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The other day, the sky fell. The bottom dropped out of the precarious balance that held my little life together. I was sitting, reading (as usual) on my bunk. And everything was right with the world. Things made a semblance of sense. I was grounded, even peaceful. Then I was called to the ‘bubble.’ The ‘bubble’ is a fishbowl of a room where the guards are . . . or are we in the fishbowl? No matter, I’ll get into the looking glass that is my life later. “W! Go to the Chapel at the Main Prison,” he barked at me! Fear stealthily crept into my puzzled brain. I live in the “Annex,” a part separate from the “Main.” I’ve never even seen the Main, as is true of most people who do their time at the Annex. They don’t mix the campuses unless absolutely necessary. Something was wrong. My bones told me in a shuddering breath, “Death has arrived, finally, to tear you apart, my love.” I blinked at the guard, “Why,” I whispered. He averted his eyes. “I don’t know. They called for you.” But he did know, he knew because he didn’t look me in the eye. “Am I dressed ok?” came my ridiculous next question, my next attempt at stalling. He didn’t even answer, just waved me to hurry up and go. I went, trembling. My first thought, “Oh, dear God, don’t let it be my Dad” echoed with the truth in my heart. I stood at the fence that separates the Main from the Annex, waiting in a state torn between toe-tapping impatience and the panicky, desperate desire to procrastinate. The dim-witted, acne-marked guard who worked the gate peered dully at me, moved agonizingly slow to phone the Chapel and approve my movement across. I prayed fervently, “Not my Dad, anyone but my Dad, please God, not him,” over and over. Anxiously I waited, clutching the fence, sweating coldly, while other inmates who had clearance to pass through, went ahead of me. “Come on!” I thought, my brain and heart clenched like a fist, “Hurry up you dumb shit! Dammit! I forgot my cigarettes!” Fuck! I need a cigarette! I’ve never needed a cigarette this bad. “Not my Dad, not my Dad!!!” Finally, having an adequate excuse, I found I could procrastinate the pain I knew, I KNEW was coming. I turned on my heel and ran back to my dorm to get my smokes. I ran back out and lit a shaking cigarette. “What do they want, do you think? I don’t know. What could they want,” I babbled to my friend and several
women I’ve never seen before, puffing wildly at my cigarette. I received sad, sorrowful eyes and “Oh, honey . . . do you have any sick family members?” I racked my brain relieved to find, “No! No sick family here! Must be a mistake! Maybe they just want to know if I’ve found Jesus yet, ha ha.” Without another breath I ran back to the gate to see if I could go through yet. The guard trudged, slump-shouldered and let me through. I asked several guards where the Chapel was. I announced to them, “I’ve been called to the Chapel!” trying to gauge their responses, the look in their eyes, trying to find the glimmer of hope that I was overreacting. I had forgotten that the guards apparently undergo some sort of hypnosis training to be void of emotion, vaguely humanistic. No help there. I arrived and was brought to a little office where a woman sat, bespeckled eyes magnified to hugeness. She, however, looked all too human, all too sympathetic. I suddenly longed for the mechanical robotness of the guards. They, at least, let me pretend ignorance. “Sit down, dear,” she said softly. “Jane, please tell the Chaplain to join us.” A soft-looking, serene feeling woman entered. “How do you feel, Seraphine,” she asked? “Scared,” I answered. “Why,” she asked. “Because I don’t know why I’m here,” I said. “Because we love you,” came her reply. “Oh shit,” I thought. “That can’t be good!” Nobody goes around spouting professions of “love” in prison. People who work here are paid to seem uncaring. If I ever heard staff here say anything even resembling the word ‘love,’ I’d probably fall off my chair, shit twice and die. But here it was, the death sentence in three normally beautiful words. I was quaking by now, my eyes darting wildly over the piece of paper in front of the women with the pray mantis eyes. I saw the word ‘illness’ with a neat check mark in the box next to it. “Who’s sick?” The two women looked at each other and then at me. “Your father, Seraphine. He’s not got long to live. He’s very ill.” A dull crack in my mind, a sharp break in my heart, audibly loud in my throbbing ears. “What’s wrong with my Dad,” I questioned in a little girl voice. “He has cancer. He’s in hospice.” I heard myself wail, “Oh my God!!” and felt myself crumple in my chair, tears flowing from a broken dam that wouldn’t mend for an eternity. I think I asked some incoherent questions, words slipping over each other, jumbled; something resembling ‘how?’ or “What happened?” must have cohered from my seizing mouth because through my sobs, wrenching, ugly beautiful sobs, I gleaned that he had only been diagnosed two days before, that no one knew. He is bedridden, not responsive. My mother would be calling in a couple of minutes to tell me everything. I hunched over, crying loudly, not caring. Shock attempted its cushioning of the pain. I stepped in and out of myself, 2
