It’s Christmas. December 25th, 2005. There’s something about Christmas in prison that tends to make me appreciate the holiday even more.I couldn’t sleep a wink last night. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I tossed and turned for hours before I finally admitted defeat and got up, in the earliest morning hours, to face the day.
It rained all night – a slow, steady drizzle with occasional gusts of wind, which blew soft sheets of water against my Lexan windows. It definitely added atmosphere to my mood…
I sit in my cell thinking of Christmases past, all the people: friends, families, strangers – some Christmases have been very happy, filled with warmth and love and cheer. Others – well, tragedy is no respecter of holidays.
This morning, everyone in my cellblock wakes up slowly. “Yo-yo” is the first person I see. He is sitting in a chair, in the dayroom, waiting for the television to be turned on. I am going to get hot water from the fountain, for my coffee (instant). Neither of us wants to disturb the tranquility of the moment. As I walk past, I lift a hand in silent greeting.“Merry Christmas”, he says softly, smiling toothlessly through his walrus moustache.
“Merry Christmas, Yo-yo,” I quietly return. Then I fix my coffee and head back to my cell. Nothing more is said. Nothing more needs to be said.
At 7 A.M. breakfast is called: scrambled eggs, grits, toast. I am enjoying my solitude and want to be left alone with my musings. I dine by myself.
My friend, “Bahama”, sits at the table next to me. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness and is adamantly opposed to any holidays. He knows that I love them, so it’s become kind of a running joke between us. I’ll wish him a “very merry Christmas” and he’ll grumble and complain loudly about the devil having my soul. This always makes me laugh. This morning he asks if I am going to eat my toast. I tell him no and offer it to him. As he reaches over and takes it off of my tray, I grin and say “Merry Christmas, Bahama!” (Gotcha!)
He, of course, in his heavy island accent, begins a lengthy discourse on “the evils of San-ta Clos.” I’m too tired to argue or even discuss my thoughts. I laugh and go back upstairs.
At 7:30 AM I go to the chapel to set up the music equipment for this morning’s service. One of my closest friends, Al, is setting up the chairs. Neither of us talks. It’s not necessary. While he lays out the hymnals, I run my fingers across the piano keys to warm up. I play a slow rendition of “Silent Night”, while inmates file in, greeting each other. The chapel is packed.
The chaplain asks for prayer requests. Hands shoot up: “Families”, “soldiers”, “victims”, “the body of Christ as a whole.”
I raise my hand. I almost never do this. It’s too personal….I say, “Let’s remember to give thanks for everything we’ve been given.”
We pray, sing, pray some more. The chaplain is in rare form. He gives a passionate, historical perspective on the meaning of Christmas.
After the service is over, we all stand around shaking hands and hugging, talking a little. We file out.
I go back up to my room and read for a little while. Finally, thankfully, sleep overtakes me.
Boy, do I sleep. I sleep right through lunch. When I finally do wake up, it is 1:30 P.M. I lie in my bed staring at the textured concrete ceiling, allowing my thoughts to freely drift. I think about my victims’ families. What are they doing right now? Are they able to laugh? I think of old friends who never write anymore. I hope they’re okay. I wonder where I’ll be this time next year. Probably right here.
I get out of bed, shower, and decide to try and call my family. They had asked me to call on Christmas day the last time we spoke. I told them I would try. No guarantees – but I’d try.
I am the seventh person in line for the phone. This will be, at least, a one-hour wait. “Mascot” is in front of me, as well as “Easy-baby”, “Two”, “Rev” and some guys I don’t really know. Every once in a while a call is cut short because no one answers. This leaves me with an odd feeling of sadness and elation. I feel bad because they’re my friends and I know that they just want to talk to their kids. I’m happy, though, to be that much closer to using the phone.
As we stand there, our conversations revolve around new bicycles and family feasts. It is a conversation held in whispers, out of respect for the person on the phone, and because of the grim knowledge that none of us will be seeing the smiling faces of our loved ones any time soon.
Click. Thunk. “Blink, you’re up.” It is my turn to use the phone. My hands are shaking. My heart thuds with apprehension as I dial the number and enter my code. “God, please let them be there,” I pray silently.
“Oh, man, they’re not there. They’re probably at church with my sister and her kids,” I think to myself.
An answer! But it may be an answering machine. It’ll take a moment to be sure, one way or the other. Finally, I hear “Hello?”, and a simultaneous, “Hi, Robert”, my mother and father – smiling voices. I can feel myself grinning as they relate the latest adventures of my niece, Anna, and my three nephews, Tim, Brian, and Austin, who are all growing up too fast. We talk about my dog, Gracie, who Mom and Dad adopted when I came to prison. There is never a moment of silence between us. This is a ten-minute phone call and we can’t waste a second of it. What’s discussed never matters. It’s just the warmth of their voices, the sounds of unconditional love. The call is over too soon. It always is. They tell me they’re proud of me, and I tell them I love them. Our conversation ends.
I call the next guy in line as I walk past, almost strutting, a little taller, and a little stronger.
I go outside for a walk. The ground is saturated. There’s no rain, but the wind is whipping. The clouds are dark and ominous. It’s cold, but not unbearably so.
I note the reflections of the clouds in the puddles as I try, unsuccessfully, to step around and over them. In some ways, the reflections are prettier than the clouds.
The yard is mostly empty. The wind carries a few muffled conversations. The quiet is welcome, since those of us who are outside came here to be alone – for reflections.
I go to the weight pile, sit on a bench, and talk to my friend, Ron, for a short time. He tells me his mother is upset because she’s too sick to come see him today. His wife is in New York. His daughter has just been accepted to college, but he doesn’t know which one. Ron is deeply religious, maybe a little crazy, like mild schizophrenia or something. He starts talking about God and the bible and seems to have an entire argument with himself. Not knowing exactly what to say, I simply nod in agreement whenever he seems to make a point or come to some conclusion. Finally, he suspects it’s about to rain, and beats a path inside. The last thing he says is, “Merry Christmas, Blink.” I smile. “Merry Christmas, Ron.”
I’m left alone, meditating on the movement of air pushing down from Canada, across the frigid great lakes, and into the southeast, where I am now. I’m thinking about the rotation of the earth. Eighteen miles per second. I hear a crow.
He swoops down out of a pine tree and sets a straight, determined course across the field next to the prison. Just a month ago, that field was white with cotton. Now it’s brown. The grass has gone dormant. The trees, all except the pines, are skeletons.
I go back inside, sit in my cell, read for a while, and then dinner is called. At dinner, most of the discussion is about families. There are stories of what we heard on the phone. We talk about cards and letters we’ve received. The meal: beans, rice, an apple, and two slices of bread. Many people will go hungry today. I’m grateful for this meal.
It’s evening. The prison is locked down for the night. Guys are playing scrabble, cards, chess, or watching football. Some are sleeping. “Nam” is sitting at a table, listening to a radio, rolling cigarettes for tomorrow. I read for a while and go to sleep.