It occurred to me yesterday after my visit with Mac that it has been about two years since he took the first step on his journey to recovery. Once again. It began with a long ride after being released from prison in Macon to a town about three hours away, to a beautiful rehabilitation facility where he made good choices and friends and dreamed dreams again.
But this story began a few months before.
He had turned himself in to an officer that had stopped by the gas station store that he frequented. I think that had been in January. He was tired of running, tired of that way of living, and he knew there were warrants out for him for probation violation. Probation for things like panhandling, loitering, you know–the major crimes. Anyway, turning himself in got him a bed and three meals a day. And had me worried he wasn’t showing up on Sundays until I saw his name on the sheriff’s website. We started writing letters back and forth. I loved hearing his stories and dreams and the jokes he liked to tell. In those letters we got to know each other pretty well. He knew the way my littles preferred play over learning, that I loved to bake better than cook, and that the Fella loves old classic cars. He sent notes and drawings to all of us, and we sent back pictures he could draw, stories to read, and letters sharing the ins and outs of our days.
And then, in one letter, he mentioned the visiting hours. And asked if I could come.
I had never been to prison before. I wanted to see this man whom I grew to call my brother. I wanted to give him all the support he needed to make wise choices once he took that first step out of his cell as a free man. He needed a good network of folks to walk with him, and I intended to be one of those folks. But prison?
At the risk of being redundant, Wow.
As it turns out, different folks are assigned different visiting hours. His was 1 p.m. on Sunday, along with several others. He had to put my name and anyone else who might come on a list. If you weren’t on the list, you weren’t getting in. We decided that I would visit on this one particular Sunday, barring anything unforeseen happening. All of this was communicated by letters, so there was a lot of room for miscommunication or total lack of. That Sunday morning I got up, took care of the tea and coffee for the park’s Sunday night supper, and got ready to go. What does one wear to visit prison? A strange question, I know, but I was second guessing EVERYTHING. I chose regular, casual clothes and worried over the shoes. I had heard something about not wearing open-toed shoes, but I wasn’t sure. I wore my flip flops and carried Aub’s boat shoes with me just in case. I drove to downtown and found the tree-lined street on the back side of the jail where I’d be entering. I parked the car on the street, and checked my clock. 12:45. I was early. I sat and took it all in for a few minutes. Normal looking brick building with the exception of the painful looking wires at the top of the fence. And across the street? A convenience store with “Lottery, Beer, Cigarettes” painted on the side. Oh y’all, I nearly cried. If Mac were released with no one to pick him up, I could be fairly certain that’s where he’d head. After all, there was a phone outside there, if it even worked. And the nearly three months of detoxing and not drinking he’d done would all be for naught. My heart broke, and I knew something had to be done. How many leave that facility with no one to go home to and find themselves over at that store? Its location was no coincidence, I felt sure.
I took a sip of water, rallied my spirit, grabbed my license and my keys, and headed in. I had no idea what to do. Everyone else waiting seemed to know exactly what they were doing. I realize in hindsight that may not have been true, but at the time, I felt like I had a huge sticker on my head that screamed, “First Timer.”
I approached an officer who, it was obvious, was bored and didn’t have any warm fuzzies about folks coming to visit folks they cared about. She looked on the card–the one that had my name and Mac’s Mama’s name and one other on it. I almost wanted his Mama to come, so I could meet her and maybe there wouldn’t be a lull in the conversation.
Because it occurred to me–this would be the first time we’d talk in person with him sober.
I gave her my keys and license and prayed I wouldn’t set off any alarms with my belt or any metal pins I’d forgotten I had. (One time in an MRI, I had a moment of panic–had nothing to do with claustrophobia and everything to do with worrying whether or not I had a pin put in when I broke my ankle. In that moment, I forgot. And I did again at the jail. FYI–No pin.)
At 1 p.m. on the dot, I was told which window to go to. There were stools of sorts in front of the windows, but someone had blocked the bottom half of the window so you couldn’t see your friend unless you were standing up. There was a phone to pick up and speak into and that was how we were to communicate. After a couple of minutes of standing there, I saw a group of men in orange jumpsuits heading towards us. I scanned the group, and there he was. He grinned that grin of his, and I grinned back. It was good to see him. He had showered and looked well fed and well rested. I was thankful. He picked up the phone, and said hello. Ah.