listening to myself make the sounds of heartache, feeling as if through layers and layers of wool, empathy from the women, who I suddenly hated for devastating my world. The Chaplain started saying how she loved New Mexico and through my numb, empty ears and loud hiccupping sobs, I heard her mention Law Vegas, New Mexico. “That’s where my Dad lived when he moved to the State!” I interrupted, surprised. Las Vegas, New Mexico is a tiny town nestled somewhere that no one notices, nobody mentions and my Dad loved. Most people don’t know it exists. “How weird,” I thought, a single clear thought in the abyss of violent confusion. The phone rang. I jumped. Not my mom, false alarm. “Does your father know the Lord?” the Chaplain asked softly, rubbing my back. “I don’t know,” I answered choking and honestly. Suddenly defensive, I added, “He’s very spiritual. He prays to Our Lady of Guadalupe; New Mexicans are very into saints,” I declared, glaring at her, daring a reproach. “And you?” she asked. “I’m good with God,” I stated brusquely. It’s there, I am in a good relationship with the universe or God, or whatever bubble title used to explain that which is beyond and greater than us. And I was very grateful for that in that moment or I think the whole situation would have gone a lot more badly. I didn’t press the issue, which was good, for I was in no mood to debate my un-Christianess with anyone at that particular second. Anyway, I was spared further born-again discussions by the phone ringing again. It was my mom this time and I was to speak to her on speaker-phone, a conference call about the most horrible thing I’ve gone through since I was 5 years old and a victim of incest. My mom’s voice trembled, she was deeply upset, crying, like me. I found the depth of her sorrow a bit surprising. I forget that they were married once upon a time; that they’d had lived together, laughed together, played chess, danced and created a life together. She was suddenly ten times more human to me. I was so grateful for her emotion, I remember. So impressed. So loved. The news was bad. Tumors in his liver, mestasticized, spread to his lungs, refusing any kind of chemo or radiation. Not expected to survive the night. I’d be able to call him now and say my goodbyes. I was awash with pain, shock, misery. Everything was slow, coming through water. Confused. I clearly remember asking only “Is this the last time I’m going to talk to my Dad, mom?” I was desperate, pleading for a glimmer of hope. “I think so, sweetheart,” came the reply. I collapsed again, smothered in tears. I don’t remember very vividly how it all happened from there. Shock makes everything weird, muddled, slow, then fast. I remember saying, “I’m not ready.” I said that a lot over the next few days. I called and talked to my sister first who patiently explained the details, the horrible details. I heard and did not want to hear. He can’t 3
talk, not responsive, on a lot of morphine, deathbed. I’ll put the phone to his ear, he can hear you. I took a deep breath and babbled something in his ear about loving him, being so sorry I couldn’t be there, him being my hero, going to miss him so much, love you, love you. I’m sorry, ashamed. I love you. I’m sorry. I know you want to go, so be peaceful.
Then it was over and I asked to go to the church itself. I wanted to pray alone. The Chaplain took me to the empty church. It was so still. The sun shone through the stained glass windows casting pretty patterns of red and blue all around. The pews were empty and not a sound. So quiet in a place that never shuts up. Prison is loud and in this church it was beautifully silent and still. I kneeled in front of a table holding a big gold cross in the center of the front of the room. I prayed. I wept. I stood. The Chaplain placed her hands on my shoulders and prayed for me. I wept some more. Then she hugged me, tightly and I felt a sob escape as my body relaxed into hers. She held me. She smelled like fresh linen and clean. I breathed her realworld smell in and was safe. She walked me back to the Annex and hugged me again. I passed through the gate quickly this time, walked in a haze to my dorm, wandered inside and saw my friends come toward me. Their faces were etched with concern and then sad knowing as I fell, sobbing again into the circle of their arms. It was surreal. I was always surrounded by caring, sweet-worded, loving and sympathetic arms and voices of the women around me in prison. I felt supported, loved; honest care. I saw true beautiful tears fall from the eyes of these ‘criminals,’ these ‘convicted inmates.’ They all came together to mother me, hold me and provide safety and warmth. I cried. I shook. I prayed. I slept deeply. I dreamt of my father at a big party surrounded by Harley bikers. He was smiling, like I am now. I love you, Dad.