I woke before my alarm went off. It was barely 7 a.m., but I was anticipating a full day ahead of me. You might think that by 35, a birthday — especially one spent in prison in the midst of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — would have lost its thrill, but not for me.
To me, birthdays are personal holidays; they’re the days we get to tell the people we love that we’re glad they were born. That was something I desperately needed to hear in 2020.
As I traversed the top tier to perform my morning ablutions, a trio of voices greeted me from below, “Happy birthday!” one yelled. Still bleary-eyed with sleep, I looked down at my friends — Nancy, Natalie and Glenda — grinning up at me.
I beamed back and flashed a mock salute with my toothbrush. “Thanks, gals!”
When I made my way downstairs, Nancy, who was also my roommate, hugged me. “Morning, Relster,” she said, using a variation of my nickname Rellie. “Happy birthday. I’ve got your present for you when we have our dinner date later.”
“Aww, Nanette, you didn’t have to do that!” I protested.
“Of course I did,” she said, waving me off as she returned to making cards. “Now go see Natalie before she explodes. I’ll see you later.”
I glided over to the next table where Nat — who did indeed look as if she could burst in any second — and Glenda were waiting impatiently. As I approached, they both jumped up to hug me, smiling wide and practically dancing with excitement. They ushered me into a chair, chattering enthusiastically and fussing over me as they served my favorite breakfast: honey buns and iced coffee.
The scent of caramel, chocolate and French vanilla enveloped me. “Mmm,” I sighed, smiling. “This is better than sex!”
“You say that now,” Natalie teased, winking as she sipped her own coffee.
“But wait until some cute butch chick moves in,” Glenda cackled. I snorted, rolling my eyes, and turned my attention to my honey bun.
Once I had gorged on caffeine and sugar, Nat handed me a black Bic ballpoint pen with a tiny handwritten card attached. It was the first clue in a scavenger hunt that had me scampering about the wing and giggling, much to the amusement of the other ladies in the dayroom, mostly “old heads” who had been locked up for decades.
Thrillingly, each clue played on my idiosyncrasies. For example, one clue referred to a frustration I had with pencils, so I headed straight for the pencil sharpener mounted behind the hot pot at the back of the wing.
The final clue led me to a drawer in the officer’s desk usually occupied by various supplies. Feeling like a pirate standing before a chest full of jewels, I opened the drawer, which usually contained gloves and garbage bags, to find a pile of presents: a large sketchbook, two adult coloring books, scented markers, a book on texture-drawing technique, more pens (I ended up with a total of 17), an oversized hand-lettered card, an intricate drawing of a Celtic knot design and a personalized painted coffee cup.
The gals went all out for me, even decorating my favorite phone and reserving it for me to call home. After talking to my mom for 20 minutes, I went back downstairs where yet another iced coffee awaited me. I spent the rest of the morning listening to upbeat music and chatting as I did my hair and makeup for a video visit with a friend who had gone home several years before.
That afternoon, Glenda, Natalie and two other friends, Stephanie and Meagan, made a huge lunch — chicken and cheese stuffed potatoes and cheesecake — then we spent a few hours playing board games: Clue Mysteries, Life, Monopoly City. I lost every game, but I had a blast.
During the shift change head count, Nancy gave me her gift: a manila envelope bursting with coffee, French vanilla and caramel macchiato creamer, Gatorade, Tang and cans of Mountain Dew.
Soon, the day wound down. I somehow managed to eat the chicken burger, mac ‘n cheese and brownies Nancy made for dinner. Then we watched the History Channel, talking and laughing until neither of us could hold our eyes open any longer.
That night I lay in bed full of joy and gratitude. In this place where they say not to trust anyone, I found myself surrounded by women who genuinely cared about me.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.