“Court is in session,” the bailiff announced. There he was, standing as if he was not of this planet. No emotion, still as a statue, jaws tightly clenched, lips opened just enough to take little breaths in and out. I wanted to look into his eyes, to see if he was the least worried about his sentence. With no facial hair, skinny and limp, he appeared to be just a child.
The judge looked directly at this kid attempting to meet his eyes “I hereby sentence you to 12 years for manslaughter.” The kid didn’t even flinch, didn’t gasp, or even shed a tear. Coward wouldn’t even look at the judge as he was sentenced. If I could peer into his eyes, I was sure he wouldn’t have even blinked! That was how nonchalant he stood.
“That is it?!” I yelled. “My son is dead!” I collapsed to my knees, barely able to breathe, sobbing uncontrollably. My mind raced with sweet memories of my boy. I’d no longer wake up to his cuddles in the morning, his laugh when he played a prank, his “I have a question” conversations that lasted late into the night, just so he wouldn’t have to go to bed at his designated bedtime.
“He is laying in his grave at 11 years old because of what you did, and you are free in 12 years?” With hesitation, the officers - who were holding back tears of their own, rushed to support my failing body and to settle me down. The thought of my boy’s last moments alone on that playground gasping for air because of a bullet that had gone right through his chest replayed in my mind dismissing those memories that held me together.
The coward still showed no emotion. No head nod. No glimpsing back at me. I wanted him to catch sight of distress on my face, the tears of hurt and emptiness I felt in my soul. I wanted him to feel the agony I felt in my bones, my skin, my whole body. How I yearned to hold my boy in my arms once more.
But he did nothing. Just silence. Although my eyes were swollen with tears, I studied as he glided out the courtroom, completely unfettered by his sin.
Years have passed since that day. Eight years and 234 days to be exact. There on my calendar in big red letters: PAROLE HEARING DAY. I vowed to attend this hearing to demand that this boy live out his sentence, with no early release. He had ripped my son away, and I would fight at whatever length to keep that monster in a cage.
“Guard, I am ready.” My voice has changed since I first walked into these prison walls at 18 years old. For the past 8 plus years, every day I replayed the sobs of that mother. Her screaming heartache terrorized my nights. I took half her soul with me to prison when I took her son away. At that time, I could have cared less.
When I turned 21 five years ago I began preparing myself for this day. I learned how to read and write. I studied public speaking. I wanted to articulate my words to that mother in a respectable, mature, grown up manner. I wanted her to see that, although I had come from the streets and hadn’t finished school, I was trying to make something of myself. With the help of a correctional officer who believed in second chances and who challenged me to find my purpose despite what history said about me, I was ready.
I looked into her face, along with the parole panelist who asked me, “Are you remorseful for your actions?” I opened my mouth to express my repentance.
“Up until five years ago, I felt nothing. I didn’t matter to anyone. No one asked me why I had done what I did. No one dared to perceive the tragedies that occurred in my 18 years leading to that morning. It was a waste of my breath to admit that I didn’t mean for any of it to go down like that, especially since the life I took was bigger than my voice. He was an accidental sacrifice for me to survive. Or so I had thought.”
I took a pause from my speech intimidated by the snarling look on the mother’s face. I started remembering the group lesson where the guard gave me my first challenge. I was to close my eyes and picture my crime through the eyes of the mother I had hurt. There was so much I resisted during that exercise because I felt I had done something unforgivable. That’s when he told me it wasn’t about me. The intimidation I felt being in front of her during my speech was selfish. An excuse I was trying to make to falsely protect myself from finishing what I had to do. “It’s not about you” I whispered to myself. I knew she needed to hear what I felt, so I proceeded to talk.
“I asked myself why I’d done what I did. Was that why enough since that why cost so much? See, at the age of 4, I saw my parents killed by drug dealers over money owed for a bag of dope. The foster care system showed me that money was the only thing that people cared about when taking me in. I learned to self-soothe fast. At 13 the ambition to take care of myself became my focus. I told myself repeatedly that I knew what I had to do. I began robbing corner stores for food and money. That day I killed your son, my gun fell to the ground as I was running away from a store I had just robbed.”
“I never realized that pride, false resilience and ignorance was what controlled me. Everyone in prison seemed to be just like me. Angry, confused, suicidal, and a victim to their past. We all think we are one of a kind, somehow different, better than the next man, yet we found ourselves in the same predicament. Imprisoned by our disappointments, mistakes, guilt, shame and worthlessness for life and self. Having no one to turn to meant masking emotions, and that false strength meant silence. Being locked up, it was necessary for me to isolate myself, just so I could feel different.”
“I needed to know what made me different than the rest of them. I needed the courage to take accountability for what I had done and stop playing the role of a victim as an excuse for why I hurt those people. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary to shave a piece of redemption into my life by living out the change in me discovered by my remorse. I wanted to be forgiven.”
“So here I am putting on my courage, to quiet the silence I once gave you and to tell you I am sorry for taking your son. I am sorry for altering your life and forcing you to feel the worst pain of your life for not seeing your little boy grow up.”
As he spoke, I could not look away. I was stuck staring into his light brown eyes as he stared into mine. My heart was beating so loud and hard, I felt like it was going to bounce from my body. He stood confident and tall with a 6’2”, muscular build. He wasn’t a boy anymore. Even his full beard against his medium brown skin couldn’t hide his nose flaring as he spoke with such conviction, fearlessness and freedom. His deep, manly-toned voice chilled my spine. I felt his genuine remorse and I hated that I believed him.
Am I betraying my son to not speak against him? Am I betraying my son to forgive him? I couldn’t be this weak and gullible! He killed my innocent boy. But why was I so inspired by his words? Moved by his transformation and transparency, was I the coward for not forgiving him? I was so tired though. Tired of existing in this prison of grief. Tired of imagining my dead son’s laughter or him calling out for me. Tired of the guilt about wanting to feel something other than powerless.
Unable to control the emotions that swarmed within me anymore, I screamed, “YES!” I inhaled the deepest breath I have ever taken. “I’ve lived in this prison with you. I want to feel life in my heart again.”
As I spoke those words, a resurrection of sound overwhelmed me. I was able to hear my heart tell my soul it was okay to regain its strength. I laughed out loud in release, heard my laugh for the first time in years. With a warm heart I declared, “I forgive you. Thank you for your courage to be the divergent necessary to see us through the release of our shared prison sentence.”