Time to get real. My past posts have been personal, but this is something different. It’s about my recent visit to see my uncle in prison. And if you would rather look up cookie recipes than read about something darker, then I completely understand. There’s a lot of dark stuff out there already; cookies sometimes make our days a little brighter. Otherwise, here goes …
Nine years ago, I drew this picture.
It was an art project for my therapy group. It was supposed to be part of the healing process. This is what I saw approximately nine months earlier when my mother was shot and killed by my uncle, or some semblance of him.
Several days ago, over 10 years later, I came face to face with my uncle in prison, where he is serving a life sentence. It was time.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been angry for so long. How could this monster take away my mother, try to take away my life too? There was no explanation for it. No explanation for the horrid things human beings can do to each other. I know we all have dark and light sides, and we never really know what we’d be capable of. But still, some things just don’t make any sense.
The mediators I’d been working with for two years made it seem like my uncle was more smug than ashamed. “No signs of remorse,” they’d said. So my anger and fear held on, replacing the family members’ embrace I could no longer feel. But despite the anger I felt, I still saw a piece of him as the uncle I’d grown up with. No matter how crazy they are, you still love a part of them. It’s weird. And it’s not easy to face. You feel like if you let go of the anger and sadness, you will be letting go of the ones who died. As if you’re saying it’s all ok. But that’s not it at all. It’s not ok, and it never will be. But you also can’t live your life in anger, sadness and fear. You are only killing yourself. There has to be a balance somewhere.
I was supposed to visit with him several months prior, but due to an exorbitant amount of anxiety from mediator meetings, Nana’s up-and-down health, my therapy sessions, job/money insecurities, my own sudden heart and health issues, and the impending meet-up day, I backed out. It was all too overwhelming. I was afraid I’d see him and have a heart attack.
Then one day, I or the universe decided I was ready. The next day, about a month or so ago, I received a text from the mediators. Weird. Who’s listening to my thoughts? We met. They met with my uncle. All systems go. They’d mentioned my therapist, was she ok with what I was doing. I hadn’t seen her in months. The next day, she also texted me out of the blue. Ok universe, I’m listening.
The time leading up to the date was shorter than before. I didn’t have as much time to panic. And I was busy with work and life. We took a day to visit the prison so I wouldn’t be completely overwhelmed the day of. It was interesting. I’m riding around in an SUV. These ladies are pointing out what’s what on the grounds, 18,000 acres of them. And my thoughts are going between, “I’m touring the prison,” to, “there is a reason I’m touring the prison, and it’s not for the rodeo, not for fun.” I saw the hounds, the wolves, the B-Line, Jimmy the camel, death row, the hospital, the lake, the barbed wire. It was eerie. Surreal. And some parts even beautiful. After we got back to Baton Rouge, I stopped by Trader Joe’s on the way home, an hour-long drive. Numb.
I could go into more details about my feelings, but I still mainly felt numb. A week or so before, it finally hit me. I looked at pictures of him and my mom. And I cried, a lot. I gathered photos of the family, cartoons for him to draw and a speech I wrote for him. And we were on our way.
It wasn’t organized as efficiently as I’d hoped, but that is life, right? Life is about constant change, and to always know it can happen. But … in any case, I saw him. It happened. He was wearing a light blue button-down shirt. His beard wasn’t as long as it used to be. Sometimes in the pictures Nana takes with him when she visits him every couple of months, he looks old. He looked older, but not as old as I’d expected. And he was happy, so very happy to see me, his niece. He was not scary to me. He did not have the raging eyes I saw on that horrible day. He was my uncle. And that was weird to see. At one point, maybe not on purpose, he said, “I did it.” It was sad, heartbreaking, freeing. I so needed to hear him say that. And I saw the sadness in his eyes, the shame, the remorse. I saw the fear in having to go back and revisit it. I saw that he didn’t want it to have happened. I saw the child inside of him, and the one inside of me. I saw my mom and felt her contentment that finally this meeting was happening, and it would be ok. It is what it is.
There were tears. There were hugs. There was laughter. Hope. Love. Remorse. Cookies and fried chicken. We weren’t allowed to take a picture together. Did I want to? If it’s supposedly the last time I will ever be able to see him again, then yes. I am one of his victims, so officially I’m not allowed to see him again. But I think I might want to. But I don’t know if it’s possible. So many thoughts turn around in my head.
