Nine…two…one… four… nine… zero. I write the number in the box. Like other important numbers in my life, it’s one that’s committed to memory. I’ve known it for twenty-two years, and I’ve said it and written it countless times, just like I’m doing now. It isn’t my bank account number, nor is it the pin number for my debit card. It isn’t the account number of my IRA, and it isn’t my employee number. It is just a number, but it holds me in thrall like nothing else.
When the form is completed, I get the key to the restroom from the man sitting at the desk. I need to use it now because I will not have another opportunity for an hour and a half. Before I return the key, I choose a locker and put my jacket, driver’s license, and car keys inside. I insert a quarter into a slot and remove yet another key. I stop at the change machine and turn five one dollar bills into coins. Then, at the gate, I take a tub from the stack. I remove my shoes and put them inside. I am unsure what to do with the coins and the locker key. Each facility has different procedures. The man tells me I may put them in the tub with my shoes. The tub and contents slides into the machine. I walk through the detector and I do not set it off. I have not worn jewelry and I have no belt. The woman tells me to turn and face the wall with my arms outstretched. I comply, and she searches me quickly, arms, armpits, under my breasts and around my waist, down each of my legs. She asks me to lift my feet so that she can see the soles. I pass inspection. I’m permitted to put my shoes back on. Other facilities I’ve been to will examine me more closely. They want to see behind my ears or into my mouth. They make me lift my tongue to prove no contraband hides underneath.
At the end of the hallway there are heavy doors that are opened and closed by a man in a room with walls of dark glass. I can make out his form but I cannot see his features. I wait for him to open the door for me. There is an anteroom on the other side. Four doors exactly alike meet at this room, one on each wall. One door will open and close before another can be opened, except when staff passes through. Less important traffic waits while those with business pass through. I wait.
Soon, the door opens and shuts and I’m alone in the anteroom. Open and shut again and I enter the visiting room. North and south walls are lined with vending machines. There are lines of colored tape on the floor, black, red, black, in rows, several of them. Molded plastic chairs are placed along the black lines, facing each other, with a red line in the middle. I suppose the red line is one that can’t be crossed. I approach the desk. A young woman is sitting there. I give the number again, nine- two-one-four-nine-zero. She points to a row and says a chair, number 17. I sit in 17 and look at the others sitting in chairs, a smattering here and there. I see people dressed normally, in jeans, leggings, sweaters, facing other people dressed in brown jumpsuits. I can see the faces of the normal people. I see the backs of brown jumpsuits. Then, I notice the chairs are unbalanced. There are more chairs in the row I’m facing. The row I’m in is outnumbered, two to one. I realize I’m in a chair reserved for jumpsuits. I switch positions. Now, I am facing the door where the jumpsuits come in.
Several jumpsuits come through the door, it’s heavy and opens remotely like the others, but it’s fixed in the open position. I suppose no one tries to force their way into this part of the building. As the men enter, their eyes scan the room looking for their visitors. One approaches me, looks at my chair number, then goes back to the desk. I see the man leave. He stares at the chair in front of me as he goes, as if wishing his ticket matched the seat. A moment later, the desk lady tells me there has been a mix-up. They sent the wrong person to see me. Someone should have double-checked their numbers, I think. More minutes pass and the desk lady assigns someone to chair 18. The visitor sits next to me, close enough I could put my arm around her. She is young and friendly. She strikes up a conversation with me. “It is chilly in here,” she says, “they made me take off my sweater; they don’t allow layers in here.” The girl has on jeans and a thin t-shirt, one obviously made to be worn under another piece of clothing.
“Yes,” I say, “after a while you pay attention to how you dress when you come here. One time, the under wires in my bra kept setting off the metal detector and they wouldn’t let me come in. I had to go into the restroom and chew my bra until I got the wires out. They wouldn’t give me a scissors.”
