Hit & Misses

The hours slipped away fast as we laid next to each other. It was the early morning of our last day together on our bi-monthly trailer visit. It would be our last for a time. A pillow separated our bodies. My pregnant wife placed it there for comfort. It irritated me, standing as a semblance of the great divider on the horizon.

For the few days we were together I spent each night as a watchman. Finally being able to cater to my brides needs. If she got up during the night, I did as well. I was her companion waiting outside of the bathroom for her, or sitting at the side of the tub as she took a relaxing soak.

I’ve missed the majority of my wifes pregnancy. I had to find things out about the baby over the phone. I felt my daughters first movements in the womb by stretching out over a small table my wife and I sat at in the visiting room. I heard my daughters heartbeat through the joy in my wife’s voice.

When my wife attended doctor and ultrasound appointments I scheduled my own with a peer of mine who was once a respected gynecologist. For every ailment associated with my wifes pregnancy I conferred with “Doc.” He was instrumental in helping me to understand what my wife was going through. Doc set my heart at ease; giving me advice and remedies to pass on to my wife when the physicians left us with more questions than answers.

At nine am we get the call that it’s time to go. The bags are packed and taken to the van. Our hearts and minds are on the devastating feeling that departure brings. I stuff the sorrow  deep down. I’m incapable of processing it. I embrace our sons and hug my wife tightly not wanting to let go. I don’t know the next time I will see her. I palm her belly and speak to our daughter, “Daddy loves you baby girl. I can’t wait to meet you.” Then I kiss her.

I stood at the gate waving at the van until it’s out of sight, then I went back inside to pray for their safe return home.

For the next few hours I clean up the trailer remembering each moment we spent in every foot of it. I’m amazed that the greatest times of my life have been spent behind the wall.

I won’t be there for my wifes next appointment, which may be her last. Tomorrow makes 39 weeks of pregnancy. Our daughter could arrive any day in one of two hospitals-one of which is just over a mile from where I’m confined. It stands there, visible from parts of the prison as a cruel joke. So close, yet so far.

If my relative were on their death-bed, God forbid, I could go and pay my last respects to them. Yet, I’m denied the joy of welcoming my daughter in to the world. I’ve contemplated injuring myself the day she’s delivered so that I’d at least be in the building when she takes her first breath.

I don’t feel like much of a father, more of a donor. I want to be there for my wife. I want to hold her hand as she pushes life into the world. I want to look in her eyes and share the joy of coupling Sophia to her chest for the first time. But I can’t because of the mistakes I’ve made as a teenager.

The fate of my future in my daughter’s life is in the hands of the governor of the state of New York. He can decide whether or not I will see my daughters first steps or hear her first words. I pray he shows me mercy.

 

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Last Attican Love Letter

The mailbox had become one of my favorite sources of communication back in the latter part of 2014 and into 2015. It still is. I’ve always loved getting mail, not bills of course, but letters and cards. But when I began communicating with Jacob directly, I was eagerly at the mailbox everyday, sending and receiving intimate letters that quickly revealed depths of great love.

When I say intimate I don’t mean in a sexual way. I am talking about letters that opened the bleeding hearts we both had. We revealed secrets, shame, dreams, and joys. I loved exploring this man’s heart and mind, until I realized, I love HIM! All of him.

This man has faithfully written me almost every single day since we began communicating in June, 2014. I have two boot boxes full of his letters. They are in chronological order to boot. (I like my puns intended. 😉 )

Jacob and I have toyed with the idea of posting some bits of our love letters on the blog. If you read the blog, thank you, you are aware that Jacob was put on draft and transferred out of Attica. He wrote his last letter inside of those walls on December 14th, sending it out the following morning as he departed.

I want to share bits of that letter with you, our awesome readers, to set you up for his piece describing his transit out of the facility where we met, fell in love, and married. Sadly, one of the most horrific places in NYS will forever remain sentimental in more ways than one to us.

“Dear Firefly,

I love you so much.

Exactly eight years and thirteen days ago I entered these prison walls. I was twenty-one, and scared to death. But I had faith in a God who promised to protect me from all danger. He did that and so much more. Like Joseph in captivity, God made me to prosper. I met His greatest gift in here, and married her-you, my lovely firefly.

Now, in just under a day I’ll be leaving this place, to a temporary place until the Lord brings me home to you and our sons. I’m excited to go on this journey, to finally show my commitment in full to us and our marriage. I love you Samantha, and I am for you.

You told me to record all my thoughts and feelings on this move for you, so I will try.

I had about two hours to sort through all of my property and see what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to get rid of. Everything that I wanted to keep had to be marked down on a form called an ‘I-64 form’ and then had to be thrown into four white draft bags, which are as wide as a waste bucket and as tall as a normal garbage bag.

