Forget Me Not

A story of Alzheimer’s disease, the Texas juvenile justice system, and the miraculous power of unconditional love.

By Haley Horan November 26, 2018 Published in the December 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Feature image: Jake Ortiz (left), with his former teacher Shirley Horan (center) and her daughter Haley Horan (right), now his friend. Photo by Michael Starghill

When I sat down in my Brooklyn apartment on a Saturday morning in April 2017 to compile Jake Ortiz’s parole packet, I knew I was running against the clock. But I was determined. For the past five years, I’d watched helplessly, paralyzed by grief and fear, as my mother, Shirley Horan—my best friend, my constant confidante, my unfailing supporter—slipped further away, engulfed in the relentless haze of Alzheimer’s. I couldn’t stave off the disease, but this was something I could do for her—something I had to do for her. 

Baby Jake Ortiz, as she’d affectionately called him, was my mother’s favorite student from the Harris County Juvenile Detention Center, where she’d taught in the ’90s, and one of the only people to still spark her dazzling smile of recognition. He had already served 21 years of a 25-year sentence in state prison, and had been behind bars since he was 14 years old. And he was up for parole in a month. 

Since neither his family nor I could afford the $15,000 in legal fees quoted by an attorney to present the case for an early release to the Texas Parole Board, it was up to me, and I wasn’t a lawyer. 

Nevertheless, having researched models online, I set to work:

Parole Review Plan

  • Jake Ortiz
  • TDCJ #774694
  • SID Number: 05590589
  • Date of Birth: 1982-01-16
  • Age: 35
  • Race: Hispanic
  • Sex: Male
  • Place of Birth: Houston, Texas
  • Last Place of Residence: 7218 NARCISSUS HOUSTON TX 77012
  • Significant Controlling Offense: ATT CAPITAL MURDER
  • County of Offense: HARRIS
  • Date of Offense: 1996-03-28
  • Original Parole Eligibility Date: 2008-09-26
  • Outcome: Last parole denied on 2014-05-20

Shirley Horan on a trip to Huntsville to visit her old student, Jake Ortiz

I drafted a formulaic but truthful opening statement, followed by Jake’s release plan, compiling employment guarantees (from Jake’s brother-in-law and my father) and letters of support from his family and me, along with images of Jake smiling wide in his white prison scrubs, kissing his nephews, and hugging my mother. Another photo showed his sister’s suburban home, where he’d live upon release—in Jake’s words, “nothing like the neighborhood where I grew up and got into trouble.” I added the course completion certificates his sister had provided, which had made me do a double take: Despite having completed only a first-grade education outside of prison, Jake had scored higher than 99 percent of graduating high school seniors in the language arts–reading portion of the GED exam.

When Jake called from the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, I cut off his greetings. We had only 15 minutes for him to dictate his own letter to the board, and for me to read him as much of the packet as I could.

The following Monday morning I stopped by FedEx on my way to my job in the policy and research division of UNICEF. I leafed through the double-spaced, 15-page argument—neatly bound in a legal folder, as Jake himself had requested—one more time. Then, taking a deep breath, I slid it across the counter and paid for it to be overnighted to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

While the odds were against my efforts working—I’d just learned that Jake’s parole packet should have been submitted 60 to 90 days before his May 2017 eligibility date, and no one at the status line could even tell me exactly when his parole review meeting would actually take place—I decided to opt for hope. After all, it’s what my mother would have done. And after so many years of relentless loss, I needed this too much to do otherwise.

Shirley Horan

My mother had not led a particularly easy life, but even with her own tragedies and struggles, she raised my brother and me to see beauty, magic, and hope in the world. She taught my brother to play tennis and baseball, pitching thousands of practice balls to him in Brentwood Park, and not minding when one came back to peg her. She would read to me for hours from a Hans Christian Andersen anthology under the shade of the Chinese pagoda at Hermann Park, turning repeatedly to her personal favorite, “The Little Mermaid,” who staked everything on love. And on a trip to London, she sat with me, rapt, in the back row of the Queen’s Theatre at an original cast production of Les Misérables. She believed love could work wonders, that people could be redeemed.

