The day had not gone as planned. It was supposed to be an easy execution for a man who had been in prison since he was a youth. No flaws. No hitches. Just another day on Death Row. But the prisoner spoke up at when given the chance to say some last words. Instead of the usual, “I didn’t do it. You’re killing an innocent man,” this man said something that had long been written as a clause in his case, causing a delay. The prison guard called the warden, who called the judge, who reviewed the file and commanded the prisoner be given a stay of execution while he reach out to the family to see what to do. Everyone in the room became angry, shouting protests:
“He is a horrible murderer!”
“He cannot be set free.”
“He will do it again.”
“What are you doing? He surely has not changed.”
Everyone, that is, except for one woman. The prisoner was on death row for horribly mutilating her after brutally torturing and murdering her husband. If anyone within the room had a right to be angry, had a right to scream and yell, it would be her. Yet the woman sat quietly staring at the prisoner through the glass as tears streamed down her face. Amidst the chaos, she seemed completely at peace.
Today was one of those days you never expect to endure. Victor was provided a stay of execution today as the liquid was about to be released for his death. I didn’t know how to react at first. All these years of anger, hatred, confusion, I wanted to scream but no words would escape my mouth. I wanted to yell at him and tell him he didn’t get to wait until now to say what he said. He didn’t get to take my life from me by waiting all these years to say what should have been said so long ago. Yet, when I saw his face after he spoke, I felt complete peace and comfort.
Is that sick?
Am I losing my mind? How can I forgive him so easily after all these years of keeping him in a prison of my own making because I would not grant him forgiveness for taking Charles from me and for what he did to me? Why today? Why at that moment? Why did he wait until literally the last possible minute? I believe I must talk with him. Only he can answer these questions.
The prisoner was relaxing in his room, still in disbelief that one statement could stop his death. He was shocked when everything stopped after he spoke. He was speaking from his heart and saying what had been on his mind for years but that he’d never had the courage to say to anyone. After all those years of being in prison, he simply had to utter one sentence to receive freedom? What that really what just happened? Everyone around the place was feeling the heaviness of the moment because no one quite understood what was going on.
The young man seemed to feel free despite still being locked in a 7 x 7 cell. The way he was moving and writing fervently in that journal he always carried was like a weight had been lifted of his shoulders. But there was still something that he needed and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. The guards had explained to him that he was granted a stay and the judge was making arrangements for the next steps but he didn’t quite hear anything beyond that point because his mind was in such a fog of disbelief. He realized that though he meant what he said, and was grateful for not being killed earlier, he had to suffer the consequences of his crimes still. They didn’t just go away because the sentence could be lifted. He’d done some horrendous, terrifying crimes in his young life, but the one he committed as a teen who was lost, confused, and angry literally almost took his life from him. He stared out into the prison population, looking at all of the cells, wondering if others sitting in this prison were able to stop their death as easily as he just stopped his.
In all of my years of feeling horrible for what I did that night, it never dawned on me that I could receive peace and stop all of this by uttering one sentence. I still feel that I am missing something though. I still feel the need to stand face to face with my victim, to tell her what I feel inside. To let her know I did not mean to ruin her life when I took her husband that night. I was a child. I was lost. I was angry at the world. She suffered at the hands of my rage. I can never take back what I did. I can never make it right. But I can ask her for forgiveness. I can ask that she find it in her heart to somehow allow me to make up for the lost years. I know I am asking a lot, but what do I have to lose? I am so thankful for my life at this moment that I have to take the risk. I have to see if they will let me see her before this all goes through..
The warden was unsure whether to grant to visit, but decided to do so only because the series of events over the past two days had been unprecedented. He was used to watching criminals refuse to accept their guilt. In a prison of thousands, he had one guilty man: the man who was supposed to die and did not. Why had that one sentence changed the judge’s mind? Could it be real that uttering a few simple words would save someone from death? He stared out the window and looked down at the young man writing in his diary in the yard.
