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Summertime in San Quentin is notoriously deceptive. The sunshine that beams in through the dirt stained windows is inviting, but when you venture outside, there can be a chill in the air that makes you wish you had worn more clothing. June 24, 1997 had been such a day, and it seem to epitomize the incertitude of Death Row. Though there was the regular routine of yard, showers, visits, and the daily drum of movement you could find in any prison. Yet, on the Row, there is something more, it is the obscenity of waiting.
Around 3:00 mail is passed out and in the atmosphere there's a toxic anxiousness that exudes human need. On some level most prisoners look forward to getting a endearing message from someone on the outside. I was no exception in this regard, so when the guard stopped in front or my cell and slid a letterthrough the steel mash coverIng on the cell bars, I eagerly grabbed it wondering who the sender was. I flipped it over and immediately saw bold letters that read; ATTORNEY GENERAL: I ripped it open and as my eyes raced over the contents I felt a eerie sensation of being straddled between two worlds, the living...and the dead. It was a copy of the order for my execution. Instead of receiving an endearing message I had received a stifling reality check. I sat down on my bunk, closed my eyes, and rested my head against the wall. I was wedged between complete helplessness and absolute rage as my mind recited the word, "execution" of over and over. The sheerreality of being informed of your pending demise in such an indifferent fashion plunders your breath, decapitates your emotions, and makes you feel an intense need to suck in oxygen.
The letter brought into sharp focus just how much I existed in the miasma of death, just how much I had neglected the gravity of my situation. Death, I have come to realize, has always stalked my life, just as closely as it does now, like some ominous stranger lurking just beyond my peripheral vision as he arbitrarily kills those most close to me. But now, Death and I, are face to face. I can see its grotesque grin, its fathomless eyes, and I can feel its stygian breath hot and insistent on my flesh, like a dry rotten wind exposing the frailty of my mortality.
I sat there motionless, in silence, awash in a tidal wave of thoughts, as the omnipresent noise of discontented men echoed all around me. Then slowly the memories begin to come, the same way they always come, like a slow train inching its way forward along a rugged path. They are memories from my past, memories that I haul sisyphus-like, condemned eternally to carry their oppressive weight.
My mother's face.
The memories always began with my mother's face. It was smooth, as if someone bad poured creamy caramel unto her skin. Her high cheek bones gave her smile a tranquil quality that made you feel, whatever was wrong, would be all right. Though I can't remember the expression I last saw on my mother's face, I do remember her soulful brown eyes, they always gave me the impression that she was seeing something the rest of the world could not. I adored her, her youthfulness, her sense of adventure, and how she would gently cupped my face in her soft hands while telling me how much I meant to her. She would, at any moment I was around her, stop me, cupped my face and say; do you know how much I love you? I would smile and nod my head. Looking back, there was something insistent in her voice.. .something needful. I guess it was her way of saying sorry, her way of trying to assure me I was a part of her life. When I was four, and insulated by youth and innocence, my mother left our family (my father, brothers, sisters, and me). It was-not until I was twelve that I would see her again. Though I grew up without her presence, I always felt a deep connection to her and would imagine meeting her one day. I had no idea it would ever actually happen.
It happened in 1974, we were living in Gardena, a small city on the edge of south Los Angeles. One day my father nonchalantly said to me "your mother is coming over today." I stood there frozen in my tracks, awestruck, trying to absorb his words. I had, early on, decided not to hate my mother, unlike some in my family. I figured there must have been a reason she had left, so I never harbored any resentment towards her.
When she arrived that day, my father opened the door and it took what seemed like an eternity for the door to open wide enough for me to get my first real look at her.Though I had seen photographs of her when I was younger, the colossalfeelings running through me were nearly uncontainable, so Istill tried to imagine what she would look like. As shegingerly stepped through the doorway, the sunlight imprisoned her, standing in front of me was a very beautiful, very elegant woman. I was struck by her petite frame and child-like face which gave her the appearance of someone saintly. Except for the ticking of the old grandfather clock in the livingroom, no on made a sound. Everyone just kind of stared uncertain at each other, so I walked over to her, and as if to remind her of who I was, I told her my name, then hugged her warmly. There was an aura of gentleness and graciousness about her and tears swelled in her eyes as she kissed my cheek, and I remember thinking; she smells just like flowers:
In the weeks and months that followed the reunion with my mother I visited her house often and we spent a lot of time together getting to know one another. One day my mother came over and asked my father if my brothers and I could live with her. She had moved to the Inglewood area which was about thirty minutes from where we lived. I think my mother was more surprised than all of us when he agreed, but my most heartfelt wish quickly evaporated when my father told me I couldn't go because. I was too young. Though I continued to spend time with my mother, I felt as if I was missing out on something by not living with her.
