lock him up. Let him sleep on a cot or the floor. Let him know that his fist wouldn’t penetrate a cinder block as easily as it did sheetrock. Let him know that he wouldn’t set foot in my car or my home or my life again until love, respect, and kindness were his daily mantras. Maybe the message that day should have been absolute: violence is unacceptable. Violence has consequences. Violence means jail time.

Yet, with the choice before me—my son’s freedom or his captivity—I opted for freedom one last time, hoping that this memory of absolution might be a turning point toward a new direction. On a hot day in June, surrounded by anger and confusion, when my son’s world seemed to hang in the balance, I decided to give him the gift of forgiveness one more time. In spite of all my memories of the times he’d disappointed me, I prayed that my love and understanding would somehow sustain him through his troubling and unpredictable world, and that one day, in ways I couldn’t yet imagine, my faith in him would be rewarded.

Richard Reiss is the author of Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir, published by Serving House Books, from which this article was adapted. Contact: 

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