Photo courtesy of Grace Collins

“I just want you to know that Jerry died today.” 

The New Jersey State Prison (NJSP) Catholic Staff Chaplain called me into the Chapel office to tell me the news in a somber tone. I simply nodded and suppressed a rising lump in my throat. Exiting the office, I felt numb.

The COVID-19 pandemic had halted most of our prison activities including religious services and volunteers. As infection rates declined moderately, our religious services gradually resumed with reduced capacity. But no volunteers were allowed back in the institution. So, I was unable to see Jerry and our other volunteers since March. And now, I realized, I will never be able to see him. 

It hurt.

Later on that night, sitting alone in my cell, I tried to play back the whole day’s events as per my usual norm. It’s a habit of mine that I developed over the years to rethink and gauge my actions of the day. A self-imposed oversight perhaps to see how I can do better the next time around. 

But, this particular night I kept thinking about Jerry. Like an old reel of a film, our conversations kept repeating and I found myself smiling. It was so real.

I met Jerry in the NJSP Chapel a few years back. I work there as a chaplaincy clerk, and Jerry was one of the regular Catholic volunteers. Jerry was slender and of medium height. He had white cropped hair, neatly combed to the side with a pronounced part — just like the way my mother combed mine when I was young. Jerry had kind eyes and a friendly demeanor. But, most of all, he was normal, unpretentious, a trait I loved dearly.

Jerry had a way of talking that was no nonsense and matter of fact. Leaving the superficial sanctity and ambiance of the prison Chapel aside, Jerry would openly curse. Only when the occasion called for it, of course. But I would crack up watching the interaction because he would often leave the other person confused. 

It usually happened when Jerry, a staunch Democrat, was lambasting the Republicans and the presidential shenanigans. The best part was when Jerry quoted Rachel Maddow. If you’ve ever seen the Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham types from the Fox News world, well, I can tell you this much: from personal observation, they had nothing on Jerry and his MSNBC rhetoric.

Every Friday like clockwork, Jerry would make his rounds with other Catholic volunteers to the lockdown units of NJSP to see men he didn’t know personally. He would pass out religious literature. Whether they were Catholic or not, it didn’t matter, because in reality he wasn’t there for proselytizing. You see, men and women like Jerry are driven by a more fundamental instinct. It is called humanity.

Over some years, I got to know Jerry well. On his return from his rounds, he would often pull up a chair and sit next to me while I typed on my computer making participants lists for religious services. At other times, Jerry would skip the housing unit visits and spend the entire time with me. We talked about religion, prison, politics, life and of course his boat and fishing — the second love of his life. 

I say second because, his true love was his companion of a lifetime, his wife, whom he simply referred to as, “my Grace.”

“She will like you, Tariq,” he would say with a wry smile. And I would simply nod in reply. He told me how much he loved her and how she kept him grounded. 

“She is my anchor,” Jerry said once. “And you are the boat,” I replied with the pun intended. He smiled and said, “A lost boat. She manages to keep me in check.”

Over the years, I have learned that life is like a journey on a swift river. We are like driftwood floating on that river to an uncertain end. Every now and then, other debris runs into us and we get to float together for a while. Later, the swift current and waves separate us. In the journey of our lives, beginnings and end are not important at all; it is about the journey itself. And to find good companions along the way, well, that is what makes it all a fun trek at the end.

I am grateful for Jerry’s company. During those ephemeral moments in the Chapel, floating together, he taught me a thing or two about being a human. I also developed a love for boats, got to know the difference between aft and port, flounder and snapper, and the freedom of the sea. He also encouraged me to continue writing. 

Yes, I wish I had met Jerry and his Grace in a different setting, but I am just glad for the time I had with him.

Today, watching the conclusion of our presidential election with the victory of Joseph Biden as the 46th President of the United States, Jerry’s face flashed before my eyes and I smiled. 

Later on, sitting outside in the “Big Yard” of the NJSP, I looked up at the bright blue sky as the sun glared down making this November afternoon feel as if it was a summer day. I could almost picture Jerry on that boat of his, floating on heavenly clouds, sitting with a cold drink in hand, kicking back with a line in the water, swaying on oscillating waves.

For a moment, it all made me feel melancholy, yet in it there was happiness too. Meeting Jerry was beyond special for me, a prisoner condemned to life behind bars. In here, the life I live is by design made to dehumanize. And, it is people like Jerry who renew the hope for the deplorable folk like us that there are those in the society who believe and champion the cause of mercy and redemption. 

For that and much more, I will miss Jerry more than I can express. I wish I had a chance to thank him for making me feel… human.

So, thank you Jerry. Until next time I suppose. Until then, I shall often think of you, our time together and your humanity. Most of all, I shall pray for the true love of your life: the amazing Grace.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Tariq MaQbool

Tariq MaQbool is a contributing writer at the Prison Journalism Project and maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. He was convicted of double homicide in 2005 and is serving 150 years at the New Jersey State Prison. His work has been published in The Marshall Project and The News Station.