It was hard trying to downsize to that degree. Seeing my bag of wrappers from treats you sent me was hard. 😦 It almost made me cry. Then I gave my tv and typewriter away. Then some books, shirts, blankets, and a sheet. I brought the important stuff. Omar helped me get most of the things into my bags. I was thankful for that.

When I was done packing up I cleaned this place up and then got a quick shower. I’ve been in this cell since 2pm.

So, how am I feeling? Really excited. It’s like a new journey. A new adventure! I pray the Lord prepares a place He desires for me there. I pray it is where we hope for. I haven’t left this place in so many years. It will be good to see the open road, cars, trees, animals. I’d love to see some deer. Maybe even a few dogs and cats.

I’m sad at some of the people I’ll be leaving behind. But, many good, close friends have left me from here, so it’s part of the process. I’ve written about ten guys goodbye notes. There’s a lot of memories here. I’ve never been in one place for this long in my life. I’m ready to go. I won’t miss the atmosphere that is Attica.

I am free and forever will be. Never will I become institutionalized.

…This is the last letter I’ll be writing you from Attica. I love you firefly! With all my heart.

May the Lord watch between you and me while we are absent one from another, and may the peace of Christ be with you always my love. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

All my love,

your loving, faithful, committed Husband.

 

Approved

For fifteen months my wife and I have endured a separation most couples never have to. We have not shared a single moment alone. There was no honeymoon. After six months of being legally married we could apply for the privilege. That was in the form of the Family Reunion Program. A program offered by corrections to strengthen family ties. During this time the Lord’s grace kept us.

It happened on a Thursday. The humidity was suffocating. I waited for the 10:30am departure to the electric gate. This is where prisoners go to pick up packages sent from home. You also meet with different staff in the guidance unit. That’s where I was headed.

I had been placed on a new counselors case load, and scheduled to meet her that day. The call to go came at 10:45. In quiet lines, the other inmates and I marched down the sticky corridors that led to A-Block. Our sneakers and boots lifting from the cement floors sounded like someone was peeling off a piece of tape repeatedly. Some men carried green net bags to put their packages in, others toted folders of paperwork to share with their counselors. I had a pen and a half of an envelope I used to scribble down a few notes that I wanted to discuss.

Six of us split as we were waved through the gate by an officer who didn’t seem interested at all in carrying out his duties. He sat at a podium outfitted as a desk. The Buffalo news crossword puzzle in front of him. A plastic soda bottle with a small amount of brown liquid was in his hand. Every few moments he brought it to his mouth and spit more of the liquid out.

The officer grabbed our passes without acknowledging our presence, then directed some to the right and the others to a holding pen on the left. I was sent to the pen to wait on the counselor to escort me back to the office.

Just sitting in that area is draining. Dozens of people converse at one time about some of the most bizarre topics. That day was different. There were only three men waiting, and were all spread out, staring  off into the blank whiteness of the walls.

Two men entered in just after me, speaking quietly to one another. The taller of the two had a red beard down to his chest and a long ponytail. His companion was short, stocky, and years younger.

“I mean I’m in here for that too, but it wasn’t a minor. He’s a pedophile for crying out loud, ” the taller one said, as he looked up and scanned around the room. His associate nodded, but didn’t make direct eye contact with anyone, as if he had a secret to hide. The two continued their conversation in the back, away from the ears of the rest of us.

A few moments passed and the steel doors slid open. Standing on the other side was a woman with blonde hair descending just past her ears. The first year counselor took me back to a wing with a dead-end. There were rooms on each side of the hallway resembling rows of cubicles with higher walls, and doors with plexiglass windows.

Her office seemed meager. A bulletin board was screwed on the wall with posters of exotic vistas; white sand beaches, waterfalls, and thick green forests. There were shelves full of binders, and one filing cabinet on the back wall. All in easy accessibility of her squeaky wheeled chair. There was a hole in the back wall no wider than a sheet of paper. It looked into a brightly lit larger room with more filing cabinets and desks. It reminded me of a drive-up window at a fast food restaurant.

She asked me a series of questions in relation to my safety in the facility. We spoke about my program needs and what I had accomplished over the years. We even set a couple of goals on my case plan. When I saw an opening I asked about the status of my application for FRP. I prepared myself for the usual answer of, “It’s still being processed.”

She typed something into her computer, then mentioned I had been approved since November 2015. I quickly brushed it off and explained that was when my application was sent to Albany for review. She offered to ask the coordinator of the program. Stunned by this generous offer I shook my head yes.

Leaping from her seat she told me to follow her. We made our way to another claustrophobic cubical. “I have a guy here who wants to know the status of his FRP application.”

