Sunday, November 15, 2009

A True Tragedy

Every once in a great while, something happens that affects forever; literally changing the way you think through the rest of your life. Without warning, you feel an explosive punch to your psyche, and your spirit begins a black, spiraling fall far beyond helplessness and despair. There is no coming back to the safety one felt before. The death of a family member is an obvious example. Or a catastrophic blow felt by millions, usually labeled by those anxious to make sense of history as a date on the calendar. December 22, 1963. September 11, 2001. These blows change humanity forever.

Friday, November 13, 2009. This date will haunt me for the rest of my life. It is the date, my best friend here in Virginia stood in an Arlington County courtroom, and was told he would spend the next twenty one years in prison.

I'm not here to talk of guilt or innocence. It is the sentence itself which has impacted my life, and the lives of others.

Though my friend and I saw each other no more that once every two or three months, we talked nearly every other day. We shared many conservative political views. We talked about the craft of writing. We argued if Eastern philosophy was more relevant today than Western religious thinking. We supported each other, when job hunting became harder and harder. We laughed at everything ridiculous. We gave each other fatherly advice, even though he is fifteen years younger than me. In short, it is and always will be a close friendship, and one I will always cherish.

On Friday afternoon, the breath was knocked out of me, and I'm still grasping for some sense of normalcy. I know the pain I feel is
nothing compared to the pain his wife is suffering. Or that of his mother, father, and members of his family. I will never understand what they feel. But I try to make sense of all this, through my own feelings and experiences. And all I can think about is his ten year old son.

My son is ten as well. I simply can not imagine what it would be like to spend the next twenty one years without him. He is my sole purpose in life. I have to prepare him for the world beyond my lifetime. I couldn't do it from behind a thick plastic window, on short Saturday afternoon visits. I have to be there for him. I am being selfish I know. Almost fifty five years old, and I can't bear to be without him by my side. When I think of that young boy, cut off from his father, I wince in agony. How can this be? He may never hold his father's hand until he himself is thirty one years old. His father will be sixty one. What will he miss? What will he miss without his father being there? I look at my son and see a lot of me in him. And as Brandon grows, I believe he will understand why he is as he is; and that his father helped gently guided him into what he becomes. Shared experiences, sage advice, practical jokes, social interactions - all of these will become important to him. My friend's son will rely on well intentioned family members, and a fading memory of his father. No matter how well intentioned, it will not be the same. He's ten. What will he remember?

If it was me and I was told I couldn't be there to see my own son grow into an adult, to see for myself how I have influenced him to become a man, I would have little reason to live. I would get a running start in my tiny cell, and slam my head into the steel bars. "My Dad died." "My Dad is in prison and he won't get out until 2033." For my friend's son, neither answer is better than the other.

I have learned a lot about myself in that courthouse this week. My friend is loved by both family and others. When he needed them the most, his friends rallied behind him and testified in his behalf. I have known him for six years. Others have known him for as long as twenty three years. We wanted the jury to know just what kind of man he was. I guess we failed to do that. But I've been thinking - if it was me on trial I bet I couldn't find
three people who could testify for me. I wanted Brandon to start school in Virginia, and at least finish sixth grade in the same house I lived in as a kid. To get spend as much time as possible with his grandmother, who turns eighty one next week. I thought of it as a personal sacrifice on my part. And to be honest, I did my best not to enjoy my time here. I need to rethink everything somehow.

I'll probably not live long enough to see my friend set free. But while I am still here, I will continue to value his friendship.

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