BY PAUL ANTHONY BROWN, Contributing Writer
The visit is today. I’m so excited. I’ve been looking forward to it for months. I’m showered and freshly scrubbed. I dress in my cleanest, brightest state issue clothing. I brush my teeth.
It is my first and possibly only visit I’ll get this year, as I have no family residing in the state. I’m a bit nervous. We’re called out, those of us who have visits. We’re searched. Why? I have no idea. We won’t have any contact with our visitors. We’ll be locked inside of a 4×5 foot booth, and will communicate with our visitors through barred plexiglass. So the shakedown serves no apparent purpose, except I suppose to reinforce to the prisoner his subordinate status.
We’re escorted down to the visitation area and locked into our respective booths. We wait. I become antsy as I’ve never liked tight enclosed spaces. I try to think positive thoughts. They’ve had to travel such a long distance. I say a silent prayer for their safety. Negative thoughts start to creep in as I sit and wait.
I hear a commotion. I look up and there they are. Mariah, my granddaughter, who is only 2, hops up and bangs excitedly on the plexiglass and screams, “Hey granddaddy! Hey granddaddy!”
“Hey baby,” I coo dotingly. My goodness, she is so precious.
It is my first time seeing her, and I’m filled with wonder. I smile so hard, my face hurts. I reach out and put my hand on the plexiglass and almost instinctively she does the same.
My sister Pam is talkative as usual. I luxuriate in the sound of her voice. She is joined by my friend Jen – who has been working so hard to cover the expense of the trip, but is still vibrant, engaging and loving. Still a friend to me. The three of us talk of different things, but I focus on Mariah.
As we continue to talk, she falls asleep in Jen’s arms and I stare. A soothing calm washes over me as I watch her sleep. My grandbaby. We say “I love you” and wave goodbye as they depart. I feel elated to have seen them. Then, I am sad.
We’re walked back to death row and I must turn my focus to my surroundings. There’s a perpetual dangerousness, not immediate and frightening, but one that brings on a melancholy, a sadness that persists and there is nothing to be done for it. I’ve tried everything. I’ve prayed, thought positively, pretended indifference, played table games, listened to music, exercised to exhaustion – nothing works.
I question if I should even allow them to bring Mariah to this dreadful godforsaken place. She’s clearly too young to understand what’s happening, but she is so impressionable. I don’t want the impression in her developing mind to be that this is acceptable. It is not. It is a macabre sideshow that we pretend is normal.
But how can I ask them not to visit, when just to see them soothes my soul? They’re a part of me. I miss them. It’s a real treat for me to see them.
On the other hand, sitting on opposite sides of plexiglass is only a reminder of our separateness, not our closeness. Any intimate gesture appears awkward and just a bit off – while the distance between us is magnified by the filthy plexiglass and reinforced by all the concrete and steel.
It’s like emotional terrorism, in that it denies the thing it seemingly invites – closeness. It is psychologically damaging, in that it denies a fundamental element and expression of humanity – that of touch and physical contact. It’s shameful, in that I cannot hug and console, as I am naturally inclined to do, should there be discomfort. Should there be crying, which is fairly typical of a visit here, I cannot even wipe away a tear. I’m embarrassed to be in this position, but I never look away. I try to muster as much dignity as I possibly can under the circumstances.
As I sit in my cell later that night, alone, I can’t shake this feeling. The visit was awesome, but I am lonelier now than I was prior to the visit. Even though they drove such a long way to see me, I know our ties are not getting stronger. They are diminishing. We are defined, as human beings, by our relationships to others, particularly our family relations. As these ties lessen, I feel adrift and not really connected to anything.
The guards have just made their nightly rounds and have finished their head counts. No one can see me now. There’s no need to give encouraging smiles. I don’t have to pretend everything is all right. No reason to posture so as to appear strong or tough. I simply allow the absurdity of the situation to be what it is and I weep.
Paul Brown has been on Death Row in North Carolina since 2000 for 1st degree murder.
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