Meanwhile, despite turmoil in her disintegrating marriage, she swam, played tennis, and tended our wild, tropical Houston garden: scent of jasmine and gardenia at the door, hibiscus, azaleas, the old towering oak trees and the smaller ones she’d planted when my brother and I were born, banana trees, plumeria, rose vines dripping into the pool, magnolia blossoms falling and floating.

Then, in the early ’90s, as my parents were divorcing, my father’s restaurant fell on hard times. My mother went, as my brother put it, “from a stay-at-home mom to a real-life Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds,” teaching troubled youths at the Juvenile Detention Center on West Dallas, then the primary detention facility for juveniles ages 10 to 17 awaiting court action in Harris County.

There, the postgraduate work she’d done in child psychology before my birth was put to the test. She was assigned to the fifth floor, which housed the teens accused of the most serious crimes, who had committed murder or done other unconscionable things. This was at the height of youth violence around the country, when teens were being sensationalized in the media as “super predators” without impulse control or moral compass—“roving bands of wild criminals,” in the words of Donald Trump in a 1989 ad he placed in New York tabloids calling for the return of the death penalty in that state, after the apprehension of the Central Park Five.

My mother sometimes balked at the headlines. But she knew that the odds were high most of her students were victims of abuse or neglect themselves, and she understood the impact this could have on early brain development, often manifesting in antisocial, criminal behavior. Guided by the early work of renowned Houston-based psychiatrist Bruce Perry, she also knew the brains of traumatized children could be remolded by safe, predictable, and nurturing interactions and lasting, caring connections. With her characteristic innocence and courage, she got close to her students and heard their sides of the story. One 14-year-old boy was there for killing his sister’s serially abusive husband—after cowering in fear and rage as he witnessed beating upon brutal beating, he’d finally hit him over the head with a frying pan to put an end to it.

My mother claimed that, as a single mom, she valued the flexibility the job afforded her. She didn’t teach any one particular subject; she could spend less time on lesson plans; she would just “teach those kids whatever she could.” But in truth, she was dedicated to her students. As her teaching partner of six years, Joanna King, recounted, she gave them a view of life—a quest for knowledge, a hope—they wouldn’t have otherwise received.

We made frequent trips to Half Price Books, where my mother would buy books the JDC didn’t provide for her students with her own money, or with credit from the sale of books I’d already torn through. Some of the kids had never read a book before, but, bored in their cells, read they would. She used books and newspapers to help her students see a different side of life, whether appealing to their romantic sides with Arthurian legend or staging debates on the death penalty. Her love for her students extended outside of the classroom as well: She baked a teenage kid his first birthday cake, went to her students’ homes to talk to their parents, testified at their hearings, and visited them in prison when things went wrong.

And things often went wrong. The ’90s saw one of the harshest legislative crackdowns on youth offenders in Texas history. Some of my mother’s students would receive determinate sentencing, a process that allows serious juvenile offenders whose cases are submitted to a grand jury to receive sentences of up to 40 years. They were the lucky ones, relatively speaking, allowed to remain in a juvenile facility until the age of 18, when a judge would decide whether to move them to an adult facility to complete their sentence or release them. Others would be certified as adults despite not being old enough to vote, tried and sentenced as part of the “get tough” approach that Texas, like many other states, had adopted after a wave of youth violence in the early ’90s. Meanwhile, under the three-strikes law, those convicted of three or more felonies could face extended sentences of 15 years to life.

My mother most loved the kids who reminded her in some way of my brother or me. One of her former students, Damien, shared my brother’s name, although he spelled it differently. He frequently called our house collect from prison. I’d just answered a call from “her jailbird,” as she affectionately referred to him, when the other line buzzed through. “Is Damian there?” asked a classmate of my then-teenage brother’s, from Kinkaid, the tony private school he attended on scholarship. I sputtered in momentary confusion, “Damien? Damien’s in jail!”

