23 July 2014

Am I Cut Off?

            I met him on Tuesday. By then I thought he’d seen plenty of people in uniform: police, corrections officers, medical staff, as well as lawyers in suits. He was in a solitary cell on the seventh floor. The cell was in a corner at the end of the wing. No casual traffic passed by his door and the window in his door looked out to a blank wall. He wore a quilted green blanket/wrap. It couldn’t be torn into strips or folded into a noose. A chart taped to the doorway gained a new set of initials every fifteen minutes. He was on suicide watch.
            I knocked on the window and woke him. His eyes were blank, but he focused on my face. “I’m a chaplain,” I said by way of introduction. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” He nodded but didn’t say anything. I asked if he wanted anything from the chaplain’s office. He barely shook his head. He looked more stunned than anything. “I’ll come back and check in with you.” He went back to his mattress and lay down. He’d been to court that morning to hear the initial charges against him. There were TV crews parked outside the jail, but he wouldn’t have seen them.
            He was still in that cell when I saw him again. He didn’t remember me. Our conversation was a repeat of the first one: I talked, he nodded. I said I’d come again. He went back to bed. The third time I stopped by, he’d been moved to another wing on the same floor. He still looked at a blank wall. The green quilted blanket/wrap was gone. He was dressed in a white jumpsuit. He was a little more engaged this time, said he was feeling okay, that his family had been to visit, but beyond that, he said little. “Is it okay if I come back?” He answered. “Yes.”
            Unlike most people I meet at the jail, I know what brought him here. The Thursday before I met him, my drive home was filled with news reports from a campus where a man had brought guns and rounds of ammunition and started shooting. Unlike many other recent shooters, he is alive. He wasn’t killed by a SWAT team. He didn’t have time to turn the gun on himself. A student pepper-sprayed him and held him down. He was arrested and he’s in jail. A man died and two other students were wounded.
            In the aftermath, there were some familiar events. There were several vigils at the campus. The local radio and TV stations went looking for comments everywhere they could. One station lined up an interview with a man who’d known the shooter years ago, when he worked at a gun range. But that’s where things began to happen differently.
            The man thought better of the interview, decided he had nothing to contribute to understanding the current events. He cancelled.
            The man who had interrupted the shooting declined to be interviewed. So did his family. Local area residents wanted to thank him, so they bought everything on the registry for his upcoming wedding and raised fifty thousand dollars for his new life. He asked that any donations be directed to the school.
            The school issued a few statements, but focused on their mission as a Christian school and spoke of compassion and community. Graduation happened the next week.
            Legal proceedings went on. Arraignment, lawyers making statements, the usual. Last Sunday there was an article in the paper detailing the accused man’s chaotic upbringing and mental health issues. The court of public opinion will have its say in the weeks and months to come. Yesterday, the seven pages of a journal were made public. It’s awful and scary writing. It can’t be ignored. Someone in the prosecutor’s office said, “We need to understand why people do these things.” News organizations are suing for 911 tapes and pictures from the crime scene to be released. The school and the victims are resisting that move. Why traumatize people all over again?
            On the maximum security floor, I met with the young man again. This time, we were able to sit at a table with plexi-glass between us instead of standing at the door to his cell trying to make ourselves heard and understood. “I’ve been reading Psalm 37,” he said. “‘All sinners will be destroyed; the wicked will be cut off.’ Am I cut off?”
            I hear the voice of Sr. Helen Prejean in my head. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I say these words out loud. We will have many months to live into them.

06 July 2014

Eight Months and Counting

Bless me, friends, for I have sinned. It's been eight months since I last put anything on my blog.

Much has happened. Much is still the same.

What's the same:
     ---I'm still a jail chaplain
     ---working in downtown Seattle
     I still meet with men and women on the various floors who are somewhere along a timeline that will get them into court, to facetime with a judge and maybe a trial, to conviction or acquittal, to more time inside either at the jail or in prison, or else a ticket home.

     I carry tissues and scratch paper and a pen. Sometimes I forget the keys to my office (a pox on women's clothing designers who can't manage to put pockets on basic jeans or slacks!).

     I spend a lot of time waiting for elevators to take me where I need to go, and it's been four years since I've heard "You can't get there from here" when I ask for a floor. My first summer here, that was the constant refrain. Not all elevators go everywhere.

     I ride the bus most days, but drive when I have to pick up boxes of bibles or greeting cards to bring into the jail. The back seat of my car is in permanent disarray. Any thief is deterred by the markings on the boxes. BIBLES FOR JAIL.

     Conversations begun in elevators often start with, "Hey, you look familiar!" My standard response is, "How long since you were at Shelton?" That gets us to remembering that I used to work at the  prison, no I don't go there anymore, and maybe a bit of updating on what's gone on in this man's life since we last crossed paths.

     The stories are just as entertaining and heart-breaking as ever. The resilience and humor still shine.

So what changed?

     The greatest change is that my mother died last November. She was 83 and lived with Alzheimer's for at least fifteen years, the last ten at a care facility nearby. Mom's story was very separate from this blog, but much of the reason I do the chaplain job is because of her influence. She was never one to be limited by anyone. She always encouraged me to look beyond the teacher-nurse-secretary tracks that were available in the 60s and 70s. Her snarky sense of humor is why, when my (male) guidance counselor told me in 9th grade that I should take typing so I could put my husband through college, I told him, "IF I take typing, I'll be putting myself through college."

     Mom stopped talking several years ago, but before then, she wanted to hear stories about what happened on my job--much the same way I loved to hear her stories about working for California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, enforcing civil rights laws. People have asked if I miss talking to her or getting a hug. I do, but I had to let go of those things more than five years ago. What we could both enjoy, all the way to the end, was good chocolate.  

      We had a grand family gathering and a memorial service that was so fitting. The work of tying up loose ends has kept the siblings busy in the mean time and "Gas money!" has a whole new meaning for me. I miss her.

     Yet, as Ted Kennedy said, "The work goes on." Back to stories, while I can still tell them, about the jail and the people I meet and the grace I find there.