As a political junkie, Friday’s edition of the PBS NewsHour is always must-watch TV for me. On Friday, April 24, 2020, it broadcast a story about a Facebook post by a 24-year old ICU nurse from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York that had drawn national attention. The nurse said something that resonated with me:
“When I was in college, I used to tell myself I was too busy to call my parents. At best, I’d call them once a week, maybe once a month if I was in the midst of midterms or finals. They’re immigrants from the Philippines who worked as nurses back home in Chicago. I even used to attribute my inability of connecting with them due to my hectic schedule and their unconventional shift times. But it’s strange how anxiety claws at you. I read their stories in the medical histories over morning report. I see their faces in my dying patients. I hear their children’s distraught voices pleading for updates, praying for good news.” Was it my parents voices I heard, or was that mine over the phone? I wonder if my parents have finally figured out why I frantically call them almost every night now.
I had the misfortune of learning of my mother’s passing in 1998, while I was a prisoner in California’s High Desert State Prison. The last time we had spoken was over the phone. I had called her from Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles County, where I was being housed in their Crip module (Crip refers to a prison module for members of the street gang). I was calling her about an expected visit. It would have been her first, but it didn’t happen, and I wanted to know why. She told me that she was there just like she had said she would. She had been waiting for me to come out for hours upon hours until visiting hours ended.
Her experience didn’t come as a great surprise. The sheriff’s office played those types of games with anyone coming to visit a Crip member.
“As long as you’re in jail, I can’t do nothing for you,” she said afterward. Just as soon as those words left her lips, I hung up. That was in 1987, ten years before she passed. I had a girlfriend who had been adamant almost to the point of a breakup for me to reconcile with her, but I wouldn’t.
I recall the Bible story of Lazarus and the rich man. Both had died; one went home to the Maker, the other to the baker. The rich man, who was in torment, begged God to send Lazarus back to the living so that he could warn the rich man’s family of the perils of his path. [Luke 16:19-31]
At the time of my mother’s passing, we had been estranged. No one could ever understand my deep sense of regret. I feel like my purpose here on Earth is to warn others not to repeat the mistake I made. I am Lazarus, and we may not get opportunities to say I’m sorry, or that I love you, when family members die without warning. My mission hasn’t been easy. I get pushback all the time. The world is full of bullheaded people, and like my mother used to say, “A hard head makes a soft behind.” It is so important that we take the time out to renew our family relationships.
I know that COVID-19 has killed over 400,000 Americans and many more will die by the end of it. This plague, in the space of one year, will have killed more Americans than were lost in all international wars post-World War II.
Family is family, please resolve yourself to accept that. People especially in gangs think they don’t need their family, but they do.
Michelle Alexander, in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” was able to articulate the disaster incarceration has had on the Black community, and Black families in particular. Those of us who are incarcerated are like Jesus, who was hauled off to be crucified. The families we have left behind are like his disciple John, who, when questioned after Jesus’s arrest, stated, “I never knew him.”
I hope this prisoner’s humble experience with death resonates with someone, and helps them to forgive their loved one.
(This article is a lightly-edited version of an essay published in MPrizondthotz on May 8, 2020)
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.