He could tell the prisoner meant the words he said. There was no way he could have known about the clause in the sentence. The prisoner had been sitting in the jail for so long that most had forgotten about his trial and the upset it caused. Even the warden had no memory of why the young man’s victim had asked the judge to include such a clause in his sentencing. There is no way that anyone knew about that clause except the woman who had been peering through that glass, looking like she was waiting for him to utter the words. But that didn’t make any sense. The warden could look at her and see the man’s crimes. Why would she include something that would be a “get out of jail free” card.
The warden couldn’t deny that there was a change in the man. When the prisoner asked him if it would be possible to speak with his victim, the warden thought for sure the guy had lost his mind. He had been insane, that obviously was why the judge put a stay on the execution and why this clause existed. It had to be some legal tactic that was implemented so there was no retribution for putting a person to death for a crime committed as a juvenile. It had to be.
What he didn’t expect was to receive a call that same day from the victim asking to meet with the prisoner. Had the entire world gone mad? He had to grant the visit if only to see if forgiveness was something that truly existed. He alerted the guards, called in extra personnel for duty. He demanded a full body search for the woman when she arrived and told the staff to be alert at all times and to watch every move the woman made. There was no way she was not coming in to kill him. But he wasn’t going to stop fate from having a chance to be played out when things were already so crazy. If there was a God who had a plan, tomorrow they were all going to see it played out one way or another.
I am going to do it. Today, I am going over to the prison to see Victor. Three days ago he was supposed to die for what he did to my husband and me. I am going to look him the eyes, ask him to touch my face and my arms, to tell me why this was the fate he chose for me. Why wasn’t it enough to take Charles? Why did he have to go the extra step and burn me? He could have stopped and this would have been so different, so much less painful for the family, so much less hurtful for me. Why did he wait so long to ask my forgiveness? Why didn’t he reach out sooner? I have so many questions and I want answers to all of them today. For him. For me. For everyone out there who will surely be reading the papers to understand what happened for him to be given the stay.
When he is done explaining, I will then grant him the forgiveness he seeks for what he did to me. I will show him pictures of all the children whose lives I have impacted within the burn unit. I will share with him how I was able to help others realize that their scarred skin was not a reflection of their inner being. I will share with him how the tragedy of losing my husband led me to reflect upon the life we had together before that terrible evening. And I will let him know how in that reflection, I found the strength to go out and begin volunteering with single mothers to teach them how to protect their children.
Oh Diary! I want him to understand how his violent and murderous behavior sent me first into a prison of shame, depression, and anger, but then brought me to a place of wholeness, forgiveness, and hospitality I never would have reached had that moment not happened. I would not wish these events on anyone; yet, I am no longer angry they happened to me because my life has changed for the better. I want to explain to him what caused my change, as it is evident from his utterance that the same reason has caused his. And when we are done talking, I want to let him know that I would love to get to know him and this person he is today.
I hope he will accept my offer.
I am going to do it. I am going to meet her today. I am going to ask her if I can touch her face and her arms, to feel the pain I inflicted upon her. I must understand the way I changed her life. I want to know from her how I damaged her life, so I can help find a way to repay it. I know it will be painful. I can only imagine she has lived a life of bitterness, anger, and distrust of all around her. I imagine that she has lived her life wondering what she could have done differently. I want to assure her that there is nothing she could have done. I want to assure her that nothing from that night had anything to do with inaction on her part but was fully about my own pain. I need her to understand that I was in a place of darkness, having been sexually abused for many years by someone I trusted and that seeing what happened that night led me into a rage even I didn’t understand until many years later while going through therapy and praying to God for forgiveness of my sins and actions.
I am going to do this today and in this meeting I will finally give her what she has asked for all these years through my lawyer: I am going to explain why I did it. I am going to tell her and I am going to lift the veil from the secrets that have long plagued her, my sisters, and everyone else I refused to speak to about why I did what I did and why I didn’t stop with murdering Charles. I am going to need strength because all these years of prison have been easy compared to what I am going to share today. I hope she will receive what I have to say and we can somehow move on from here. Be with me… I am going to need external strength.