After hearing my name the coordinators hands went up as if relieved. She picked up a form from her desk and began explaining to me that I had been approved.

Every ounce of me lit up. I sat elated as she told me the next steps my family and I had to do to complete the process. I shook my head in agreement to everything she said, excited to finally make it this far.

I must have floated back to the block. A weight had been lifted and all I could do was thank God. When I arrived back I was able to call my wife and deliver the great news.

We were finally approved.

 

Like My Big Bro

Thomas was like a big brother to me. I fulfilled the counter role very well, annoying him every chance I got. When I’d get under his skin he’d retaliate in a humble manner that was disarming, but his words would hit your core.

He always tried to steer me in the right direction in life and my spiritual journey. It was only right when I had gotten engaged I go to him for some sound advice.

My search for guidance was very specific. This amazing woman had two, young, wonderful boys. Not yet having any children of my own I had become very focused on how to become a great step-father. I sat down with Thomas and asked the questions straight out, “What must I do to become a great step-dad?”

Thomas is a genuine brother, and an experienced step-father. I’ve had the privilege of meeting two of his children and saw the impact he had in their lives. They both adored this man, with no regard for his sentence of twenty-five years to life for murder.

He wasn’t a father who could physically be at the big games, graduations, or there when they received their first broken hearts. He read about them in letters, and saw pictures of those magic moments, always cheering and encouraging them on from his space inside Attica Prison.

Witnessing his ability to so dramatically influence those tender lives from the inside out, I was confident he had answers I needed.

My brother could be somewhat long-winded at times, as many wise men can be, but this time it was simple. “To be a good step-father you have to take the ‘step’ out of it and love them like they are your own.”

The words as he spoke them sounded poetic. There was no elaboration necessary.

That truth struck my nervous heart, but loving an extension of my soon to be wife would come easily.

Becoming a father is quite the call. It requires tremendous patience, the ability to be creative, and able to handle criticism. It requires sacrifice and time- just about all of it. I have learned to become supportive more than ever before.

I was nervous because I had no example of how to be a father, mine had been mostly absent. I’ve lived with a fear that I would make the same mistakes my father did. I didn’t want to be present but absent emotionally. I want to be able to support my family financially. I often pray that God blesses me with a selfless heart so that I have the ability to place my wife and children’s needs before my own.

After all, true JOY is…Jesus, Others, Yourself

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My Battle Buddy

The winds of the Chesapeake had battered my cheeks leaving them numb. I crept my frozen body into the sleeping bag and nestled into my cot. After finishing guard duty in Aberdeen, Maryland I longed for respite amidst the stuffy, camouflaged tent of 3rd Platoon. I drifted off into that first stage of sleep, my body still winding down, when the butt of a rifle struck my leg firmly. I pretended to ignore it, defining it as a leg spasm, but the striking grew more persistent.

I pulled down the opening of my cocoon to eye level to see what the disturbance was. It was my battle buddy requesting I accompany him to the latrine.

Now before you get any ideas, in the Army you are assigned a permanent teammate, or “battle buddy” that is to be your accountability partner. This man is to go with you everywhere to watch your back. So that means if your battle buddy has to pull an all night guard duty outside at the main gate, with the temperature below zero, than guess who will be joining him? No matter how much my body objected, I was obligated to go with him.

As  he slung his rifle over his shoulder and began relieving himself, I stood outside the rancid port a potty with my weapon in hand as I watched his six. As uncomfortable as I was, I knew the importance of having a good battle buddy. In war, it could mean life or death.

Those days of training for combat are over. These days I’m in a new warfare. A spiritual one. The Lord has blessed me with the best battle buddy of all; my wife.

The word of God talks about the importance of a battle buddy. Examine Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

Working together as a team with my wife is rewarding, because we learn more about one another’s strengths and weaknesses. When I stumble, or may be having a difficult time spiritually, my wife is swift to encourage and edify me. When I’m tried and tested to the breaking point, she is there to support me. Through prayer she helps restore me.

The threefold cord Solomon spoke of is an excellent expression of the unity of marriage. The cord is made up of you, your spouse, and Jesus, and that is a cord not quickly broken. Nothing can separate that bond (Romans 8:37-39)

My battle buddy has my back, and I safely trust in her. (Proverbs 31:11) I trust in her as she trusts in Him!

