Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Life and Death in Angola

I remember when I got the call that my son – a White shotcaller for a Black gang in Ft. Lauderdale – was dead. I hit the floor like a falling tree, the phone still to my ear and my brain reeling. His body was at the morgue and, because he had already been identified, they would only let me see a photo of his face, already deformed by rigor mortis. The young female doctor about to do the autopsy told me he was a handsome man. It was February 27, 2000 – the kind of day no mother ever wants to see. I know because I have a tattoo on my shoulder with his name and the date and it was two weeks before his 23rd birthday. When I was invited to write a statement on life and death as folks inside Angola try to deal with the most recent brutal and senseless death among them, my thoughts went straight to my son.

He’s not the only one I’ve known personally to die a violent death. I was 18 when a schoolmate was stabbed to death by her mother’s boyfriend and stuffed behind a couch. My father and one of my husbands committed suicide. The first ex-prisoner I ever met (back in 1971) was stabbed to death a couple of years after I met him. And I heard many years after we broke up that my first ex-prisoner lover was stabbed to death with his girlfriend by somebody in Oklahoma never identified. But to carry a child in your body and feed him at your breast and watch him grow to 6’4” and face the world with his shoulders back and his eyes steady and then have him reduced to a tattoo on your shoulder is not something you get over.

Nine months later, I was taken to Christmas breakfast by a young man I didn’t know who told me that my son was murdered because he didn’t want to sell drugs to kids. The most die-hard criminal I ever knew called him a “gangstah with principles.” But the point of my telling all this is that three days after Eli left the earth, I looked out into the backyard of the house I was living in and saw him sitting in a cedar lawn chair under the hot pink bougainvillea blossoms hanging from the fence. I walked out to him as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

“Why didn’t you come into the house?” I asked him.

He hung his head and looked up at me.

“Because I thought you would be mad at me,” he responded.

“Oh, honey,” I replied. “You can come anywhere I am any time you want for the rest of my life.”

As I reached down to put my arms gently around his neck, he put his lips close to my ear and whispered, “I thought I had more time…”

There is nightmarish violence all over this planet. It is more common in prison than elsewhere, but it can show up unexpectedly at a moment’s notice anywhere. Young people, old people, rich people, poor people, all kinds of people in all kinds of situations – who all think at that moment that they have more time. But the fact is that no matter who we are or where we are, we only have today.

Many people in Angola are saying over and over right now, “Tomorrow is not promised.” But there’s another way to say that. Today is actually all we ever have anyway. Yesterday is gone forever. Tomorrow is not promised. But how are we spending today? What are we planting in the garden of our lives right now? One of the universal laws is that whatever we plant – good or bad – grows. Bad things can happen to good people. Senseless things can happen to anybody anywhere. But I try hard not to make sure they happen to me by planting things in my garden that I really don’t want to grow there.

I didn’t always believe that what goes around comes around. For many years in my life, I routinely did things to others that I wouldn’t want done to me. But once I realized that whatever I plant grows, I quit that. Life is hard enough as it is. I don’t need to make it worse.

If all we have is today, how can we live in such a way that wherever, whenever, and however we die, we die with dignity? Dignity is not decided by the details of how we die. Inside the walls or outside them, there are many choices we don’t really get to make. But if I work to be my best self today, to have integrity, to make my community better because I’m in it today, the time I’m here will be well spent and well-remembered.

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