When Pat was first scheduled for surgery and there was still hope, he was transferred to the federal medical facility in Butner, North Carolina. I suspect that even then he carried a homemade handcuff key under his tongue as he passed through the gates of what would prove to be his final penitentiary.
He was also looking forward to his son Kevin coming down from Canada for a visit. Kevin kept his promise, appearing with his two sons. It was the first time Pat was able to see his grandchildren. They were allowed two, two-hour visits on two consecutive days. Pat was shackled to the bed throughout and four guards stayed in the room. Kevin wrote later that Pat never uttered a word of complaint about pain or circumstance. “But Dad has never complained, has he Stevie?“ No he hasn't, not in a lifetime of it. Kevin had to return to Canada with his sons, the surgery was ultimately unsuccessful, and Pat was alone with his imminent end.
Pat and I shared a life so intertwined that his death seemed to open a way for me to reconcile with the inevitability of my own dying. It became possible for me to hold my gaze on the end of life. Through Pat, I became curious about how it all ends but stayed just one step back of letting this persuade me â through the shared bad habit of all gods and religions â towards romanticizing my notion of his, or even my own death
It took a long time for me to see his dying in that place clearly, but finally it made an almost poetic sense. His death was honest to his life, completely unsentimental. In a barren cell, uncluttered by comfort or distraction, he had to lie there on his back and stare up at a concrete ceiling. There was no dodge, no escape, no new identity to slip into. The only tombstone in the room had his own name on it.
“We've had a life haven't we.” No more tunnels, no more banks, and no more letters. It wasn't a question, it was his way of introducing me to the end.
FEW DAYS EACH YEAR
, in the fiercest storms and the highest tides, the sea will give up messages from the past, the long-forgotten artifacts of the depths. There has been a rotted plank with the encrusted plaque from an old sailing ship, the rusted remains of a cooking pot, the occasional shard of pottery with faded Chinese characters. At the turn of the last century the immigrant ships from Europe and Asia anchored here in the big bay to unload the smallpox victims or those with leprosy. This place was a quarantine station long before it became another kind of prison. There is a graveyard on the southern side, the final resting place of those travellers who never quite made the last leg of their journey to the New World. Their graves are marked with a name, a date, and the name of the ship they sailed in on â like the one I often go to sit by: Liza Gentel, 1901â1911,
Empress of Russia
There are also prisoners here who, like Papillon on Devil's Island, sit and contemplate the tides, not for what they bring in, but for how fast and far they will carry something out. It is common knowledge how treacherously cold the waters that surround us are. An average-sized man will last only eight minutes before the rate of body heat loss accelerates to the point of hypothermia, followed by loss of limb function, then death.
Men have greased their bodies from head to toe with lard stolen from the kitchen and then slipped into the inky darkness, never to be heard from again. One year the prisoners staged the play
for the guards and their families â after the show the lead paddled to freedom in the specially built coffin. Those left behind try to maintain the illusion that those who disappeared were successful in their attempts, but everyone knows, in the bottom of his convict heart, that for most, if not all, it was a final escape.
A pre-op tranny, Trinket, and her soon to be released boyfriend arranged a rendezvous off the point. The boyfriend got out and, at the prearranged time, Trinket dog-paddled out to meet him in his powerboat. Trinket didn't have the strength to pull herself out of the water and the splashing and commotion alerted the guards. The boyfriend panicked and gunned the outboard motor. The propellers caught Trinket, though she somehow managed to clamber aboard. She was found dead the next day by a motel chambermaid â the bed a bloody mess from her stomach having been churned open by the blades.
A one-legged friend of mine fashioned a wetsuit out of polyurethane bags, string, and duct tape. After dark, on his big night, Ian hobbled down the rocks, unstrapped his leg, climbed into his makeshift suit and jumped in. He planned to swim to the nearest beach, half a mile across the bay, where his getaway vehicle would await. Ian told me he had been a good swimmer in high school, before the motorcycle accident. He seemed so determined and confident I didn't have the heart to give him the obvious news â that he was one leg lighter and twenty years older.