Damien was soft-spoken and artistically talented like my brother, but unlike Damian he’d been in and out of CPS care throughout his life, until the age of 12 when he was permanently taken out of his meth-addled, sexually and physically abusive home and placed in a home for boys. At the age of 17, he was cast into the world to fend for himself without a high school degree and without guidance. He forged a check, burglarized a building, and robbed a convenience store—three strikes, 12 years.    

But Jake was the apple of my mom's eye: a small, scrappy 14-year-old gang member, five-foot-three, the same age as my brother, with a baby face just as cute. By the time Jake met my mom, he’d already been in and out of the JDC twice on aggravated assault charges. When he landed there again in 1996, it was for attempted capital murder. The guards—“chiefs,” as they were called there—looked on Jake contemptuously, he remembers, as if thinking, “so young but already so bad.”

But my mother’s heart went out to him when she learned how his circumstances had set him up for the poor choices he’d made. He’d grown up in a rough neighborhood in southeast Houston with a heroin-addicted father who was in and out of prison, and a drug kingpin grandmother who, before being busted, had held court on her recliner in front of a wall of Precious Moments dolls in a Second Ward “mansion.” His sweet mother was always working to support Jake and his five siblings in a neighborhood overrun by gang violence.

When Jake acted out, the chiefs would want to put him back in his cell, but my mother—“this little-bitty lady in tennis shoes who looked like she could run off at any moment,” as Jake remembers her—would protest, “No, just leave him with me.” Then she would sit with him, scratching his head, murmuring, “He’s just a baby.” At first it was a game to Jake, and he fully expected my mother to tire of him and snap, “Okay, get him out of here.” But gradually he came to understand she wasn’t going to run away, that she really cared, and decided, “I’m not gonna be like that with her.” The other staff thought he was manipulating her and muttered, “She’s the only one you listen to.” Jake thought, “Yeah, she’s the only one who loves me.”

Once, after he’d been locked in his cell at the JDC for misbehaving, he started kicking the big metal door from behind, making it clang and thunder. When he heard keys in the slot, he assumed one of the chiefs was coming to reprimand him, but when he turned around he saw my mother: “It was like, oh man…” Part of my mother’s legacy in Jake’s life, he would later tell me, is that he didn’t want to get caught kicking the door again.

Unlike other adults, my mother hadn’t judged or tried to change him. Looking back, more than any of her classroom lessons, what he most remembered was her just sitting and talking to him.

Haley and Shirley Horan on a trip through Italy, before travel became too difficult.

My brother and I benefited from that same generous, loving nature every day of our lives, as our mother selflessly encouraged us to follow our dreams, supporting Damian as he became a cinematographer and encouraging me as I built a global career at the United Nations. And she never wavered in that. Whether it meant getting loans from her parents to help me afford college at a small university in Rome, showing up to nurse me when I broke my arm there, or somehow finding time to swing by the chancellor’s office and charm that Italian gentleman into giving me a scholarship—did I mention how beautiful she was?—she always supported me. Over the years she helped me pack for each of my many moves, brimming with excitement for me, only later confessing she’d cried all the way back from the airport. 

As I moved from New York to Turin, Italy, in 2011 to take up a new job with the UN, she flew to New York once more, but something was different. This time she had trouble deciding how to arrange things in my boxes. And after meeting a friend at the Brooklyn promenade, we had to rush back to my apartment because she’d soiled her pants. Although she’d assured me that the tests she’d recently taken for Alzheimer’s were clear, showing only mild cognitive decline, I feared that something was drastically wrong.


So many things had been off lately. She’d abruptly chosen to retire from teaching in 2009—after 15 years, she was suddenly unable to deal with her students. She’d started getting lost on the way back from the Downtown Club to her home with her boyfriend, Craig, in Tomball. And she’d forgotten my birthday for the first time in 34 years. I was at work when she left New York this time, and I came back to find a note from her, telling me how happy she thought I’d be in Italy and enumerating all the things she loved about me:

(1) Wonderful daughter 2) Excellent Friend 3) Sensitive, Caring Person, 4) Gorgeous! 5) Fun to be with! But, as if out of an unconscious compulsion to warn me, she closed with a delusional aside: By the WAY…The coins from your father are worth quite a bit of money now—don’t cash on vacation—put in a safe deposit box or ?—whatever you have to keep them from getting lost.

