Authors: Stephen Reid
Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000
In those years we may as well have been Siamese twins. Shoulder to shoulder coming out of the same bank, seated side by side in the same cars and planes as we crisscrossed the atlas. We holed up in the same apartment after every score. He rolled the enchiladas while I tossed the salad. We shared chateaubriand in hotel dining rooms and lived together in rented houses far away from the action. We borrowed each other's ties, double-dated, and drank whisky from the same bottle on the edge of a cliff in San Diego. In prison we have been cellies or lived on the same range, even played on the same hockey team. In a tight spot we'd double-team our opponents. Once, after a failed escape bid, we were cuffed, waist chained, and shackled together in the same cell in the hole. One steel bed. Only the food slot opened twice a day for eight days straight. We had to eat, stand, roll over in rhythm. We almost held hands as we took turns at the toilet.
We were competitive as race cars. We sat for years on the floor of a cellblock playing Scrabble through the bars. My word skills frustrated him but he always took the win with a more clever board strategy. Later in life I wrote a book and later still, when he began to write, I encouraged and helped edit his work. But when he published a series of articles in the newspaper and I felt demeaned by some of what he wrote I fired off a scathing review. My words danced around his on the page in a way a Scrabble board would never permit. It was our only public spat and our friendship, as always, found a way through.
More than any other way, I knew Pat through the intimacy of risk. The stakes were high when we sawed our way through bars or robbed banks with stopwatches around our necks. Time was on hold when we bluffed our way across borders or held our breath passing through roadblocks.
Pat had once, after making a clean getaway, returned through buckshot and hot lead to take me out of a very dicey spot in the parking lot of a big city mall. Another time I dressed up as a surgeon and threw down on four guards, to bust him out of a prison ambulance.
Blessed or damned, we shared a long contract with loss. Arrest was as inevitable as death and, in fact, a small death of its own. We had a throwaway phrase, that prison was “ just an occupational hazard”, but in the privacy of our thoughts we both knew it was the house of losers. Freshly recaptured, we would sit on opposite benches in the back of a caged van, smiling weakly at one another across the dim space, waiting for the jaws of the penitentiary to swallow us once more.
On January 14th, 2007, Patrick (Paddy) Mitchell died in prison in Butner, North Carolina. There was no one there to fluff his pillow or hold his hand. No family or friends, no flowers at his bedside. No witness to his final breath. Pat died alone, locked in a cell, far away from everything and everyone he knew and loved, even the country he called home.
I remember the words simply drifting through me. “Paddy died yesterday.” Words I had been expecting, yet the freight they carried felt as heavy as the train they came in on. One disembodied telephone call, three words, and he was gone.
I hung up the phone, walked out of the community building, past the sounds of washers and dryers, background conversation, and the click of pool balls over on the corner table. Life moving on around me in the ordinary ways of a prison evening.
I must have cut through C Unit and crossed the darkened yard, because I found myself sitting on a stump out back of the carving shed. I stared across the black and hammered surface of the sea and let it sink in. The news drifted through me and, like fine particles of falling dust accumulating on a phantom outline, gradually made visible what was formerly unseen. The shape of death became as distinct as the engraved granite on a headstone â the moment we are born the end date is in the mail. I sagged a bit and stared into nothingness. The second-to-hardest part was knowing that there was not a damned thing that could undo Pat's dying. The hardest part was sitting there in the shadows, reminding myself to keep my back straight. Sorrow is a softening, not something to display in front of other prisoners. Truth was I didn't feel any teeth gnashing, breast beating kind of grief. I felt more numb, bereft of something. Our relationship had defined so much of my adult life, of his, of our mutual identities. Did the concept, the idea, of “us” die also? Where did his memories go? It felt as if the part of me that had joined with Pat in that long-ago basement suite in Ottawa had ended the moment his heart had stopped beating.
I have grown old in prison and seen more than my share of death, but Pat's death brought with it the absence of possibility, the end of the way I lived my life.
I'm not sure I even know grief, or the anguish of it. I have felt everything from deep sorrow to an almost total indifference towards death. Being behind bars for so much of my life has taught me that everything is bearable, that sorrow must be kept close, buried in the secret garden.
My mother, then my father, have both passed during my current sentence. For each I felt shock, then an ache, the sorrow and loss, the emptiness of a world without them in it. Only the intensity of sorrow has changed. They were my parents. I have never stopped loving them and I will never stop missing them.
I have had friends and peers and a little brother die, some of natural causes, some accidentally, and some needlessly and violently.
I learned early and well what sorrow exposes you to in the carceral world. In 1966, in Oakalla prison I was taken to the solitary confinement cells below the old cow barns for something I didn't do. It was Christmas Eve and I was all of sixteen years old and naked, save for a quilted “baby doll” gown that stopped about mid-thigh. A guard opened my door slot late that night and what he saw was a kid with his knees drawn to his chest sobbing his face off. What I saw when I looked up were the eyes of an avuncular old man, maybe a chance for sympathy or even an open door. What I got was, “Boo effen hoo.” Then my slot slammed shut like a shot down the hallway and the guard announced to the rest of the guys in the hole, “This kid down here is crying.” The ridicule and abuse lasted until I made bail in mid-January.