“I couldn’t get by like that,” she laughs, referring to her sizable chest, “I can’t even wear a bra without under wires.” We continue to make small talk about the various indignities that we’ve endured. We discuss the high prices on the vending machines, the expensive phone calls. As families soon learn, there is money to be made from a captive audience. As we talk, I look around the room and see that everyone has a few chairs between them except for us. I start to feel uneasy. I’m expecting an emotional conversation and this lack of privacy makes me anxious. Just when I begin to hope that we can focus on our visits enough to ignore each other, her jumpsuit arrives. She stands and wraps her arms around him.
“Happy Birthday, baby!” She sing-songs, “I have missed you so much.”
“Where’s Jack?” Jumpsuit asks, “I thought he would come since today is my birthday.”
“Well, you know how it is,” she answers, and her voice trails off in my mind as I try hard not to hear her answer. I already know more about their pain than I want to. I have plenty of my own to deal with. I get up abruptly to confront the lady at the desk.
“Can you move me?” I ask. She looks at me as if I’ve asked for her firstborn. “I’m sitting here and they are having a personal conversation. I don’t want to hear.”
“The seats are assigned.” She answers. I resign myself. This is a bureaucracy and its decisions are immutable. I turn to go, then turn back.
“I hate to complain, but visiting someone in prison is the most dehumanizing experience I’ve ever had.” I don’t expect this to make a difference. In the back of my mind I’m wondering if she’s thinking I want to be moved because the young woman and her jumpsuit are black. The desk lady is black. I don’t want either of them to think my request is about color, so I say this to make sure she understands what motivates me. I also understand, in the back of my mind, that my jumpsuit has become a passionate racist. I didn’t raise him that way, the system did, but I don’t want him to be preoccupied with who we are sharing space with.
“You can move down to twenty. That’s the best I can do.”
“Thank you.” I’m sincere when I say this, and sincerely surprised she changed her mind. I touch the young woman’s shoulder as I pass her. “I want you to have a little privacy.” I say this to her, but I mean it for myself as well.
My jumpsuit arrives. He looks somewhat disheveled, like he was awakened suddenly. His eyes are wild, anxious and open wide, as if what woke him so abruptly was a nightmare of terrifying proportions. I hug him, and I say in his ear, “No, no, it’s nothing bad. Nothing bad has happened; everyone is okay.” There was a death in the family recently, and this visit is unusual, so I understand his apprehension. He has been in and out of prison many times, and my visits are often sporadic. Whether I see him or not doesn’t seem to have any impact on his outcome, but most of the time it makes me so sad I can barely breathe.
Now, the muscles in my throat are constricting tightly around the lump I’m breathing against, and it’s painful to speak. His eyes are still huge, and I watch them reel around the room as he assesses his surroundings and tries to calm down. He looks nearly the same as when I last saw him six months ago. His hair has become a bit greyer, his beard is about four or five days old. He looks healthy and just as handsome as before. For the millionth time, I wonder at how I could have mothered someone so intelligent and good looking. For the billionth time, I wonder how I could have mothered someone so morally corrupted. I watch him struggle to control his emotions.
“Are you okay with me being here?” I ask, “I know you need to keep your composure.”
He wipes tears as he answers. He shakes his head and his voice isn’t much above a whisper. “No. It’s okay. The past few months have been hard, that’s all”
I try to think of some news that is good, or at least neutral, but I draw a blank. The past few months have not been especially good for me, either.
“How is the program coming?” I ask. He is in the Indiana Department of Corrections’ premier program, CLIFF, or “Clean Lifestyle is Freedom Forever.”
“It’s okay. The program is bullshit but it comes with a time cut. It will put me out about the end of August, first of September.”
“You’re still bitter about being here this time?” He isn’t here on a new conviction. He violated his parole by using drugs. The parole board sent him back. What he doesn’t know is I asked the parole board to either send him to an inpatient drug rehab or put him back in prison. I didn’t expect them to show any regard for either of my requests, but they granted them both. I was grateful they did. He was so out of control, I know he would be dead by now if he wasn’t locked up. Maybe he wouldn’t be the only one dead. Before his arrest he was unhinged and I was afraid of what he might do.