My brother had stolen that coin collection—surely of no significant value—from me when we were kids, something she should have remembered. What truly needed safeguarding was her letter; it would be the last she’d write me.

Nine months later, on her way to Italy to visit me, she missed her connection in Paris and an airline attendant called to tell me. My boyfriend, Luigi, held me while I sobbed. When we finally met her at the Turin airport, she was dazed and disoriented. Her faded clothing and worn tennis shoes stood in stark contrast to the special effort she normally made for such occasions, and I felt fiercely protective of her.

Back at my apartment, she told me, her voice soft, that the doctor had asked her to bring a loved one to her next neurologist appointment. I sat on my bathroom floor and cried. The next day, we left for vacation: to Portofino, where she mused that those crystal blue waters would have to be healing, to Isola Madre, where we strolled arm in arm through lush botanical gardens, and to Lake Como, where she posed for a photo in her favorite ruffled floral miniskirt that showed off her tanned legs, still stunningly sculpted at the age of 68. But after a coffee break in an outdoor café, I had to carefully direct her across the piazza to the restroom so she wouldn’t lose her way.

Before leaving, she thanked me, heartbreakingly, for “being so nice to her” as I desperately printed a map of Charles de Gaulle Airport, where she’d make her connection, wondering if I should book a ticket myself to help her find her way through that dizzying maze.

Instead I booked my ticket for a June 2012 trip home to accompany her to the appointment. I held her hand as the doctor confirmed what we already knew. We’d both read Still Alice and all the other books on Alzheimer’s that we could get our hands on, and had a pretty good idea of what was in store with this incurable, progressive disease of the brain. Alone in the car, my mother ventured, plaintively, that it seemed that our lives up to that point had been like a permanent vacation. Even then, we went straight to Victoria’s Secret; she wasn’t ready yet to go home and tell Craig—her partner of 25 years, more than 20 years her junior—the devastating news.

Out of all the manifestations of grief I experienced as the center of my world began collapsing, the most unexpected was a new sense of insecurity, of shaken self-esteem, paired with the helplessness anyone who has seen a loved one struggle with Alzheimer’s disease knows. In my case, it was all compounded by the fact that I was so far away.

I flew back and forth every three or four months, just regularly enough to allow me to observe a marked deterioration in her condition each time. I taped the numbers of friends and family to the back of her phone so she wouldn’t forget where to find them, and called her friends myself to arrange appointments. I talked to her on the phone every day, just as I always had, but for the first time my ever-optimistic mother expressed loneliness and despair. She could no longer drive into town to meet her friends or play tennis; now more than ever she felt isolated out in Tomball; and Craig had hired help to tend her garden, the one thing she felt she could still do. Although he would prove to be one of the few people to stand beside her steadfastly, even in the late stages of the disease, Craig, like the rest of us to whom my mother had given so selflessly, was struggling to adjust to the role of caretaker.

In March 2014, about two years into her diagnosis, my mother began hallucinating, seeing children whom I imagined to be her students. “You have lots of little children with you, don’t you?” I asked her. “I do, and it lightens my day,” she told me, laughing. Sitting at the wooden table her students had made for her in shop class, complete with a Texas lone star carved into the panel, I wished one of those students who had loved my mom so much would get in touch to thank her.

She and her teaching partner had dreamed of publishing a book about their experiences with the juvenile criminal justice system and the children they taught. My mother had kept a diary, some writings by the students, and even videos of students reading heart-wrenching autobiographies—things she’d mentioned, a little guiltily, that she should probably have returned. Yet when I went to look for them in her old desk, all I found was photos, reminders, and familiar names in a datebook in her elegant, orderly hand: Dennis Delgado, Damien Carter, Ray Gil, Baby Jake Ortiz.

