"Every moment with him was surreal," Arvaughn says, reflecting on his childhood. "I don’t mean to overhype that. So whenever I would see him, we would go on these overzealous experiences: lavish trips to the mall; trips to the amusement parks."
But there were bleak stretches during Arvaughn's childhood when he wouldn't see his dad, who was incarcerated intermittently.
While recent news has centered on the family separations along the U.S.-Mexico border, another way parents and children are divided is through incarceration. More than 5 million children in the United States have a parent who has been locked up.
For Arvaughn, that meant sometimes Aaron would be gone for months. Once he was away for three years. Adults were careful to shelter Arvaughn, who was never told why his father was incarcerated.
Throughout his teenage years, Arvaughn found solace in writing songs and spoken word poetry. His writing blossomed through the support of his teachers and a program for children with incarcerated parents. Many of Arvaughn's deepest memories are represented in the stanzas of his work.
Although Arvaughn is 19 now, he said the experience of being separated from his father left him with a pain that colors his world today.
"It’s like being high constantly, and then crashing when they’re away," Arvaughn recalls. "And not being able to recuperate or function when they’re not around, because you’re always looking for them. You’re wondering where they are, what they’re doing, are they thinking about you?"
Arvaughn’s parents split up when he was a toddler. He spent his childhood living with his mother in San Francisco.
His father had kids with other women, and this made Arvaughn feel he could never get enough attention from his dad, even when he was out of prison or jail. It made those few moments with him feel like fireworks.
Once, Aaron showed up at Arvaughn’s elementary school after he’d just been released. Arvaughn looked up from his work and saw his father standing inside the classroom doorway. Arvaughn still remembers his dad's outfit: baggy jeans, a leather jacket and a black beanie. Arvaughn ran to him.
"He stopped class for me, which I’ve never seen done," Arvaughn remembers. "No one had really stopped a whole room for me. He made me feel that special."
But after they'd say goodbye, there would be long gaps in communication again. Arvaughn would leave messages on his dad's phone and get no reply.
This cycle — the separations and reunions — continued for years, until one December morning in 2012 when Arvaughn was 14. He remembers waking up and feeling strange.
When his mom came into his room with tears running down her face, he was not surprised by what she said: "I'm so sorry."
Arvaughn said it felt like the floor fell from beneath his feet as she continued: "Your father is dead."
Arvaughn and his mother never got the full story of what happened to Aaron Williams. What they did learn was that he was shot and killed at a gas station, but they don't know who the perpetrator was, nor the motive.
All the dreams Arvaughn had for a future with his dad were destroyed.
"You'll never, ever have the option to grow with this man," he says. "You'll never enjoy a beer with this man. This man will never teach you how to shave."
Arvaughn says losing his dad made him wrap a thick coat around his heart to prevent people from getting too close.
"It teaches me to keep my distance, even though that’s not the healthiest choice," Arvaughn says. "It’s the safest choice for me and my emotions."
Even when well-meaning people reach out to Arvaughn, he says he refuses their offers to open doors or to mentor him. "It looks like me shutting them down," he explains. "It looks like me cussing them out. It looks like me telling them my mind, simply because they try to act like my Daddy."
But his father is gone.
"Part of me feels empty, simply because I don't have a forecast of what life can look like for me," Arvaughn says. "Some people look at their parents and see their future. I don’t have that."
Still, Arvaughn is making his way. At his young age, he works full time at a nonprofit for people with disabilities. He’s a student at San Francisco State University, majoring in communications, and he's won awards for his spoken word.
'Circumstances may be different but the story is the same'
Arvaughn still has mixed emotions about his father. He doesn't know what landed him behind bars so many times. But he's starting to see his dad as someone who was just trying to provide for his kids through any means he knew.
He sees similarities between this aspect of his dad's behavior and what's happening on the U.S.-Mexico border: parents going to any extreme to make a better life for their kids, but then winding up apart from them.
"Circumstances may be different but the story is the same," he says. "The outcome is no different until someone decides to say enough is enough."
In both cases, Arvaughn said he sees a larger system that keeps parents and kids apart.
He says some young men fill in the gap left by their incarcerated fathers by hanging out on the streets, and some of them are dead because of it. Arvaughn hopes the choices he’s made can model a different path forward.
Ultimately, Arvaughn’s relationship with his dad was joyous, painful and confusing. But along the way, it helped him discover a powerful tool: his own voice.
The following is a piece of polyphonic poetry by Arvaughn Williams. It is a combination of song and spoken word.
By Arvaughn Williams
There’s one thing in his life that I can’t seem to comprehend.
And it’s the amount of courage that it takes to be a man.
And Mom, you know I love you and I’m doing the best I can.
But sometimes I want to cry, I'm so grateful to be alive.
‘Cause even when the sky turns black and the ocean runs warm, and cancer finds its cure, there will always be one thing about me that will always be for sure.
And that is just how much I love you even when we fight and go to war.
Sometimes I want to cry, I'm so grateful to be alive.
And I am yours. Yours, yours, yours, yours. Yeah I am yours. Yours, yours, yours, yours.
I used to dream and sing about the man that I once knew, or how my favorite color was something he never knew, or how I found warmth in the solstice, or how I sat back and read text messages where he did me the coldest.
I used to dream about the man that put me on his shoulders while we dipped off in the mountains and catch fish on boulders.
I never thought my words would relieve you.
I never thought that you loved me, but in a stupid sense I almost believed you.
I never thought that losing you would bring me and her closer, or you wouldn't live to see my face immortal on the poster.
Wouldn't believe you hurt me the worst way, or the simple fact that when I unlock my phone I remember your birthday.
Or how about the 10th of August, yet minus the pauses, when I blew my candles and my wish was that you would call us.
You never lived to see when the peace came.
As I reframe, I guess my name on your arm was an unbearable ink stain, huh?
It's funny how I major in English, but you were left with the sentence.
You were subject to the prejudice, a predicate instance.
Like you’re here and you be gone in an instant.
I write because I loved you the most, now it’s resentment.
Wouldn't believe the time that you had showed up in my class, and told me to get the lotion so that I reduce the ash.
Slapped me the five and then I'm like five more minutes, I know I'm in the middle class, but let me finish this sentence.
When I saw you I had hopped out my seat in I ran to you. Couldn't believe my eyes had deceived and expand to you.
You own my heart and you is the man, I’m brand to you and I speak now knowing that I’ll be a man to you.
My only wish is that I latch you. You hold me across your tattoos and when I go to kiss you, your beard kissed me back too.
I hate the fact that I'm 19 and without you.
I hate the fact that when I got ready for prom that it was nothing without you.
I hate the fact that there is no unity, like when I enter puberty I was going through some changes and neglect from you was new to me.
I hate the fact you didn't teach me to shave.
I hate the fact that I had to find out on my own what’s the meaning of brave.
I hate the fact that this love wasn't saved, and normally I don't write to you because missing you is what makes me afraid.
Being alone, I autodidact the way of the trade, and you provide light that cast down rays, still no shade.
I hope that at the end of this, you feel no shame.
I'm commending you for neglect.
It may seem so strange, but I doubt you.
I had to figure it out too.
In the next life I'll be twice as bold, ready for round two.