He shakes his head, affirmative this time. “I’ve been in a cage almost my whole life. It hasn’t done me any good.” I couldn’t agree more. It hasn’t done anyone any good. “I know using drugs makes no sense, but I am so sad, and I feel so bad. Doing drugs is the only thing that gives me any relief from the sadness. When it goes too far I don’t care. I don’t care what I do or what happens to me. All I care about is that little bit of relief I get when I get high.” I say nothing. I will let him tell me whatever he wants. “I’ve been trying to process what happened to me on May 1st.” This is the day he overdosed, and this is the first time he’s talked with me honestly about what happened. “I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it. It didn’t seem real. When I woke up in the ambulance I didn’t understand. Then, at the hospital they were asking me questions. I didn’t quite get it. When I got home and saw all the wrappings from the medical stuff on the bedroom floor, it still didn’t register. I’m just now coming to grips with the reality that I nearly died. If I’d been alone, or with some other junkies that didn’t care about me, I’d be dead. It makes me sad. It’s like the cup is so full that anything, no matter how small, makes it spill over. Seeing you today makes it spill over.” He doesn’t have to tell me about the cup. I’ve been holding it in my hands for years. It’s the size of the ocean and I’m drowning. It’s the size of a thimble and I’m swimming in it. Now, we are holding it between us and we are both choking on it. I’m glad we are in a public place. Otherwise, I’d be on my knees, pouring even more tears into that overfilled vessel. “You know, I’ve been thinking, trying to figure out what it was that set this off. What in my past caused all this to happen? I don’t know what it was. There isn’t anything that seems so bad. I can’t understand it. I think if I understand it, then maybe I can fix it.”
“I don’t think it’s as simple as that.” I answer. “The reason that you used at first was something that probably has no relationship to why you use now. It may be something that you have gotten over, or at least it’s something you aren’t so troubled with now, but it’s become the center of a snowball. That snowball has been rolling downhill for more than twenty years. There has been plenty of trauma added to it over time. Every terrible thing you’ve done, every terrible thing that has been done to you is part of it now.”
The desk lady interrupts us. I don’t understand it, but she wants to take our picture. There is a cloth with a painted scene hanging on the wall. It’s an amateurish fall scene with a waterfall. The background will fool no one, I think, the jumpsuits will give it away. Everyone will know it’s a jailhouse picture. How anyone can make a pretense of happiness or normalcy in a photo taken in prison is beyond me. Inside is despair, but outside I am smiling, and so is my son. The fraud on our faces will match the background behind us.
The photography breaks up the dread in our mood, but we are still somber. Even though he claims the program is bullshit, I recognize some principle in his conversation. He wants to tell me some things. He tells me what I already know. He confirms suspicions. He shocks me, but he doesn’t surprise me with his confessions. What does surprise is how his past behavior roils his soul. As he speaks I allow myself to imagine the unimaginable. It’s a quiet Sunday in my home. My son and his children are around the table and we are having dinner. They are smiling. They are healthy. I am happy. It’s an experience I’ve never had before, but what he is telling me makes me think maybe something inside him can change this time, and it gives me hope. I hope his soul searching continues. I hope he can benefit from the program he’s in. I hope he can repair his relationships with his children. I hope he will stay clean when he’s released again. I hope he can learn how to live. I hope he commits no more crime. I hope he lives. If he is unable to stay clean, I hope his agony ends quickly. I hope that one day I will no longer remember the number. I am his mother, and no matter how hopeless he is, I will always hope.
March 24, 2019
On the thirteenth of March 2019, my oldest son overdosed for the second time, and for the second time he was lucky enough to be with people who cared if he lived or not. A friend with whom he was riding in a car noticed after several minutes of silence that Micheal was slumped and turning blue in the back seat. He pulled over, hauled my son’s unresponsive body from the back seat and began administering CPR. A city bus driver who happened to be passing called 911. It’s horrifying to imagine what pain I would be experiencing now had it not been for that good Samaritan who did not let my son die.