It’s been a little over a week since I saw him. I’ve been busy, and have drunk a little too much. The three consistent words I’ve heard friends say are, “strong. brave. proud.” But I don’t know about those. You know when you just feel the universe carrying you to do something, and so you do it? Hm. Today, however, I felt the effects in my stomach, and I realized I needed to pause for a minute. The mother of the friend who came with me set me up with a massage a couple of days after. I keep trying to get on with life in a way, but I realize that my brain and body are saying no. I need some downtime. But not too much, or else maybe I’ll go back into that hideout space. And that helps no one. I’m still trying to figure out everything that’s going on in my mind, how to process it. What I want is a body without anger, or as close to it as I can get. Is that possible? I am open to hugs from family and friends who ARE still here. Seeing my mother’s smile, and allowing myself to feel it without succumbing to the painful flashbacks of the horrendous event itself. Easing into acceptance, although none of it is easy. I still miss my mom. I will always miss my mom. I miss her and I want her back her so bad, every single day. But that’s not possible. It feels weird to admit that. Like the floor I have been stomping, throwing myself and crying on has finally given out from underneath me. I’m going to have to learn to fly in this world. I guess that time is now.
There’s so much anger and fear and aggression in the world. Everywhere you turn. Pop-up ads. Traffic jams. Politics. Supermarket parking lots. Enough. I don’t want it inside of me anymore. It all becomes too much. Just look at the words we see everyday:
I know these are only words, and I know they supposedly help sell, get the point across. And I’m opposed to banning words because they’re upsetting. We can’t continue to drown in our victimhood. But when everything you read is peppered with aggression, you begin to absorb it; you become it. And that’s not ok. We just need to choose more carefully what it is we want to put out into the world. Am I the only one who notices this?
Imagine if you let go of your anger. Just stopped. Instead of screaming and lying and building barriers, you put down your fears and anger and hugged your enemy. No, really. I know it’s not easy. Oh my god, I know that. But I did it. And it feels good, something. It’s not about giving up. It’s about understanding. If you took a deep breath, looked into your opponent’s eyes and allowed yourself to feel love. Allowed yourself to listen. Listen to why you feel the way you feel. Listen to them, why they feel the way they feel. Heal the wounds. Work together. Begin to realize that we are all on this earth together. We really are all just one big ball of energy. Hold hands. Laugh. Cry. Find beauty in drops of rain on your skin. The sweetly scented petals of a rose. Let go of all your defenses against what you think is silly, woowoo, too soft or impossible. And just be open to the faith that if we really do want to live in a world of peace, that peace begins with us as individuals. Again, I am still processing everything, but whatever it is I feel right now, I know I’m going in the right direction. To find that peace is essential to our world, to the future, if we do want to evolve. And if the other person isn’t a family member or someone you love, if they feel no remorse, doesn’t that just make you sadder for them? What is it inside of them that makes them so angry? What happened?
I wrote a speech to my uncle. I read it out loud to him in the room. He didn’t want a copy, said it was all in here (mind), and he could never get it out. But, he suggested I post it or somehow put it out into the world. “Maybe it will help someone who’s been through the same thing, or something like it,” he said. Wouldn’t it be funny if the man who killed my beautiful mother, the man who tried to kill me, ends up becoming my fucking guru? Or me his? Or maybe we become each other’s? Surreal. Or maybe that’s that, and we all move on in the best way we can, whatever that means. In any case, here’s the speech. It is extremely personal. But I hope it helps someone else out there, and somehow we can all let go of our anger and remember to love each other and ourselves. Peace.
For the past 10 years, my heart has been full of pain, anger, fear and sorrow. The summer of 2008, you became a different person. I saw it in your eyes, heard it in your words and felt it in my trembling bones.
How should I look at you now? As the one we worried about? The one who, throughout time, would go off on incomprehensible rants about religion or space? The one who, when we suggested you get help, would dismiss it, laugh it off, turn it all into a joke? The one who dyed his beard and long hair black for Halloween, and wouldn’t put it back, making you seem scary and unclean? The one who left porn magazines and photos lying around for your mother to see, bragging about your strippers? The one who insisted I’d posed for a strip club logo? The one who, in 1988, chased me around the house calling me a bastard and the devil and Mom a whore? The one who refused to go to therapy when Nana asked you to go? The one who moved all of Nana’s and my things in garbage bags to the den, and painted the front part of the house white believing that it would make Nana healthier? The one who threatened to kill me and Mom in the hospital if we didn’t leave the room? The one who we began to fear? The one who became unrecognizable to us? The one who screamed and cursed at the top of his lungs in his room, and then reappeared like nothing was wrong? The one who wrote horrific things on a photograph of Mom? The one Mom tried to plead with that we weren’t trying to hurt Nana, we were trying to get her some medical help, to get you both away from the house during the hurricane threat that weekend? The one who, being faced with three women you said you loved, instead released enormous rage, beat my mother, your own sister in the face, pushed her down, pulled out a gun from your jacket pocket, looked at her and shot her in the head. And then came after me, once again calling me a bastard?