During that same visit, I checked the Facebook account she was no longer able to navigate. In her junk mail, I chanced upon a message dated two years earlier from a woman named Hannah asking if my mother had ever worked in a juvenile detention center, and if she remembered a kid named Jake Ortiz.

As my mother’s memory was already failing, I searched my own to remember him as she had described him: her favorite student, a wild child and a bookworm who would sit beside her and always stand up for her. I remembered her devastation when, at the age of 14, Jake was certified an adult and swiftly transferred into the Harris County Jail and the adult criminal court system. Jake was one of some 170 minors certified to stand trial as adults in Harris County in 1996, after the adult-certification age was lowered from 15 to 14 as part of the ongoing “war against gang violence.” Six months later, he’d sign a plea deal with a sentence of 25 years.

Jake couldn’t remember any particular day that he’d joined a gang; there was no initiation. For him it was part of walking out of his house to go to school in the morning, of hanging out in Ingrando Park. Everyone in his circle was part of a gang, either the Southeast Crips or the 52 (“5-Deuce”) Hoovas. Jake had chosen the latter, which offered a less hierarchical structure. In his neighborhood, even the grandmothers wore blue and gold, although not necessarily because those were gang colors—they were also the colors of Milby High School. But Jake didn’t make that distinction. If you were born in that neighborhood and “bloods” came in trying to jump on your homies, you weren’t going to shrink from striking back or demur, “No, I’m not in a gang.”

It had all gone wrong one spring day in 1996, when Jake was roaming the neighborhood with his older brother and a couple of friends, a new .38 revolver tucked in the pocket of his Cowboys starter jacket, his “rolex necklace” around his neck, feeling tough. But when a couple of older cholos—what he calls the more “straight-from-Mexico” gang members—showed up, he tried repeatedly to leave without getting into trouble, he says now. To Jake, the guys in their upper twenties who’d started “talking mess” and flashing gang symbols were just a couple of drunk old men. He ignored them as they taunted and threatened him and his friends with bottles. He went on his way, and they jumped into a ride—but somehow, when Jake turned the corner, there they were again, backing out of a driveway, trying to hit Jake and his friends with their Jeep. Jake’s brother and his friend ran; the other friend jumped on the trunk of the car to avoid getting hit. Finally, when one of them got out of the car and swung a piece of plywood at Jake’s head, he’d pulled the gun, firing shots. He hit one of the guys in the chest and shot again as the other turned to run into his house. An old woman ran out of the house screaming. Jake and his friend ran, too.

When the cops caught up with him, Jake willingly gave a statement, believing he’d been justified and had acted in self-defense. But he had shot one of the guys in the back; his argument was dismissed while his confession stood, and he was charged with multiple counts of attempted capital murder, attempted murder and aggravated assault. With two prior aggravated assault charges on his record, this was his third strike.

My mother and her teacher friends tracked Jake down after his sentencing and visited him in the Clemens Unit prison farm. When, to their dismay, they’d found him with bruises covering half his face, the Major had boasted, “That’s what happens to people who don’t know how to keep their mouth shut around here.” But the Major was out of his depth, as the teachers vigorously scolded him: “You just don’t know how to treat him! Treat him with respect, and he won’t act like that!” My mother and Jake exchanged a few letters before he dropped out of communication, and she was drawn back to the demands of single motherhood.

Soon after I replied to Jake’s sister Hannah on Facebook, I received a letter from Jake himself, still incarcerated after 18 years and now in his thirties, explaining my mother’s significance in his life: 

This system, Haley, from schools all the way to prison, is designed so that everything is “just a job.” That’s the reason everyone is referred to as a number or a title in here. When I got certified and the judge said, “His papers will be transferred in one hour,” no one thought about the fact that in one hour they would be placing a 14-year-old kid in jail. The only thing they could think was, “Damn, we only have one hour to get him back to the Juvenile Detention Center to process him out and into the county jail. Someone put the shackles on him, someone get the van ready.”