One year ago, on this very day, our friends Bob and Sheila lost their son to an overdose. Sheila posted on Facebook something to the effect, “I just watched the coroner take my baby away.” Those words and their meaning sucked the breath from my body and the blood from my extremities, not only the words themselves, but the naked, excruciating reality they exposed, that any parent with a child caught up in heroin addiction teeters so precariously on the ledge between life and death, that even the smallest whiff can send them careening into the darkness.
A velvet rope as thick as a spider’s silk keeps us all corralled with the living, but sometimes so securely miracles can happen, as has happened with my stepson, Paul. A friend of his died from an overdose on March 19. The funeral was yesterday and Paul came from Bloomington to attend. The bonds that drug abuse bind are no less strong than the bonds created by other shared experiences. Paul, nine months clean and sober, transformed by therapy into a man from a scrawny, drug-addled man-boy, naturally wanted to share his grief with those whom he once shared the needle. Despite no small amount of parental anxiety, Paul left again for home today completely sober, held in check by that silken tendril and the chest of tools he’s learned to employ against his demons, external and internal. Hallelujah. Amen. That my own son could borrow those tools.
I visited Micheal today in jail. He waits to be returned to prison for violating his parole. I am relieved; he is safe for the time being. As I waited in the jail’s visiting room, where there are no secrets, I overheard a heated conversation between a man and a woman. I sat on the other side of a concrete partition, and I couldn’t see the man, or determine his age; I could just hear his voice, agitated, and the woman’s coming through the receiver loud enough for me to hear snippets, words here and there as she berated him. I couldn’t tell from the conversation the nature of their relationship, except that they are close. “I would bail you out if I could, Emily. You know that.” The man pauses, I heard her voice rising but I understood nothing of what she said. “I didn’t come all the way over here to be yelled at, Emily. I can’t do what you’re asking me to do. It’s not in my power!”
Their argument is naturally centered around why she is in jail and it seemed to have everything to do with drugs and possibly a syringe. As I waited for my visit to be connected I wanted to reach around the partition. I wanted to touch the man on the shoulder in support. I know his pain. I’ve had this sad yelling match. I’ve been blamed for everything that is not my fault by someone I love and cannot help. While I was still waiting, I heard him say, “Our time is up. I love you, Emily, I love you.” I heard him hang up the receiver and sigh. He sat there for several seconds collecting himself. When he left, I turned to catch a glimpse. He was a young man, maybe thirty-five, maybe forty. He caught me looking, but moved on, saying nothing.
When my visit is connected, I have my fifteen minutes of conversation with my son. He’s only been in jail for two weeks but he already looks better. He told me he’s ravenous. He lost forty pounds in the four-month binge that ended in his incarceration. I told him I put money on his commissary for extra food. It will help his body heal. There’s no yelling, no harsh words, although we’ve had those shouting matches and felt the anger and righteous resolve behind them. Just two nights ago I woke at 3:00 am feeling a dead-on certainty that I could not support his lifestyle and the crime involved in it. I felt nothing but loathing for the total disregard of innocent people, their privacy and belongings he has shown again and again and again over the course of his nearly twenty-year addiction. Yet, during my visit with him he is still my baby, my little boy whose arms extended to me when he took his first steps. His face, while at forty-one beginning to age, is the same face that looked at me with pride when he caught his first fish, beamed when he got his first base-hit. He’s still my son. He’s still alive and not beyond hope.
As I was leaving when my visit was over, I saw standing in front of the jail the man who argued with Emily, waiting for a ride. I spoke to him as I came alongside him. “Are you the man who was talking to Emily in there?”
“I just want to say I sympathize. I’m sorry you’re in this position. The whole thing sucks. It’s terrible.” I struggled to say what I mean, to express the solidarity I feel.
“I know,” he said, “it is terrible. Do you know Emily?” He looked at me, hoping I do, he obviously wanted to unload about her.
“No,” I told him, “I just couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I heard my own life. I could be you. I just want to say hang in there. You’re not alone.” I gave him a hug and he thanked me. I walked away. I won’t ever see him again, but I feel an overwhelming compassion for him and the millions of others just like us. God love us. God bless us. God help us learn to love and to be compassionate with one another.