After that, it’s been hard to think of you as anything other than the murderer, the animal. I kept thinking it was all a terrible nightmare, that I would eventually wake up and everything would be back to normal, or as normal as it could have been. I kept waiting for Mom to knock on my door and say it never happened, or that it happened, but it was staged because she was really a spy. But she will never come back. I will never again hear her laughter. See her dancing to her favorite songs. Have fondue parties or afternoon tea with her. Watch international movies with her. Travel across the country or to Europe with her. Cook with her. Feel her arms around me. Put my arms around her and tell her how much I love her. You took all of that away from me. You took it away from her. From Nana. From you. Mom once told me that just because we all don’t always get along, that doesn’t mean we don’t love each other. But where is the love in what you did? You killed our family. Deep down, I know you know this. And maybe because it is such a horrendous, unfathomable thing to have done, maybe you refuse to remember because it would kill you to imagine that you could be capable of doing something like that. I know that you miss Mom. I know that Nana misses her. And I miss my mom so much that sometimes I think the sadness will eventually eat me up inside, or I will drown in my tears. How do you get to block it all out of your mind, when there is no way I can … ever? When it is engrained in my eyes? How do you get to pretend we are all one big happy family? That everything is normal. How do you find peace and freedom in your prison, when I fight constantly to get out of mine?
They say that time heals all wounds. I don’t know about that. But my nightmares of you are finally getting fewer, and I hope they stay that way. I am tired of being enraged. I am tired of being a victim. I am tired of allowing you and what you did to control my life. Mom wants me to be happy, and so do I. And I know you and Nana do too. I will never have my mom with me again, but I can at least remember the beautiful times and her smile. And if nothing else, at least that gets me through my days.
My heart also breaks for you. If you have a soul, if you are a human being, then your heart must be breaking too. And if it isn’t, then my heart still breaks for you, that you aren’t able to feel that sadness and pain, and that love for your sister, for our family.
And if you were in pain before everything happened, before that summer and that horrible day, if you couldn’t allow yourself to be vulnerable to us because of something that was hurting you, I am sorry that we didn’t pay more attention, didn’t force it out of you so that you could know that everything would be ok. I am sorry if we ignored what was really happening inside of you. I saw the transition when I was 13. I saw then, for the first time, the darkness in your eyes that night that Pawpaw ran through the house screaming that demons were trying to eat his feet and pull out his tongue. We did try to get you to talk to someone, a therapist, but you always refused, laughed it off like a joke. And who were we to argue with an over six-foot, 2 to 300-pound man? But still, for whatever signs we ourselves ignored or pretended would go away, I am so sorry. I am sorry if your heart was breaking and we weren’t able to see it. And I am sorry you didn’t speak up, or for whatever reason feel that you could.
Although I will never look at you in the same way, I do want to hold onto the good memories too. There were many. Somehow through all the pain, I do remember you and love you as the uncle I grew up with. The fun and funny Uncle Johnny I used to draw with, write stories with, lift weights with, watch wrestling with, have taco-eating contests with until I could no longer move. As the uncle who, despite my high caffeine intake, would sometimes let me drive his car, even when I barely missed the ditch. The uncle who gave me a shark skateboard, which I still have. As the mighty uncle who could lift a car. The uncle I’d go with to Starks for all-you-could eat red beans and rice and hushpuppies. As the tickle machine. As the one who gave me a Paddington bear, which I also still have, and a pretty yellow purse, on the first Christmas he went out and bought us presents back around 1982. As the one who would ride the Scrambler and Tilt-a-Whirl with me, and not complain about being jabbed by my hipbones. The uncle who I played Chinese Checkers and UNO and gin rummy with, and who would sometimes let me win. The little brother who called Mom Teetee. The man who plead no contest in order to spare us the agony of having to go through the pain and horror all over again. As my grandmother’s son. As my mother’s brother. As my Uncle Johnny. As part of our family of five: Pawpaw, Nana, Mama, you and me.
I will never, ever forget what happened, what you did. But I have to find love in my heart somewhere, and put away this anger. I do hope you understand what you’ve done. But I also hope you have found peace. I’m going to try and do the same. This may be the last time we will ever see each other. So tell me what you need to tell me now.