I drove into Reading to see my aunt and cousins this Christmas day and I felt very sad. I have a new friend in my life and he is very private. I know very little about his past and his home life. I asked if he was seeing his family for Christmas and he said, “no.” Then I asked, “When did you last see your family?”
and he said, “I don’t know.” And my throat immediately got tight and I was at a loss for words.
Oh my, I thought. This is not good…this separation from the people who brought you into the world and raised you. My own son was in the back seat. My daughter was in New York state with her boyfriend but she wished she was with us and called multiple times during this Christmas day. We felt her presence.
My children are like the sun to me. I thought about this friend’s mother and how she must ache. I thought about my friend and how deep inside, he must too, for the loss, for the separation. And I felt such sorrow for this wall between them and also terribly powerless. On Christmas, these sorrows become amplified.
We had a wonderful visit with my cousins and my dear Aunt Dot in Reading and while we were sitting around the table enjoying one another’s company, I heard a far off ring tone across the room. I decided at the last minute to get up and answer it, and not be content to just retrieve a message later on.
When I looked at the face of my phone and saw the word UNAVAILABLE in caps, I wondered why I bothered and figured it was a solicitor. But then a recorded voice came on and said, “An inmate at a federal prison is on the line. You will not be charged for the call. Dial 5 if you will accept the call,” and I immediately knew it was my brother calling in California’s Lompoc Prison Camp. “I yelled to everyone in the room, “Johnny’s calling!”
It was so wonderful to hear my brother’s voice. It was like music to my ears. After we talked a minute, I called my boy cousins over one by one. Michael, the one Johnny was always closest too, put my cell phone up to his ear and immediately began crying. Tears just streamed down his face one after another. He could not control them.
“My God, John, it’s wonderful to hear your voice. We miss you so badly.” Mike couldn’t speak. Johnny did the talking. Mike was just bowled over with joy to hear his cousin’s voice- the boy who he grew up with and made memory after memory as a kid.
Before long, he handed it over to his brother Joey, and Joey’s eyes immediately welled with tears upon impact of hearing his voice on the other end of the receiver. It had been years since these cousins had heard his voice.
“We love you Johnny. We can’t wait until you can come home. It will be wonderful to see you,” and he had to give it up and pass the phone back to me.
I have seen my brother recently. My three siblings and I made a trip to the prison camp this past year and my sister and I will be heading out to see him again soon. See related blog about that visit.
On the way back from Reading I felt even sadder than when I drove in. Sarah McLachlan was on the CD player singing ‘Wintersong” about missing someone at Christmas who had died. Tears streamed down my face and I was glad I was with my boys in the dark and not my daughter. They were completely oblivious to the drama in the driver’s seat.
I was thinking about loss this Christmas and our inability to get to those we love, whether it is from being separated by death, by prison walls or by our own walls which we construct to protect ourselves from the pain. I was thinking about that quote, “The walls we build around us to keep out the sadness also keeps out the joy.”
My cousins were crying tears of joy as they spoke to my brother. I am sure there were tears streaming down my brother’s eyes in the Lompoc Prison Camp at the same time. But those prison walls did not prevent his heart from feeling, from loving, from leaping across the miles, across the whole country to us, where we embraced him, even if it was just through the receiver. But what about when my friend’s huge, seemingly impermeable wall that prevents anything from going in or coming out? I felt so very sad and helpless as I drove home on this Christmas night.
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