My sister Sheri must have been about seventeen and I must have been three. She wanted to go out. I know she went to the Bob’s Big Boy Drive-In on Van Nuys Blvd. a lot, in tight black capris , a shirtmaker blouse-tails out, and sporting an enormous beehive. My parents were going out too. They'd been taking cha cha lessons and insisted she stay home and babysit. There was screaming before they left. She put me to bed, waited until I was asleep and took off. I woke up and realized that I was alone in the house and felt a strange sensation of not being frightened. I went outside and sat on the front porch to make a dramatic impression on whoever arrived home first. It was, to my great satisfaction, my parents. I got in the habit of shining the spotlight on every personal affront early on.
I read old blog entries all week. It’s a mixed bag. It chronicles the withering away of my mother, the death of my father, Himself’s experience of finding his birth mother, and most recently the death of my father-in-law. I see how much better we do as a family and how much pleasure my boys give me. There is also bad , over-medicated, self aggrandizing and arrogant writing. I haven’t read the whole thing but it makes me happy that for having the self discipline to write at least 2000 words a week for nearly three years, my writing seems to have improved. It is also gratifying that the writing that I’m the most proud of is the stuff that expresses my love for Himself and chronicles the growth of the greatest accomplishment of my life, my marriage.
Himself is sad about the death of his father. I remember how sad I was, even though sometimes he was an asshole to me, when my own father died. Our only remaining parent is what remains of my mother. Himself’s birthmother, known to him for fewer than two years, inhabits a different part of the universe. A friend sent me, via Charles Schultz, "No more sleeping in the back seat while someone else drives." This has been true for both of us for a long time but death permanently dashes all stupid hope that it will ever be otherwise again.
We arrive late for the funeral mass. There are a handful of neighbors and ancient men from the Knights of Columbus. Himself’s sister insists on an open casket which I find disturbing. I avoided looking at his mother’s coffin during her visitation but when we entered the vestibule the next day for the mass, there she was in ghoulish makeup and pearls. I did not want the memory of Grandpa all laid out in his best suit and waxen with pancake makeup to be our last memory of him. Some of the girls at bootcamp understand my being freaked out about this, but the Armenian and Catholic girls and one from the deep south say that anything but an open casket is unthinkable to them. Someone points out that although the Jews close our simple pine caskets, we do wash and sit with our dead until they are buried. One girl spoke lovingly about holding her dead mother and meticulously applying makeup, a beautiful gesture I would not be capable of. I pointed out that Jewish washing and waiting is a paid service and nothing I would ever wish to participate in a on a voluntary basis, although I am exploring alternative professional opportunities.
I held my sister’s hand while she died and stayed with her until the rabbi came to say Kaddish with me. I wasn’t creeped out but I didn’t feel like hanging around and I didn’t have any sense that any essence of my sister remained in her poor ravaged vessel. My dad took so long to die, and Aliki wouldn’t stop kissing him all over, gangrenous legs and all, before and after flatline, that I was eager to bolt. Fortunately we are so late for the mass that the coffin is closed before we arrive.
The priest, I guess tipped off to my infidel status by my sister-in-law, gives me a shout out by saying that Jesus said “shalom” at the Last Supper. He also says “shalom” to me directly during the sign of peace. He speaks with assurance that Charles is now in heaven with his beloved wife Merla and his brothers and sisters and he gives the notion a vivid, corporeal feel. I guess it is nice and comforting to be able to actually believe this. My sister-in-law speaks of her father and mother now being together and with the angels and I think she envisions a physical manifestation of this. I feel embarrassed for her although I have nothing much better to offer by way of comfort. She has arranged a catered lunch in an enormous function room at Leisure World Club House #5. Seniors engage in exercise and classes and social activities in other rooms. From the patio we watch ancient leather skinned golfers traverse from hole to hole. Cold cuts and fruit punch have been provided in abundant quantity but including us, there are only nine mourners to partake.
My boys have participated in ceremonies commemorating the deaths of both of their grandfathers. I see them processing the fresh sensation that someone they loved and who showed them love is no more. I have been to more funerals and wakes and celebrations of life than I can remember. I am not inured to loss and I think about my father and my sister and I miss them. I write about them. I try to keep them alive as I struggle to decode and understand them. More and more though, funerals are all about me and force me to consider, faced with the inevitability of death, what I should do with the time I have.
