21 October 2007

Hello. Are You Still There?

"Hi. Do you remember me?" I looked into the face of a twenty-something, crew-cut blond man in the orange jumpsuit.

"The face, yes," I said, "the name, no." I reached for his green ID tag. Donald.

"You found my family for me the last time I was here."

I remembered, all of it, in one swift rush. He'd been adopted when he was 8 and placed in several different "homes" until he was in his teens, all an attempt by his adoptive parents to get him to behave. I'd wondered out loud with him if his acting out hadn't been a way of asking them, "Do you really love me? Will you really keep me?"

He left home in his mid-teens and hadn't been back since. When I first met him, he thought his parents might still be living in Alaska. He wanted to be in touch with them. I went on the internet and found them.

I called them one morning, told them who I was and why I was calling. His father was friendly, a bit bemused. Donald had been in and out of trouble over the years. He wasn't surprised he was in prison. Then something in his voice broke and he was crying.

"We thought he was dead. We had no idea where he was or what happened to him. I'm so glad he's alive." A few days later, Don talked with his father on the phone for the first time in years. Both of them were crying.

I've been witness to a number of these reunions over the years. One mother sobbed with relief. Her son had been living on the streets, almost killing himself with drugs. "At least I know he's safe this Christmas. That's enough."

There have been other, less happy, phone calls. Like the sister who doesn't want her brother to know his mother's phone number. Mom is dying and much of her ill health is due to worrying about him. "I'll call you when Mom dies," she said, "then I'll talk to him. I'm too angry to talk to him now."

I was thinking about these reunions and near misses while I read Chris Rose's book 1 Dead in Attic about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I have my own connections with New Orleans, two years in the mid80s teaching school, and friends who still live there. I put up newspaper articles and pictures of the devastation on the wall in the chapel. It was a magnet. Several men were from Louisiana. One picture was of a guy's neighborhood.

I spent a few weeks checking lists of the missing and evacuated, trying to connect the offenders at this prison in the Pacific Northwest with family in Mississippi and Louisiana. We called aunties and cousins, old neighbors. One man's mother finally answered her phone after two weeks of trying. She was safe. She'd come home--to not much of anything, but she was home.

Six years ago, on a bright fall day in September, I was headed to a chaplains meeting in Yakima, a good three hours from home. I rode over the mountain pass with a friend and we talked the whole way. We left at 5:30 and got lost in Yakima, making it to the meeting just in time.

When we walked in the door, it was clear that something had happened. A tower in New York. A plane. Another tower. Another plane. We were stunned, all of us. We tried to get more news. The towers came down. The phone lines were jammed.

Somehow, headquarters got through to someone. "Go back to your facilities." We prayed briefly and headed out. I drove by myself this time, took a different mountain pass, this one with signs for the ski areas. Instead of the signs telling me to chain up, each one said the airport was closed. Radio reception was bad.

I made it back to the prison where things were eerily quiet. Movement was restricted. Over the next few days, I talked to a man whose parents worked in one of the towers. I tried to call other relatives who lived in the New York area. We connected a few people.

A week or so afterwards, rumors were flying between the prisons that the government was going to implement a martial plan; inmates would be killed so the corrections officers could go fight in the war. There was a kernel of truth in that. The original Marshall Plan had nothing to do with killing inmates, but there had been some vague plan, had Japan invaded the West Coast, of killing those in internment camps so those military people could go to fight.

Holding down the panic was a tangible task, not for the faint-hearted. We had a special prayer service. We wrote letters to family far and near, reconnecting because it was important and had to be done.

Catastrophic events aren't easy to prepare for. Monty Python's line comes to mind, "No one expects the Inquisition!" But things are heightened in prison, the edges are sharper, the losses more deeply felt.

"Can you help me find my daughter? She was born in July 1998, maybe in Seattle, I think her name is Jasmine."

Maybe.

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