When I got back to the JDC, they already had my clothes ready. The guys took off my cuffs and shackles and stood there with them in their hands while I rushed to put my clothes and shoes on. Everybody was so focused on getting their job done. No one realized what was going on. I didn’t even understand myself. I was happy, lacing my shoes up tight, planning how I would fight anyone who tried to take them, thinking I was getting ready to do the most gangster thing in the world.

The only one who had enough sense to realize what was happening was your mother. Out of nowhere, I didn’t even know she was in the room, I happened to look to my right to see her standing there staring at me with tears rolling down her face. It’s a picture of her I have burned into my mind. Some people are above everyone. She was the only one who saw past my naivety. Seeing her with tears running down her cheeks was the only thing that gave me any pause. She made me understand, just by loving me, that this wasn’t no accomplishment. She didn’t need anyone to tell her how wrong it was. She didn’t have to see a prison with her eyes or try to calculate in her mind what prison held for my future. It was from her heart that she understood the wrong in it.  

That’s just the type of person she was and that’s why I know that no matter what condition her memory is in right now, it doesn’t speak anything for what matters most and that’s what’s in her heart. Please make sure your mother, Shirley, Mrs. Horan, teacher, friend, knows that her heart and time serve a greater purpose than most people can understand. Believe me, her light is more appreciated by those of us in the night—in the darkest of times and most hateful of places—than by those in the day. Tell her I love her and do look forward to seeing her. 

Love always,

Jake Ortiz

On my next visit to Houston, in June 2014, Hannah drove us to Huntsville to visit Jake. He spoke animatedly with my mother from behind the glass partition, refreshing her memory with lively stories from the old days.  “Do you remember Mrs. Ziegler and Mrs. M&M and the ‘cool bucks'?” he asked. “Of course!” my mom exclaimed.

Jake had never forgotten how my mother had always given him extra cool bucks—stamps for good behavior with which you could purchase a candy bar, fun erasers, or other kid stuff—knowing he’d never otherwise get them, as the worst-behaved kid who always acted up. 

Afterward, over Mexican food and margaritas, my mother said the visit had made her feel better about herself than she had in a long time. “I want to see him have a life again,” she said. As had become my custom, I hung on to every word. “It is cruel and inhumane to put a kid in prison like that. You’d think in this world, if no others, they’d know better,” she added, musing in her new, dreamlike way.

Later that year, Jake was denied parole despite a letter of support I’d written on my mother’s behalf. It was then that I set my sights on his next hearing, in May 2017. My mother couldn’t help him, so I resolved to make her cause my own.

All the while, Jake continued to write me regularly. When I sent him the book Les Misérables, he said my mother was, for him, like the bishop who, with the gift of silver candlesticks, buys Jean Valjean’s soul from evil and claims it for good. Having read Les Misérables and Atlas Shrugged in succession, he offered an observation that I still find stunning in its sweeping summation of ideological differences on social justice: that these two books offer directly opposing worldviews. I asked what other books he would like, and he requested anything by the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka. I chose one I’d seen on my mother’s bookshelf, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, described as a meditation on justice and tyranny; the mail room held it a long time for review before he finally received it.

Jake’s sister sent him a subscription to The Economist, and he listened to BBC documentaries on the radio. Following politics helped him to keep perspective, he explained, “that the world is huge, and here we’re fighting over some B.S. penitentiary item.” He’d started studying Swahili, and he’d read every translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince he could get his hands on. Like other gang members, he’d originally read the 16th-century political treatise to “get game.” As a kid he’d heard the “big homies” talking about the book, and had thought to himself, “Machiavelli didn’t say that.” But he surmised, “Maybe I’m too young, I don’t understand it yet.” It took him years of poring over four translations to realize it was they who didn’t get it, finally recognizing, to his embarrassment, that the guys he’d looked up to “were just dumbasses.”

