One of my young adult son’s favorite possible colleges is in Portland and people look at me like I’m the world’s most overprotective mom when I express my concern about the copious rainfall. The random shuffle on my Internet radio station, with no way of knowing my location or the weather situation plays a sad beautiful Blue Nile song called “Tinseltown in the Rain” and it pours for the third straight day and proves to me that seasonal affective disorder is not a myth. Work is slow as it always is this time of year. I keep the office open “just in case” but mainly do crossword puzzles and cruise Facebook. A lot of my three dimensional and Facebook friends are busy with Christmas related activities and even though my family was totally indifferent the one year I made stockings to assuage a bit of Santa envy, I feel left out.
We visit Alan, our friend who’s incarcerated at a correctional facility in Tehachapi. We wake up at 5 a.m. and don our black sweat clothes. I don’t bother with earrings and leave my wedding ring at home. The clouds are backlit with a tentative dawn when we arrive at the prison. I am more matter of fact and feel less anxious and humiliated by the entry process. The visiting room is not as crowded as usual although many visitors are sent back to return umbrellas to their cars and return soaked to try again. We are processed for the first time without any misteps that lead to our separation. My plastic hairclip has a tiny metal spring that sets off the metal detector but this is dealt with expeditiously and we hold cold hands on the old school bus from the visitor center to the Level two visiting room. We know to present our wrists for ultraviolet stamping and how to hold our green permits and driver’s licenses up to the camera before the entry gate slides open. We are regulars.
Alan looks well despite a recent diagnosis of hepatitis C and subsequent Interferon treatments that leave him exhausted, covered with a rash and suffering from neuropathy. Screening for tuberculosis and syphilis is mandatory but despite being equally contagious and life threatening, hepatitis C and HIV tests are optional even though a large percentage of the population is undoubtedly positive. Alan is tested when symptoms warrant it but it seems that testing the entire inmate population could certainly reduce the spread of disease and the attenuate suffering and expense.
Saturday is preferable to Sunday for a visit because there are fresh salads and yogurt available in the vending machines. With my ziplock full of quarters I score a grilled chicken salad, a fruit bowl and a carton of yogurt for Alan. The vending machine company has a suggestion box and I suggest last visit coffee and lo and behold, a styrofoam soup bowl labeled this and priced at $1.50 is available from the machine. I purchase it to discover it contains a tiny packet of Starbucks instant, a packet of sugar and one of creamer. This necessitates the additional $1 purchase of a bottle of water and a long wait at the instructionless microwave trying to figure out how to boil it. Alan says it is better than the instant Folgers he gets from the commissary and he also enjoys a real Coke. Soda with sugar is not available to inmates outside the visiting room because it can be used in the production of a jailhouse moonshine called “pruno.”
The guards in the visiting center who check us in are usually pretty nice. There is an occasional asshole but the staff is generally hospitable. The converse is true at the actual Level 2 visiting room. There are a few guards, particularly two women, who are pleasant and seem to get it that visits from the outside increase morale and make their jobs easier. Unfortunately most of the guards are older men who spend a lot of time at the vending machines, gut over belt buckle. Any attempt at civil discourse is met gruffly and every response, no matter how inconsequential, is delivered with snarly officiousness. Himself thinks I am silly to expect otherwise and I guess I am but this degrading harshness seems out of step with the rehabilitation mission.
A bathroom break is called for inmates once an hour. They line up and are admitted in pairs for supervised use of the facilities. We are deep in conversation and may have not heard the announcement or perhaps there wasn’t one. There are four inmates still waiting in line and Alan excuses himself. The guard won’t let him join the line because he doesn’t hop to attention at the first announcement. Even if we’d heard it, due to his weakened condition waiting until the line dies down is prudent, Alan does not argue and steels himself to wait an uncomfortable hour until the next bathroom break is called. We remind ourselves again that most prison guards are would be cops but for failing the psychological examination. I think about the decades and lifetimes for which inmates are subjected to near constant power tripping and how difficult it is to leave prison without a hatred of authority.
We talk about the seemingly inevitable recidivism and how the system not only does little to prevent this, the sheer meaness that is tolerated probably insures it. Alan has a good handle on prison dynamics but his survival tactics of self examination and spiritual surrender have helped him flourish in a system that otherwise operates to fully crush those who are already laid low. Alan thanks us profusely for taking the time to write and visit him but as one of the least complaining, self pitying people I have ever found, he is a rare hero and I am blessed to know him.
Nuala O'Faolain in her memoir “Almost There” observes that the difference between happy children and unhappy children is that peak satisfactions for the parents of happy offspring involve the children and the parents of unhappy children aspire to escape the tyranny of the kids. The author, daughter of miserable broken alcoholics, falls into the latter category but I think her fantasies about happy children have led her to a simplistic conclusion. My mother made it clear frequently that I was an impediment to her self-fulfillment but also, albeit when no better offer presented itself, had real fun with me, both of us being fond of the Ontra Cafeteria, Orbach’s and just driving around and being envious of homes nicer than ours and snobby about those more modest. Although this was less frequent as she grew older, during my childhood she was staunchly committed to seeking satisfactions from which I was excluded but relented that I was sometimes the next best thing.
For the last eighteen years indeed many of my happiest moments are kid centered but I do not think being honest about the need to occasionally get away from them makes them any less happy. My mother often made me feel that my birth had ruined her life but I think my own kids get that I love them like crazy but that once in a while, them included, or maybe even particularly, we all need a change of cast and scenery.
The only notification I am required to make regarding my mom’s death is a relative who visited her occasionally during her first year at the facility. There was a grudgingness about my mother that made it hard for her to keep people in her life. While I suspect this was exacerbated by the ravages of dementia, her history of problematic relationships well predates her affliction. The seeds of the pain that caused my mother to live cut off and lonely really have nothing to do with me but the rare times I remember her brimming with joy inevitably do.
For most of my adult life, no matter how much time I spent with my mom, it was never enough. I see less and less of my own children now and recently I find myself actually lonely for them. But, in silent house and horrified as I am at the kids driving around in bad weather and likely absent of raincoat, the thought of how much fun they have with their friends warms me. My mother resented relationships I made with others and while I guess I’m at the point now, that however much time the kids do condescend to spend with me, will never be enough, I love that they have friends. It seems impossible as a parent not to unwittingly damage our kids. I am sure that they are in some way scarred for life but I am glad that none of the wounds I have blindly inflicted has hindered them from happy relationships.
Christmas is not my holiday and even though it is Christmas eve I feel manacled to the obligations of spending some time in the office and publishing some sort of essay here before it is Shabbat. We will have the typical Jewish Christmas observance of a movie and Chinese food. There is an impasse as to the movie choice after an hour long dinner table debate but I will probably be the one to capitulate and see the movie where James Franco cuts off his own hand. The rain has ended but more is due. Our bedroom roof leaks terribly and the room is soaked for days even after the boys from work affix a blue tarp. This morning I step onto a dry floor. The dogs are stretched out on rays of sun. Spuds has a busy social schedule and school work. My young adult son is tearing his hair out with college applications and the looming deadlines have not made for much cheer on the homefront. He juggles his essay writing with visits with friends, now home after a semester of college. Next year he will probably be one of the returned and it will be hard for us to share him with his friends during the short vacation.
The sky, insanely blue and branches heavy with tangerines reflect on the laptop screen. Although it makes no difference to anyone in the universe, I will fulfill my obligation to check in at the office and post my weekly piece. But the office time will be brief and my piece is short. I’m taking the kids to lunch and a movie. The sun is warm. The kids are here but more rain and change are predicated.
Shabbat Shalom, and really, Merry Christmas