Only I couldn’t hear him.
I spoke and looked at him questioningly. He shrugged and shook his head. He nodded at the window two spots down. Someone had come in, said two words to their person and left from that window. I looked around for someone, anyone, to ask if that was okay.
Because let me tell you this. If there is a place where one does not want to do ANYTHING wrong or upset ANYONE or cross ANY lines, it would be in prison. They wouldn’t have far to haul me if they decided they didn’t like what I was doing. Seriously. I was worried.
But Mac had already moved down. Why wasn’t there an officer supervising this? What was I going to say–He made me do it?
After a moment of hesitation, I moved down and picked up the phone. We could hear each other. Finally.
Eventually I relaxed a little, once it became apparent no one cared that we had changed windows. We visited and caught up from our latest letters. He told me about his attorney visiting the day before. About how sometimes he didn’t want to go to the meals, just wanted to rest. I asked about him working on his novel, a western, and he said, no not right now. Maybe later on he would. We passed the time with stories and jokes and I can say for sure, an hour is a long time, when you are speaking into a phone and trying to find a comfortable way to lean/stand and staring through “glass” that has something running through it that makes focusing on the person on the other side really hard.
I loved the visit but as we hit the forty-five and fifty minute mark, I could tell that Mac was getting tired. He has never had good balance, even stone cold sober, so this was wearing him out too. We talked for a few more minutes and then said our goodbyes, with promises of writing and wishes for safety and good health.
I gathered my license and keys and thanked the bored officer and headed out into the fresh air of that overcast Sunday. As I walked down the street to my car, free to drink the water in my own cup waiting for me in the vehicle I owned, I felt like I had a fresh pair of glasses to see through. I had only spent an hour inside the facility, but it was enough to make me see and appreciate things a little differently.
Little did I know that day where life was taking us. That in less than a month I’d be walking back in that building to speak at Mac’s hearing, a suitcase full of what he needed in my car, waiting to take him to a place where he could heal and be with folks who could put tools in his kit for his journey ahead. That just over a year later, he’d be sitting at the graduation for my oldest, having gotten permission to come back home for it from his transitional program. That just two years later, he’d be sitting in almost the exact same spot he was the week before he went to prison, and he’d be grieving over his friend who died after being hit by a car while crossing the street, mad over his tent that was stolen from his “camp,” and worrying over another friend who “drinks 24/7.”
As I left him yesterday, I felt a push to give him two numbers I had in my purse in the car. Two numbers of possible rehabilitation or transitional places. I sat in the driver’s seat and copied them down. When I walked back around to the opening in the gate, he had left his seat outside. I went in and looked around. I hoped I could find him. And there he was. In the technology room. He came out when he saw me.
“Here,” I said. “I think I’m supposed to give you these numbers. They might not be the right places, but maybe they can lead you to one that is.”
He took the folded paper and started to tuck it in his pocket. “Thank you.”
I looked him in the eyes. “And it’s okay, you know. It’s okay. No pressure. Just for whenever you want to, you know, take that step. Your decision.”
He was quiet for a second. “I’m almost there.” He nodded and looked at the paper again. “I am. I called Joe the other day.” Joe, who had run the transitional home he’d been in until last July.
“Did you? Was that good?”
He nodded. And he reached to give me a hug. “Thank you. I’ll be calling you.”
Tonight I’m thankful for this life that takes me outside my comfort zones and into places where I have to step up and love someone else. It’s not easy, and I’m not always a willing participant. But when I go, the rewards are phenomenal. I meet folks whom I would never have met otherwise–people who bring richness and laughter into my life and stories that touch my heart. I am thankful for the folks who raised me to listen and love all–it’s not easy but they set a good example to follow. And a tough one.
And tonight I ask for us all to keep Mac and all of our brothers and sisters like him in our thoughts, prayers, hearts, and minds. The ones who need someone to see them and hear them and love them through choices, good and bad. And when it comes down to it, isn’t that what we all need?
Love to all.