16 November 2005
I talked to man today whose 20-year-old son was killed earlier this month. The young man had been walking on some train tracks in Arkansas. Maybe he was high, his father thought. He was planning to go to college in February. His father is broken-hearted, trying to make sense of it. "Everything happens for a reason," he said. He didn't find much comfort in the words, and he already knew his son's death was not God's Plan A.
He was concerned about his anger that was simmering just below rage. We talked about the stages of grief. The intellectual knowledge may help for a bit, between the waves of grief.
One of my colleagues talked with five men last Sunday, each with some kind of emergency or disaster. Maybe with a population of 2000 I shouldn't be surprised. Maybe those are just the averages. Some days it seems a bit much.
Another man who stopped in today had good news. He'd gotten to see his son for the first time in ages this past weekend. He has been reading books on tape for this son and was so thrilled to have the human connection at last. What a contrast with the father who'd lost his son.
I found those few paragraphs in a tablet I picked up this morning, intending to do some writing while I took a friend on errands. I'd forgotten about that day. It happened almost three years ago. I remember at the time I thought I would never forget, but I do. In the past few months, several men have thanked me for helping through a difficult time: a parent's death, a child in the hospital, finding someone who'd gone missing during Hurricane Katrina. Sometimes the faces are familiar, sometimes the name, but more often, I am meeting a man for the first time.
I'm on vacation this week, but not away from my work email. From one of the staff came word today that a man's child had fallen from the fourth floor of an apartment building and died. It was hard not to get into the car and drive to the prison. It's one of those rare days when no chaplain is present. But I know that the staff in the man's unit is very capable and can make sure he gets the support he needs for the moment. I know that a chaplain will be in tomorrow and can meet with him.
I find it hard to take a vacation--though I know that life goes on and people will survive if I'm not there to remind them to breathe. It's not that I think I'm so crucial to the process. My concern is that people get good, thoughtful care. Bad news or good news cannot be rushed. The body has to physically absorb information before it has time to sink into the brain and the heart. We've all known people who are quick to say, "It's been a year already. Get over it." The men I work with hear, "She was your EX. Why do you care?" "You haven't talked to your dad in 20 years. Why are you crying?"
Although they don't like to speak of it, hope is a deep river underneath much of the bantering, teasing, and general guy-talk. Hope for love that really will last past a prison sentence. Hope for reconciliation when he's done the worst thing imaginable. Hope for resolution. Hope for the last word. Hope for something beyond the silences.
Taking some vacation makes me stop and ask what I'm hoping for, what I long for, what I need so that I can keep doing this work. Vacation reminds me that I need to breathe deeply, that I must know my own emotions and deal with them, that ultimately I must let go and not carry every story with me.
That's why I write. I give the stories a place to live on their own. That's also why I keep a book in my office of the names of those who have died who are related to the men I serve. That book of names is a witness to the stories both spoken and silent.
Vacation is the space between the lines.