A Spiritual Wedding

September hasn’t been a good month for me in years. On September 11, 2001, while the country was under attack, my brother and I were involved in a small riot in our high school. A cocky senior, who towered over us, walked over to our table in the cafeteria and threw all sorts of racial slurs at us. My brother answered by hopping on the table and kicking him in the face. What would follow was a bunch of wrestling, chairs flying, and a whole lot of screaming. It all ended with a half-dozen school suspensions. In September of 2005 I was enduring nine weeks of torture in Army basic training at “Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery” (Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri). And on September 24, 2006 the prosecution rested its case against me, passing the buck along to twelve men and women to decide my fate on a second-degree murder charge. That day I was escorted back to my cage a worn out boy, utterly defeated.

Thank God those September nightmares would be broken by a simple yes. September 24, 2014 Samantha and I read our marriage vows before the Lord and one another. It was the day of our spiritual wedding.

I was so excited when I decided to “pop the question” that I literally did just that. While on a phone call with her I blurted the question out. I couldn’t hold back. The moments between her hearing the question, processing it, and responding seemed like an eternity. But when she said the magic word that would forever change my life, every inch of me buzzed with joy. I smiled so hard I think she could see it through the phone.

We agreed to write one another vows and share them on the next visit.

That visit was special. We escaped this place into our own reality. We wasted no time getting into that treasured place where we began to recite our vows. There was no stringed quartet serenading us with soft love ballads. There was no booth in the back of a fancy restaurant with burning candles and flowers. There was just us, seated at row four-table three of Attica’s visiting room. We sat in black plastic chairs at a wobbly table that was unevenly balanced on a wad of folded up brown paper towels under one of its legs. Our view consisted of a line of vending machines stocked with all sorts of goodies. The brightly colored packages tempted each visitor with their tasty treats.

Samantha had written her vows out in small, but neat, penmanship that all fit on one page. I had memorized mine, and they were only a quarter the length of hers when I did write them out. I was so intimidated by the depths from which she wrote. As she read, blood rushed to her cheek bones and she fought desperately to hold back giggles and that amazing smile. For a few gentle moments I lost focus, captivated by her stunning countenance.

She ended those moving words with the scriptures she quoted to me the first time we ever met. “We are more than conquerors, able to do all things through Christ who strengthens us.” (Romans 8:37, Philippians 4:13)

As I read my vows to her a warmth overcame the nervousness, replaced by a joy unspeakable. Later that day I was even able to get on one knee and do the proper thing for my bride.

We just celebrated our one year spiritual marriage anniversary, a sacred marriage that God is using to perfect and draw us closer to Him. I’m so thankful to have been able to legally wed this amazing woman of faith, but nothing will ever be more special than that day.

First Date

Most married couples take for granted the time they spend together. Dinner conversation and time spent in one another’s arms simply go unappreciated. Couples often put precious moments off thinking that they’ll have tomorrow. But what if you didn’t have tomorrow? What if you only had one day a week to spend with your spouse?

What if you had only five hours a week?

My wife and I live under these difficult parameters. We have five hours to discuss our issues, hopes, and joys face to face each week.

In the visiting room of Attica Correctional Facility my wife and I have shared some of our most intimate moments. At a table underneath dozens of video cameras and the watchful eyes of multiple guards we have laughed, cried, and fellowshipped together as if we were in the privacy of our own home. We have created a bond that is greater than either of us have ever experienced.

Our first date occurred under these same circumstances.

I’d spent the night before picking out what I was going to wear. I must have taken out five or six shirts. The pants were an easy pick, as I was forced to wear the greens that identified me as state property. I laid the ensembles on my bunk, which consists of an inch thick blue mattress on a metal slab and a flat pillow encased in black and white stripes.

The next morning I took nearly two hours to get ready. I was doing my best not to think about the series of checkpoints I would endure before seeing this angel. I passed through secured gate after secured gate as armed guards monitored my every movement. As I entered the final electric gate I was told to remove all metal, my belt, and my shoes. After I passed the detector, I was ordered to put my hands flat on the wall, and step my legs back and apart. An officer then frisked all of me. I was finally allowed to join my visitor.

When I walked into the visiting room I scanned the area, being sure to smile to mask my anxious demeanor. The guards at the front desk directed me to row four, table three. There sat the most breathtakingly beautiful woman. She was dressed in blue jeans, a blue and white striped shirt, and sandals. My heart raced as she stood to embrace me.

Our first hug was warm but brief. We spent our few hours chatting about many things. Time vanished as we left our surroundings, entering a new realm, laughing and joking. We dug deep into each others testimonies. It was beautiful. Never have I had conversations so real and intense.

Sadly at three o’clock we were forced to end our date.

As we said our goodbyes, we hugged more intensely. Seeing her go was the most awful feeling, but it was overcome by the incredible date we had just experienced. I was left wanting more.

Our visits to this day are just as special because we value those precious moments with one another. No words need to be said. No laughs need to be uttered. As long as we’re together, that’s all that matters.