Obama’s magic wand still hasn’t extended to my business and morale is grim. I tell my beloved that his father has passed away and am powerless for him to be any other way but sad. The next morning, while I am exercising, my car is broken into and my purse is taken. I discover it and collapse in a sobbing heap on the sidewalk. I don’t remember ever losing it like this in public before. The bootcamp girls shift into ubermom mode, calls are made, tiny shards of glass are picked one by one from the filthy floor of my car, tears are dried and hugs are dispensed. Richard arrives at the office to help me track down credit card account numbers. I have evoked the state of treading water many times here recently, but with my beloved’s loss and the theft of my wallet and phone and camera and so many other things, I feel myself sinking, buoyed now only by the love of my friends and my family.
I receive a sixteen page handwritten letter from my penpal with “State Prison CCI-Tehachapi LVII Dorm 7” stamped in red on every page. Most of it is a considerate response to questions I have posed about the correctional system I am not positive how long he’s been in prison. The brief bio I was given by the Aleph Foundation indicates that he is scheduled for parole in 2017. Born in 1965 he has never used a cellphone or a computer. I glean that his wife (he sent me a two year old visiting room photo of them) has left him for another. His writing about prison is fair and balanced and he is diligently providing me with information that proves how boneheaded the entire criminal justice system is in our country. He depends on me to disseminate this and he also writes, “Thank you for coming into my life and being my friend.”
My penpal responds to my penchant for the show Cops with “I’ve seen the show but don’t watch it because the lights, sirens and sounds of handcuffs clicking don’t bring fond memories.” He doesn’t have cable t.v. so he doesn’t see all of the prison reality shows that I watch. I wish he could see an episode about a University of Indiana professor teaching Shakespeare to inmates in solitary confinement. The counterpart to the heartening segment about inmates coming alive by updating Macbeth to reflect their own experience, is the appalling saga of Sheriff Joe Araipo of Maricopa County Arizona, also the subject of one of the many prison shows the kids dutifully record for me.
Sheriff Araipo dubs himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Inmates in Maricopa County jails wear old fashioned black and white striped uniforms and pink boxer shorts. The Sheriff has revived the chain gang for male and female convicts, women added in the name of “equal opportunity.” Inmates receive only two meals a day and Arpaio has reduced the cost of these to 40 cents per inmate per day. He brags that far more is spent on feeding members of the K9 unit. Araipo has banned smoking, coffee, salt, pepper and sugar in the jails. Over 2000 inmates live in a tent city where temperatures often reach 110 in the warmer months. Inmates are not permitted to receive letters, only small metered postcards written in blue or black ink. In 2003, hundreds of inmates being transferred to a new facility were marched, in only pink boxer shorts and shower sandals through public streets. Arpaio is proud of this brutality and there are regular public tours of Tent City. There is even a nearby tent encampment with sort of a scared straight program. Local high school students don the black and white uniforms and live for several days in the same conditions as the inmates.
Although he preaches equal treatment for women and dogs, there are a number of articles detailing Sheriff Araipo’s draconian tactics to rid Maricopa County of illegal immigrants. “Illegal Immigrants are Banned from Visiting the Sheriff’s Jails” is emblazoned in bold red type all over the website. Sheriff Joe was reelected in 2008 by 55% of the vote. He was reelected in 2004 by 56% of the vote and in 2000 by a whopping 66%. Maybe the decline shows that gradually people are coming to realize that maybe the jails shouldn’t really belong to a single sheriff, particularly Araipo. I guess it’s heartening in the same way as when Proposition 8 passed by fewer votes last year than an earlier proposition to limit the right of marriage to heterosexuals.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s website had a live webcam of arrest processing until the state supreme court ordered the removal. Now it posts mugshots accompanied by the charges for anyone arrested in the county, before even preliminary hearing. There have been approximately 2150 lawsuits against Maricopa County and millions have been dispensed for wrongful death and other damages. A study completed by the sociology department at the University of Arizona reveals that Sheriff Joe’s inhumanity has resulted in no decline in the rate of prison recidivism for the state.
I wonder how my penpal would react if he knew that sometimes I envy him. He can read whatever he wants and has time to write 16 page letters. There are no carpools, unpaid bills, traffic, computer glitches or lost cell phones to interfere with his prayers. His letter though recounts his struggle to pray and feel comforted in, although less inhuman than Maricopa County, an isolated, degrading environment. I’ll keep my prison metaphorical and friends and family close. He writes, “Don’t you ever worry about me Layne. I’m fine. I’ve got plenty.” Me too.