For the past couple of weeks I have been quietly ingesting a nightmare. But because it is not one conjured from the depths of my own subconscious, it has taken me longer to reckon let alone attempt to reconcile; and because it will not go away, I continue to bend it into my every day in a way that might make its reality somewhat manageable.
I am not there yet.
Two weeks ago I received a phone call from my son in the state penitentiary where he has been an inmate for the past several weeks on prescription drug fraud charges. During that phone call I was relieved to hear a certain buoyancy had returned to his voice, replacing the earlier version of abject fear that was so evident when he had newly arrived at the prison. As he spoke, I felt my bones settle into a posture of calm to the point where they rallied almost on the cusp of normal.
It was an exhale moment.
I think I even had a smile on my face and laughed a time or two. But that was before he mentioned in passing that he had been seated at lunch that day next to an inmate by the name of Denis Rader. A man whom I knew from the newspapers was also known as The BTK Killer from Wichita, Kansas. A man whose serial killing spree began as far back as 1974 and excluded no one; not even children. A man who chose his own celebrated acronym as it boldly advertised his favored method of murder: Bind, Torture, Kill.
I didn't drop the phone, although I felt the blood drain from my face and dip beneath the level of my ears making my son's next words sound far away and barely decipherable. My son had gone on to talk of other things: the sweat pants he had on order for the coming winter months, the shoes that had just arrived allowing him the freedom to discard the state-issued boots that bound his massive feet like steel cables and caused his legs to ache unceasingly.
He had continued processing the steps toward survival. I was on hold from a terror I had no vocabulary to articulate.
"Back up!" I said.
"What are you saying? Are you saying that these sorts of monsters walk freely among the prison populace? That they are not housed in a separate facility for the criminally insane or remanded indefinitely to some annex or cell? Are you telling me that they take their meals with everyone else?"
He seemed somewhat surprised by my incredulity and in a matter-of-fact tone responded that of course they did; reminding me that because of his detainers in other counties, it automatically mandated his term of incarceration be held in a maximum-security facility.
Where else did I think the lifers were held?
Truthfully, I had never given it much thought because in my mind there was such a wide chasm between that level of calculated malevolence and pure evil and the pitiable but muted disgrace of a drug addict, D.U.I. recidivist or even the cunning greed of the white-collar criminal that I ignorantly assumed the legal system was aware of this, too.
"Surely," I thought, "the souls of the damned are considered despicable and vile enough that they require isolation from those whose self-destruction and terrestrial damnation has been the worst of their crimes? Surely, a man bent on destroying only himself is considered redeemable and worthy of protection from those demonic psychopaths housed within blood and bone? Surely."
I was wrong.
Immediately my mind corralled those darkest concerns, then neatly displayed them in full-color vignettes on that interior screen of potentials; funded as they always are by the sainted, thought-patrons of motherhood who share my best hopes for my children and brood over the possible losses with unquestioning solidarity.
I wondered of the juxtaposition in this Shawshank scenario: Could their elbows have glanced one another while reaching for the salt? Were they seated across from each other where the eyes of depravity could capture the image my son's face and retain it there along with the horrific visions it gleefully embraces? Or worse still, could he have wooed my historically guileless manchild into conversation, disarming him with charity and implied camaraderie?
The suggested possibilities were overwhelming, but I could not bring myself to go there.
Our conversation ended with the usual petitions for letters and photographs from home and my assurance that, as always, they will be forthcoming. But the words that were forming from my intentions and validating my promise were not the ones my heart begged me to ask. Those simply would not come.
I have spoken to my son several times since that conversation, and with each phone call I detect a growing tone of cheer in his voice. I should be comforted by this development, but I am appalled. On the back of what I now know are the existing conditions of his incarceration, any indication of acceptance on his part terrifies me.
I want to hear in his voice the resonant confirmation of strength, confidence and courage; of resolve, fortitude and commitment to change. But I also want the sad holdings of discontent to seep into even his happiest hours as long as he remains there. I want to know that in spite of the routine and redundancy of his days, he has not forged an alliance with the terminally misbegotten and harbors a sense of belonging.
I want him to despise where he is.
To be a mother and yet wish that your grown child be steeped in days lined with despair and feelings of isolation from his surrounding environment is utterly at odds with every glowing principle of that nurturing estate.
To pray that the hunger for home and the company of those whose only interest is in loving him be so searing that it threatens nightly to bring him to tears, would border on criminal pathology were this an ordinary scenario.
But nothing about this is ordinary. Nothing comes close to acceptable.
My only hope remains that the system, which is so flawed as to place my son and the others like him who are desperately in need of psychiatric and rehabilitative counseling into a cesspool of impenitent iniquity of which they have no likeness to, will at least be able to protect them while in custody.
But who will protect them from themselves?
Today I received a letter from my son. He has made friends with a "lifer."
"He is a former Hell's Angel and a really good guy in his mid-fifties. He is an incredibly smart individual, and I don't know whether this is good or bad, but he says he sees a lot of himself in me and often times wonders where his life would have gone had he not made the bad choices that led to his current state of affairs. And another crazy thing is that he has got almost identical eyes to myself, which is something I have never seen before. You know, how they are blue-green with a golden ring around the pupil? Crazy."
I want to grab his beautiful face in my hands and shout, "Griffin! No one has eyes like yours! NO ONE! Please! Keep them focused inward just a little while longer!"
Just a little while longer.