The prisoner walked slowly from his cell to the meeting room. As he sat waiting for his victim to join him in the room, a soft smile began to come over his face. Though he was sad, though he was repentant for what he had done, he was happy to finally have this moment after twenty years of silence. Today was a good day. Today he was going to release himself from prison he had kept himself in by keeping this secret.
The victim drew her breath and held it for a few moments. “Here I go,” she said aloud. She walked with her head high, smiling wide as she approached the prison. Today was a good day. After twenty years, today was the day she would release herself from the prison she had been in by remaining silent.
Several guards stood strategically placed around the perimeter of the room. It was quite obvious they were not expecting this meeting to go well. Many of them wondered if the overtime pay was worth the catastrophe that was about to occur. Not one of them understood why both the victim and the prisoner were smiling. What the heck was about to happen?
As the victim walked through the door and made eye contact with the prisoner, her smile grew wider and tears fell like a deluge from her eyes. The guards stood at attention, not expecting the exchange they were about to witness. No one in the room was prepared for what came next.
The prisoner rose as the victim approached him. He reached out his arms and had the woman in full embrace before the guards could get to them. The woman accepted the embrace fully and without a single reservation. They remained in this embrace for fifteen minutes, tears streaming from every eye within the room. The mother and son reuniting after twenty years apart. Each guard in complete bewilderment at what just happened before their eyes.
The son who acted out in anger toward the man who had been physically abusing his mother and sexually abusing him for five years before that night finally shared with his mother what had happened. The son who thought he was helping his mother by making her unattractive to any man who would ever do that to her again explained that he was tired of seeing her in pain and just wanted to stop it. The son who had cried at the execution, “Father forgive me for I knew not what I was doing. I am a guilty man but with your forgiveness, I can be made whole and see my family again one day.” The son who was finally hugging mother again after so long being silent and refusing to take her calls or respond to her mail.
The mother who had always felt shame for not being able to protect her son from the man she married listened and took it all in. The mother who always felt at fault for not stopping the violence within the household cried as she learned what her husband had been doing. The mother who wondered why her son had nearly killed her but didn’t finish the job finally understood. The mother who had prayed for years that her son would find it within himself to ask for forgiveness, even going so far as to request five years ago that the judge drop her son’s penalty from death to a full release with lifelong probation if he ever found it within himself to ask for forgiveness, told her son about the clause the judge had granted after hearing her finally tell the story of what had happened within the house on the corner.
Together they stood as one, demonstrating to all in the room the power of forgiveness and truth. Together, they walked out of the room, hand in hand, knowing that their story would forever change lives as they vowed to never again allow secrets to keep their family imprisoned mentally or physically.
©2012 Shell Vera; Updated 2020
To increase my writing ability and expand my thinking, I sometimes open up 3 AM Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction by Brian Kiteley. This challenge, Point of View Exercise 5: Journalism, is to write a 700 word story (I totally blew past this word count!) in which part of the story is told through journal entries that reveal more about the author. I have to keep it from being self-absorbed and ensure the reader does not get confused, understands the events are occurring and then the writer is explaining what happened from another vantage point. That is, the events happen and the reader understands them, but then the journal entries explain another point of view that the reader didn’t see when reading the story. How did the author feel about the events? What did she perceive that others didn’t during the events?
I chose to write the story using diary entries from the two main characters, instead of just one author. I know that is not within the guidelines, but it still helped me learn another way of writing. As I wrote this response the first time, I cried like when I watch last half hour of The Green Mile. I didn’t expect this story to play out the way it did. The characters evolved with me as I was writing and took an unexpected turn. I’ve always like writing about situations and healing that most people feel uncomfortable with so we can address our demons and deal with them. Through characters, I’ve often found my own healing to the situations I’ve been through in life. I hope you found something today to take away – even if it is as simple as hugging your children and keeping them close. In these times, we are all realizing how much we need one another.