I was awed by what an articulate, intelligent, and resolute young man Jake had grown into, despite having spent his entire adult life in prison, including eight years in administrative segregation. The first time, he’d landed there for three years for staff assault. He’d put his cup through the slot to get water while he and his cellmates were “talking shit and being assholes,” and a female officer acted as if she was going to reach in and hit him; feeling humiliated, he grabbed her by the belt and pushed out the screen to hit her in the face. He got another three years for jumping a guy and almost killing him in a longstanding gang rivalry. By the third time he was out of gangs, but was caught in the middle of a race riot—he described it as being like football, except your jersey was the color of your skin—and received two more years.

In seg he’d seen others, consumed by hate and resentment, lose their minds. He watched as one guy, screaming uncontrollably, was escorted from his cell by a team of guards with a helmet on his head and a shield to stop him from spitting, reminding Jake of an astronaut. “Whatever you have going on, I want to do the opposite,” he decided. During his second time in seg, he thought he’d go crazy too. Instead he started looking for answers in books. As his weight began to drop no matter how much he ate, and he stopped responding even when the guards gassed him, he picked up a psychology tome describing how depression affects cortisone levels in the body. Since books were all he was allowed, he not only read it to understand what was happening to him—he also used it as an exercise weight to reduce his body’s stress hormones.

Reading opened Jake’s mind and taught him to think independently, but it took him 16 years into his sentence to decide he wanted to change. Then one day he woke up and looked at his cell door, listening to the racket around him. He thought, “How stupid is this? How stupid am I?” It was as if God had said to him as a child, “Okay, you like ignorance, here it is,” and had force-fed him so much ignorance until one day he just threw up. That was in early 2012, when he asked his sister Hannah to contact my mother.

Once he wanted to change, it took him another three years to learn how: how to be humble, to “overlook things coming at him,” to stop being the aggressor and even to let someone else take on that role. Then, on Valentine’s Day in 2015, he was beaten unconscious by other inmates for refusing to declare a gang.

In June 2016 Jake convinced the prison pastor to endorse a contact visit with my mother. At a time when hugs counted more for my mother than words, we drove two hours through sheets of rain to Huntsville's state prison. My mother cooperated heroically with the security procedures, letting me remove her shoes and direct her through the scanner and through the long hall, even in her increasingly clouded state, for the small miracle of a hug between student and teacher.

Meanwhile, as the submission deadline approached, I began seeking pro bono legal help for Jake, but a parole lawyer was something that eluded my networks. I reached out to the Juvenile Defense Clinic at the University of Houston, only to learn that it had closed. The clinic’s former director, Ellen Marrus, offered me a list of contacts. Everyone was kind, but no one was able to take the case.

The only one to offer concrete, if informal, help was a young attorney, Luke Gilman, who had worked with the clinic as a student. He reviewed the parole packet I put together and offered that it looked great—he said it was far more than what most inmates would have and would highlight the support Jake would have on his eventual release. I took comfort in that, and hoped the board had gotten it in time.

The author has moved to Houston, where she can be near her mom.

May 2017 came and went, and Jake’s status stayed listed as “pending” as weeks and more weeks passed. Then one day in mid-August, I was resting with my mother at her memory-care home in Tomball when I refreshed his record on my phone and saw he’d been approved. In fact, I’d missed multiple calls from him that week. He had received the best possible decision: F1, release as soon as possible. He would be released within 40 days, at the age of 35, his life still ahead of him to rebuild.

Over the phone, Jake said getting the news had been like being told he had won a good prize but not yet knowing what that prize was. When his mother asked what he wanted as a homecoming present, all he could come up with was an electric toothbrush. “You’ve been in there all that time, and that’s all you can think of?” she laughed. “Dental floss?” he replied.