A year later in 1975 my father moved the family to Arizona. It would be almost a year and a half before I saw my mother again, so when the opportunity came in 1976 to stay the entire summer with her, I jumped on it. When I arrived at her house she greeted me with a new baby brother whom I took to instantly. During my visit I would have long talks with my mother, and it was her amazing way of looking at the world, unjaded by the terrible landscape everyone else saw, that taught me never to give up on my dreams. And of all the things we talked about I don't ever remember her talking about God or religion, which is why her death has left me puzzled for years.
When I returned to Arizona I didn't hear from my mother for two years. It was like she had disappeared. One day I came home from school and was told that she and my little brother had died in Jonestown Guyana. I had no idea where such a place was and later that day as I sat in front of the TV my eyes glued to the indescribable scene on the news report, I was still mystified as to its location. I watched intently as the camera slowly panned over the countless bodies of women, men, and children, all lifeless, seemingly heaped on top of each other. As the newcaster spoke of someone named, Jim Jones, I frantically tried to search the bloated and ashen faces for my mother and brother, wrenched between wanting to find them, but not wanting to see them. I felt an inexplicable void, as if everything inside of me had collapsed and I possessed neither body nor soul, only a cold numbness.
That night, I cursed God for my emptiness, my pain, and wrote him out of my life altogether. At some point after my mother's death, my mantra became "fuck it!" and like the mass grave my mother and little brother was buried in, I was filled with a dark cynicism that seem to propel me to my current fate.
Throughout my life, whenever I think of my mother I am inevitably plagued by the surreal image of her; on her knees, clutching her crying son tightly to her bosom, surrounded by armed men shoving the barrels of their guns hard against her head. They are shouting at her, prodding her, forcing her to make her son drink the contents of a dixie cup. She knows it is poison and she is weeping in helpless horror, her small body is shaking uncontrollably with abject fear. She looks up into the blank faces of the men, desperately searching their eyes for compassion, for mercy, before she too, is forced to drink the poison.
The memory of my mother dissolves, like the mirror reflection of a placid lake that has been disturbed, leaving me with a feeling of cosmic loss.. "In the end." I say to myself, as my mind continued to wander in a kind of contextual nomadism... "In the end we all die a miserable death, simply because, death is a miserable thing."
It's strange how some of our most vivid memories occupy the briefest space of time, or how we fight against 'remembering',. as if we're struggling from being pulled by a undertow towards some dreadful end.
It is like this with the memories of my oldest brother and father. Their memories appear as symbolic allegories of my own shattered existence and whenever they come, I fight against being engulfed by a profound sense of urgency and melancholy, and out the corner of my eye I see Death...coming.
The night my oldest brother died I was in AC (the hole). I was struggling with sleep, unable to reach that neutral ground between dream and nightmare. sometime after 2:00AM I sat up on the hard steel tunic and stared into the semidarkness of the tear, listening to the muffled sounds emanating from the cell around me. Then suddenly, I was hit with a sharp premonition, as if a knife bad been plunged into my chest, and with clarity I knew, someone in my family had died. I got up and began to pace the tiny cell as my frustration mounted from wanting to make a phone call. But I was in the hole, stripped of all privileges and the use of the phone would only come from artful cunning, yet even then the calls are strictly legal ones.
I walked back and fourth like a caged tiger. I kept thinking that if anything had happened, it was with my younger brother, Trip. He was living the street life, in a gang, no job, a bonafide thug. Thinking about him immediately made me feel bad that I hadn't done enough to discourage him from that lifestyle. Anyone who has ever lived on a tightrope knows that its just a matter of time before you fall. Earlier that year Trip had gotten shot at with his wife and kid right next to him, and later had got shot five times and survived. I figured if it was Trip, it wouldn't be a great shock. I mean, the way things are, you kind of expect a person in a gang to be shot, stabbed, or killed, and the only thing you can say is...damn. I knew what the stakes were, but still, it didn't ease my mental discomfort.
The next morning, the feeling persisted, but I took on the day like any other day, you learn real quick in prison that feelings can be a prelude to madness, so it best not to feel, or at least, not to feel in the way that manifest normal human emotions It's a crazy way to live, but it the best survival tactic available in a place that makes your usefulness counterfeit. Out on the yard, as I was shooting some hoops I spotted the Chaplain coming out of the door of the unit, he pause as a guard pointed in my direction, then walked briskly down the walkway squinting in the sun's glare. The closer he got the faster my temples began to throb as blood rush to my head. I kept saying to myself; this motherfuckah bet not call my name.