At about fifteen minutes to the 10:00 pm count I was lying on my bunk on the second floor of the dormitory wing saying prayers for Ian, when I heard my name being called from the ground below. Ian wanted a towel and some dry clothes so he could slip in past the guards in time for count. Turned out his getaway vehicle hadn't shown up, and with one leg and a twenty-mile trek to the nearest lights, he'd turned around and swum back. We retrieved his wooden leg from the rocks the next morning. Ian finished his bit, was released, and died the same day from an overdose.
The years have passed and I have watched the tides come and go, carrying their debris, real and imagined. I have grown old in prison and I am only interested in beginnings these days, but the string becomes harder and harder to find. It seems I am losing the plot of my own life.
There is one trail, though, a footpath that wends its way down to a patch of grass, bordered by a flower bed and two driftwood benches. In the warm days of summer I shared this space sometimes with the occasional prisoner â a copy of Kahlil Gibran or Carlos Castaneda tucked under his arm, he came here to commit philosophy.
But the subtle varnish of autumn has given way to the songs of winter, and the philosophers are all indoors watching television. The garden is empty today, and above me the bare branches of an old Garry oak claw the sky in wild precision.
Back in October when I was tidying the place, raking the leaves, deadheading the last of the flowers, the tines of my rake caught on something heavy, half buried under the matted grass. A small dirt-and-rust-encrusted crowbar. With the heft of it in my palm I realized how it must have come to be here. Directly across the cove a low, squat building was half hidden in a stand of arbutus â the old disassociation cells. The last escape, several years ago, had been from that place. The wire that enclosed the small exercise yard out back must have been pried open by this very bar, smuggled in by another prisoner. The two men had slipped out the opening and entered the water below me, tossing the crowbar up on the bank.
They were both recaptured within days, but their escape â from the Hole â affected the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. The institution, a medium-security facility, was redesig-nated minimum because no one can legally “escape” from a minimum. One hundred and fifty prisoners were transferred to the mainland; upwards of sixty guards and staff were relocated across the country. Families had to uproot, sell their houses; kids changed schools.
My first thought was to return the crowbar to its rightful place on the shadow board in the tool crib. But it had been missing for too long and besides, it would have been replaced. Like some other things in life it could not be returned. It would no longer fit.
I buried it there under the Buddha's impassive gaze. The most glorious things a prisoner can do is escape but the days of coffin boats and one-legged swimmers were gone forever. When I tamped down the earth over the instrument of that last escape, I felt good that, although there was no future, there would always be a past.
So it is â on these days when war breaks out in my heart and my only memories are those of a boy being shoved into the shadows of an old tractor shed, or trembling in the passenger seat of a car coming to a slow stop on a dark country road â that I can come down here to sit on this uneven patch of earth and cultivate a vacuum, a place of stillness and safety where nothing moves and no one gets hurt.
I sit on the hard ground of the prison and stare out at the hammered pewter surface of the sea. What lies beneath? I float out on these connections, escaping inwards. There is a moment when nothing moves. There is no wind, no faraway shore. Deep places draw me down. I sink slowly, lazily, like old grief, and finally come to rest at the bottom of the world.
These essays have appeared in
The Globe and Mail
Out of Bounds
(Canada's oldest continuously published prison magazine)
, salon.com, the
“Junkie” was first published in the anthology
Addicted: Notes From
the Belly of the Beast,
edited by Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier (D&M, 2001).
My thanks to my editor, SeÃ¡n Virgo, without whom these essays would remain behind bars. And to Barry Palmer, who's always been there for me.
The epigraph by Johnny Cash, as imagined by Michael Blouin in
Wore Down Trust
(Pedlar Press, 2011), is reprinted here with permission by the publisher.