On September 27, 2017, Jake called me. He’d left prison and was in the car with his family; “Cherish the Day” by Sade was playing on the stereo; and they were stopping to pick up fried shrimp. When we talked again a couple of days later, he marveled at being able to speak on the phone with no one yelling in the background, and no 15-minute time limit. That, after sleeping in a cage, he was sinking into a soft sofa, with candles lit and soft jazz playing in the background. At the foods he’d been eating: lobster tail and exotic things like sushi (trying chopsticks for the first time), enchiladas with quinoa, and banh mi with fish sauce (“smells really bad but tastes really good”). That he could take a break from our call to read his nephew a goodnight story, making mama and papa bear voices.

Soon after, I finally moved back to Houston, having inched my way back from Italy to New York to the apartment building next door to my mother’s care home. On Thanksgiving Day, my mother and I rolled up outside Jake’s sister’s home, as Jake and his mother ran out to greet us. I was heavily pregnant with my first child, my partner Luigi still behind in Italy, so they lifted my mother out of the car for me and flanked her on both sides to lead her into the house. There, Jake doted on my mother, hugging her, letting her sleep with her head on his lap, and helping her eat. Before the meal, Jake stood to say grace. Trembling with emotion, he thanked God for this Thanksgiving with his family—but also for having put him so far down, for having taken everything from him, to allow him to so deeply appreciate everything he had.

Today Jake has been out for over a year, and he visits my mother every week. She has all but lost her ability to walk or communicate with words, but, like the little mermaid, she speaks volumes with her smile, which Jake says “resets” him each week, reminding him what’s important as, according to her wish, he gets his life back.  When staff at the memory-care home ask about his relationship with my mother, Jake explains that while most people invest money, she invested love: He’s just paying her back.

Jake often shares with me his wonder at the “butterfly effect” my mother sparked in his life: that this woman who taught him more than 20 years ago continues to benefit him through her daughter, through her ex-husband who owns the restaurant where Jake now works, where he met his first girlfriend just four months after his release, where he took a selfie for me by the Les Misérables print on the wall.

Yet, as far as he has come, Jake is not yet where he wants to be. All the hardship and pain, he says, will be for nothing if he doesn’t find a way to turn it into something meaningful: He wants to do for other kids what my mother did for him. He doesn’t believe he can change them with anything he says; the immediate gratifications offered by street life are too strong. But he can plant the seeds. He’ll soon speak at the Juvenile Offenders Second Chance Initiative, alongside a guy from the old neighborhood, Joe Campos. Joe was the victim of Jake’s second aggravated assault rap, when Jake was 13, but that’s now water under the bridge. 

I asked Jake if he thought my mother understood that he was her old student, Baby Jake Ortiz, and that he’d been released from prison. “I couldn’t say,” he replied, “but I do know that your mom is moved by and moving with love. I don’t think she’s even trying to remember if she doesn’t. She just goes on her feelings of love.”

For Jake and for me, my mother is a manifestation of the unconditional, enduring love described in 1 Corinthians 13, which Jake had underlined in his “tattered, ugly” prison Bible, scrawling her name and that of his own mother in the margin: love that keeps no record of wrongs, that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres—that never fails, even when knowledge passes away and tongues still. To Jake, that’s why this little-bitty lady in tennis shoes came into his life, to tell him, “Now, you’ve seen so much of all of that, but I can give you just a little bit of this, and you’ll see that it overpowers all of that.”

One day last spring, we spent the afternoon at my place. We planted Shirley poppy seeds on my terrace, in the varieties that most remind me of my mother: Angel’s Choir and Falling in Love. Then, my mom in her wheelchair and baby Giacomo in his carriage, we strolled through Mandolin Gardens Park: cypress trees, hot pink Knock Out roses like those my mother had planted, weeping willows, an egret.

Afterward Jake and I swam in my pool, my first swim since I’d given birth, and his first in 23 years, his parole-tracking monitor wrapped in plastic to keep it dry. My mother sat in the shade with her grandson and watched us, her smile radiating as it did in the days when she perched on the side of the pool, glistening, drip-drying in the sun after swimming laps. Later Jake knelt beside her, and I heard him crooning into her ear: “Everything played out really good. Think about it, we’re here hanging out with your grandbaby. Just hanging out, without a care in the world.”

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