Over the past eight years, my family and I have endured great hardship, pain and humiliation. All of this was the result of my actions, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. Actually, it made it worse. When my professional career was blown apart in a wide-ranging scandal, everything about our lives changed. Whereas once we were able to give significant sums to help others in need, suddenly we found ourselves borrowing just to stay afloat. As the clouds of scandal darkened our lives, my five children and my wife were faced with the harsh reality that we would soon be separated, as I was to be cast into prison. The mood in our home was gloomy and despondent. Our faith was put to the test, as were we.
As the children gathered one Friday night for our weekly family Sabbath dinner, I noticed that the gleam had left their eyes, replaced by tears and anguish. My beloved wife met my glance briefly before gazing lovingly at each child in his or her chair. I sat at the head of the table wondering how I could ease their pain. These children did nothing to deserve the distress that descended on their lives. I was the only guilty party at that table. As my eyes darted around the room, searching for something inspiring to say, I caught sight of the daily newspaper. Staring back at me on the front page was a frightening picture of another father. This man was clutching his little daughter who had a look of terror on her face. They were sitting in the Superdome in New Orleans.
He raked in millions as a lobbyist in D.C., then served time behind bars — don’t miss Jack Abramoff’s eye-opening autobiography, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist”
This particular Friday night found that poor man and his child homeless. Their house was probably in rubble and their possessions lost. They were victims of something far more devastating than a congressional investigation: They had experienced Hurricane Katrina.
As my eyes darted between the picture and my despondent children, I asked why they had such sad faces at our Sabbath table. For their entire lives, our family meals were joyous and comforting, but this night was one of mourning. As a group they reminded me about the torrent of nastiness to which we had all been subjected. “Dad, we have the worst lives in the world,” was a common conclusion. I waited a few moments, letting them express themselves fully before I began.
“My dear children, I certainly understand your sadness and your feeling that our life has become a horror show. It has. But I have a question for you.” The children lifted their eyes to meet mine. “With all that is bad in our lives right now, which of you would like to switch places with those unfortunate folks who are spending this night in the Superdome?”
The children looked down. I didn’t mean to shame them, of course. I wanted them to realize that we had a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, a bed to sleep in, food on our table and all our family members sitting together. The poor father and his daughter braving the stygian nightmare in the Superdome had none of these. I reminded our children that the way of the world is that there is always someone worse off than we are. In fact, during the worse moments of our lives, 99 percent of the world’s population would trade places with us in an instant.
The children understood. The darkest days still lay ahead for us. Soon, the Sabbath table would be missing a father, and for 185 weeks, the prayers would be said with a twinge of sadness and defeat. But, after many, many months, I emerged from prison into the embrace of the wife and children I love so much. As I held on to them, standing outside the gates of the prison in which I had lived for almost 1,300 nights, I said a prayer of thanksgiving to God that He had brought us through this most difficult time. I knew that the path ahead would not be strewn with roses, but certainly it would be better than what I had endured and what they had endured.
At that moment, I had much for which to be grateful. My faith had sustained me and caused me to reflect and repent of my past actions. My family stood by me when so many others in similar circumstances had not stood by their fathers or husbands. I learned a lot about myself in prison, but perhaps nothing more than the importance of appreciation of the little things in life. An inmate’s existence is lonely and painful. The little comforts we take for granted are missing from life in prison.
Gratitude and recognition of the good around us invigorates our faith, enlivens our spirit and helps us appreciate both the little things in life and the friends and family who make our world a better place. Nothing says more about America than the fact that, as a people, we dedicate a day to gratitude. As our family gathers around our table this Thanksgiving to celebrate this day, we know that, even in these times of national crisis and personal hardship, the future promises to be better than the past. We are grateful for what we do have and for the privilege of sharing it with those less fortunate.