I have to say that seeing my son with his hands behind his back in handcuffs is one of the most unbearable things I’ve seen. I watch him, well trained by now, waiting patiently with his hands behind his back. He almost seems not to notice anymore. I watch him back up to a door that has been bolted and chained closed. He backs up enough so that his handcuffed wrists are at the opening cut into the door and secured with a heavy metal flap (like a mail slot). The officer on the other side releases one wrist and then like a well-rehearsed dance my son pivots so that his other wrist can be freed. The slot closes and presumably locks.
We face each other in this tiny room made of cinder block. Austere. Two stools and a heavy double paned window on my side. One stool on his side for him. I imagine that we are both thinking the same thing, facing each other this way. I have a reassuring smile frozen on my lips. But on the inside my heart is beating wildly. I am trying to control my breathing which has no pattern, rhyme or reason. I feel like I am at war with my body. My brain roars its distress, filling my mind with a million thoughts, memories and sadness. But for him, I smile.
He also has a smile frozen on his face. He wants me to think he is okay. He wants me to be the one that is reassured. We both sit down and just look at one another. He has been in the hole for 12 days. I scan him from head to toe, looking to see if he has been hurt, does he look emaciated? He looks okay today, considering.
There were times before when he emerged with a crooked face from a jaw that was broken and medical treatment delayed. Finally he was rushed to the hospital for surgery. Wiring his mouth closed. For a while his face lacked symmetry. There was no follow up medical care. No one called to say he had been hurt and was in surgery. I only got to see him after the ordeal was long over. Another reassuring smile on a crooked face. Now that I have looked him over, I need to listen.
I want to know what he isn’t saying. I hear the questions he asks, about his siblings, about his family, about his girlfriend. I murmur my replies but I am listening for what is behind his eyes. How depressed is he really? Is he suicidal? Does he feel hopeless? In my heart, I know he is depressed. Of course he is. I also know he is terrified. I am afraid that he will choose death over life. Every now and then I ask if he ever thinks of ending his life. He lies and tells me never. I lie and tell him I believe him.
He tells me about the bible he is trying to read nightly. How the words sting his soul. How he struggles to understand it and have faith. I have few words for this because I too no longer believe in Christianity. We talk about how religion has been used to keep people in bondage and to justify it. We talk about the religions of Africa and how our faith might be better suited there.
We look at each other and so many words pass unspoken but deeply felt. Our mutual sorrow. Our terror. Our love for one another. Out loud, we talk about what I’ve been doing at work. He tells me of the negligence of his attorney. His anxiety about his upcoming trial. The lack of communication and strategy point in a very bad direction. In this part of the conversation, we are free to both feel angry. I feel the tightness in my chest as I think of how wrong this entire situation is. And how I can do nothing about it.
The time passes and I must return to work. I don’t want to leave. I keep myself from crying by talking about happier things. The dog, whom he loves dearly, but has never met and seen only through pictures. Another request to see his siblings. And another request to make sure I tell his girlfriend he loves her. I promise to send more pictures. I promise to remind the family that he still exists and to encourage them to write. I promise to be there for him.
He makes me promise to stay healthy. This is important to him because by the time he is free I may be old. I may be dead. I reluctantly leave because I have to get back to work. Got to pay for commissary, you know? Need to keep money on the phone for when he gets out of the hole. I leave and stand in eyesight so that we can draw hearts in the air and blow kisses to one another until the elevator arrives. I am glad I didn’t have to see them cuff his hands again and lead him away. My smile is still frozen on my face. I get in the elevator, lean on the wall and decide not to cry. Maybe later. I’ve got to get back to work. I’ve got to schedule another visitation.