Yet, even before he reached the fence, I knew it was me he was coming to see. "Is Mr. Cain out here"" he said in a almost high pitched voice that sounded as if he was on the verge of singing. "I'm Cain." I told him, my tone acid. He apologized for interrupting my yard time, but said there was an emergency in my family and I was being allowed a phone call. As I was taken off the yard thoughts of my brother Trip resurfaced in my mind. When I called home it was my brother Trip who answered the phone. "What happen!" I immediately shouted. "It's Junior, he's...he's dead." he said quietly. Junior was our oldest brother, he was also my hero and the most righteous person I'd ever known. I can't began to express how his death affected our family, how it affected me. As I silently held the phone I realized with a sickening hollow feeling, that there was nothing I could do, nothing I could say, so I hung up.
There is, in prison, when you receive news of a love one's death, an almost incomprehensible sense of infinite separateness. The feeling is so corrosive, it entombs itself into your psyche, affecting every strata of your thinking, until it seeps back out in subtle and angry ways. "It gets easier." the Chaplain rambled in my ear as a guard escorted me back to the yard. I wanted to yell at him, to take him by his neck and punch his face in; because I knew, it don't get easier, in fact, it don't get nothing, nothing but cold...ice cold.
Exactly six months after my brother's death, my father died in his sleep. He was as courageous in his dying, as he had been in his life. In those long ago days of my childhood my father was the rock upon which I leaned. People refer to James Brown as the hardest working man in show business, well, everyone who knew my father would refer to him as the hardest working man in real life. He was a proud, independent man, and his greatest strength was his noble personality. Though he wasn't a religious man, there was a quiet air of spirituality about him. I remember shortly after my brother died my father spoke to me of finding peace and about not fearing death. "Always be ready to die, son, cause you'll never know when it will come." He spoke as if he were conveying an urgent message. Looking back on that conversation I think he knew his time was not far off, though often, I think he was referring to me.
I didn't get the emotional luxury of attending the funerals of my father and brother, so in the solitude of my cell I buried them both in a private mental ceremony. Their deaths are simultaneously, a long time ago and only yesterday, and beneath their memories lie a symbolic message I interpret as interconnecting journeys that must come full circle, with me somewhere in the equation.
The ghost of my memories leave me, resettling like dust on my mind as a tear officer interrupts my musing with the food cart. I get my tray and pick at the soggy mess, I am deep in thought, thinking about my son, a son I have never seen, never talked to. I am thinking of the word, execution; and of my father's words, "Always be ready." Not yet pop, I whisper. There's still some things I gotta do.
* * *
I saw a movie once where a man spent his life trying to teach his son not to make the same mistakes he made when be was young. Though in the end, the man died knowing his son would make those very same mistakes.
'My son, Heavi Joseph Cain, was born August 28, 1982. In prison at the time, I was a complete stranger to his entrance into the world. My absence from his birth cause his mother to not only resent me, but exclude me from his life altogether. As far as she was concern, I didn't exist. I surmise throughout my son's life I simply loomed as an obscured figure in his mind, a father who ran off at the sight of responsibility. I was told I would never have an opportunity to be a part of my son's life, but this didn't daunt my efforts and for the past fourteen years (ten of which have been from Death Row), I have searched for him.
Before my father died, be encouraged me to never stop looking for my son. I didn't. And recently I located his mother and established a communication with her. There's still obstacles, but I've come this far and this may be the last real thing I do in life, because I know the possibility of having a relationship with my son is overshadowed by the very tangible possibility of me being executed, and my death may annul any accomplishments I make in this area. This fact only makes my sense of mission all the more important. I constantly create dialogue in my head anticipating what he will say when we meet. Sometimes I'm racked by inquietude because I know he is now at a crossroads, trying to find himself, testing the rage at the center of his being, caught between young manhood and a hostile society that has made his kind targets. I feel his struggle of growing up without a father, of having to know me as a footnote of some distorted story. Though I'm told he doesn't want my presence in his life, I grapple daily like the man in the movie I saw, of not wanting my son to make the mistakes I have.
I wonder what my son will think if he one day turn on the TV and hears the newscaster speak of how I had been put to death by lethal injection. I wonder if he will feel how I felt those many years ago, and wonder, if my death will engender in him a incalculable anger that will propel him to a similar fate.
I have an idealistic hope, that maybe, things will be different for him...that maybe, he won't feel the cold.
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