There is an eternal grief in the nature of prison life, along with an unwritten law that we must not dump more on the landscape. Like men in times of war we cannot afford to sing the songs that may weaken us. Even the language of prison forbids it. A person caught crying is “bitching up” or “sucker stroking”. A teardrop tattooed under the eye signifies that a guy is doing a ten-year bid. Pat, who had fifty years in the States and twenty left from his last escape in Canada, could have tattooed five tears falling from one eye and two under the other. He didn't, but as he said in one of his near-to-last letters, “At least I'll cheat them out of watching all seven drop.”
So we were defiant, survivors, but Pat and I never lost our humanity. There were times, though, in the American jungles of maximum security, where we had to set aside some of what does make us human. I remember making chit-chat about the weather with a guy as we waited for the gates to the big yard to open. There were half-a-dozen men out there with homemade knives waiting to put Xs on his eyes. He had broken the rules. If I had tipped him off to the play they'd have buried me alongside him. In the heat of the jungle you can sweat but you can't cry.
I was walking a max joint on the mainland of BC the day I was paged over the loudspeakers, told to report to the chaplain's office. I was informed that my mother had died. I recall later that day standing in the chow line, face numb, eyes set straight ahead. The guards were leaning against the far wall, weighing me up. They knew my news; it would have been sent in an earlier Observations Notice to all staff. I carried my tray to the table and chewed mechanically until the food was all gone. To show a crack in the armour, to give a face of grief to the guards lined up along the wall would be a way of sharing. I had to play a hand of solitaire; my mother didn't belong to any of this.
My case management officer informed me that I was eligible for a leave of compassion to attend her service. I was tempted to go. The funeral might give me some solace, the permission to grieve openly. I might see something, a sobbing aunt or the courage in my father's face, or hear a cousin's joke, something that would touch me, connect me communally; make me not so alone, so unsure of what to do. Then I was told I would have to go under escort with two guards and I would be wearing leg irons. I chose to stay in my cell, to participate in the rituals of bereavement through memory and my most familiar companion, imagination. I conjured up old man McNalley wearing his grey, felt gloves, driving his black hearse that would carry my mom over to the little red brick United Church on Imperial Street. My five sisters, in dark muted dresses, supporting one another. My two brothers, uncomfortable in suits, directing the traffic of mourners towards their pews. Most of the citizens of our small town would gather later in the graveyard under the whispering pines. Our family would stand nearest the damp mound of earth, the clean rectangular edges of the freshly dug hole, my father leaning on his cane and probably on one of my brothers, Mom's casket being lowered, a handful of dirt, and another.
The leg irons alone would have kept me from going, but there was another complication. I was estranged from my brothers and sisters at the time of Mom's death. They had phoned the prison chaplain, asking him to let me know. They were stingy with details. I was being punished for not being there for Mom when she was alive, for all the times I had let her down. In their consensus I had lost the right to be a part of their mourning for her. I accepted their anger; there was no one to argue with but myself. I loved my mom as much as any of them but I had to live with the consequences of my actions. I gathered up what scraps of dignity I could and laid shame atop of sadness. I let them sink down to that place where those things go to exist, the place where we don't hold grief, it holds us.
A few years after my mother passed and I was still in prison, I was called to the phone. My brother told me that our dad wouldn't be coming out of the hospital this time. A week later he died. I wrote my brother to thank him for that courtesy. When we were both quite young, whenever we fell down, banged an elbow or scraped a knee, we each, with all the fierce determination of little boys, tried hard for Dad not to see us cry. Which in a way was curious, because if tears did spring forth as they sometimes would, Dad was never harsh about it. But for me I think I would have done anything, bit clear through my lip, pinched the flesh until it was black and blue, anything other than having to make him look away. My father, born in the thirties, brought up in a working-class family, was silent, wounded by war. Like too many men of his generation, imprisoned by circumstance, he was deeply afraid of tears.
I've read books and essays, texts on loss, and I've wondered why philosophers and holy men often anguished so much over the purity of their grief. All grief is pure; all grief is self-serving
Coast Salish women will sit in a darkened room, long before the sun rises and the household stirs and collect their tears in a bowl. Once the day breaks they won't be seen crying. This is to allow the spirit they are mourning to pass over to the other side, not to be held back by the sorrow of the living. I have kept my grief in a darkened room too, but for much less noble reasons. In doing so I fear I have become in some ways less of a person.
But Pat's dying changed the way I saw death, and that in turn changed the way I held grief. For the first few weeks I walked the big track every night, kicking stones. I could feel the familiar loss, but there was the odd, inexplicable flash of dread, too, as if something was wrong, and then I would really remember.
Other times I would cloud over with anger and indignation that Pat had to die in that place, that sick as my friend was, Stockwell Day, Justice Minister, would not sign his transfer papers and allow him to return to a Canadian prison via the Prisoner Exchange Treaty. He could have been visited by family during his final days. But were those feelings anything more than a way of invoking pity for him, along with a dose of self-pity, a sentiment we both hated?