I have many things I should be doing right now. I didn’t turn in my homework last night for my writing class because I couldn’t seem to focus all week. I know I should be working on that, but I can’t muster the inspiration for fiction. Someone from the online journal, Literary Mama, a publication I respect immensely, and a place I have hoped to be published, asked me to write an essay on something in particular. But I can’t get my thoughts together enough to write the first sentence. There’s also laundry… and showering.
Have you ever tried to sprint through sand dunes? The sand shifts under every foot fall. You have to use your whole body to compensate for the sliding ground. Forward progress is slow. Have you ever lost your shoes in a puddle of mud? At first glance you believe the ground is hard enough to support your weight, but you’re in a hurry so you jump right into the thick of it realizing instantly that you’ve made a mistake and your foot protection is now gone leaving you vulnerable to the next step. Have you ever had to hike in waist-high snow? Every step takes enormous effort; step, sink, pull, lift, repeat. Each of these ways of moving in the world leaves you exhausted. You quickly become desperate and appreciative for solid ground.
That’s what I feel like right now. I am going through a rough patch in my marriage and I feel like I’m climbing a mountain of obstacles all of which are sucking me dry of energy, time and hope. Energy and time I can manage… it’s the hope that takes my breath away and it’s hope that I feel desperate for right now. That is why a true story of hope is what I want to tell today.
I once knew a boy who went to prison. A long time ago, when I was just a girl and before he went to prison, I really liked him. He didn’t like me in the same way. I thought that if I gave him everything, he might. He didn’t. That was a hard lesson to learn.
This boy was tall and solid as an oak tree. His fists were the size of an elephant’s heart and he could smash a baseball to the moon. He was known for not only smashing baseballs, but people’s faces. Sometimes he was a very angry person.
That is what most people knew of him, but I knew him for something different. I knew he quivered like a sapling when anyone said the word “haunted.” I knew his eyes widened in real trepidation if he saw triple sixes. He was a bully in many ways, but I could see the tenderness in his heart as I watched him kiss his mother and call her “Mommy” in front of his tough teenage friends. His mother knew that I liked her son. She knew her son did not like me and she knew what I was willing to do to change that, and yet, she treated me with respect.
Every time I gave this boy something of mine, and then asked for something in return (for which he never gave), he did not laugh at me. He didn’t even pity me. He looked at me as if he was disappointed in himself for being so selfish. He didn’t want to hurt me and tried to get me to stop giving him things, but he was a just boy, and he did what boys often do.
Eventually, I let him go. I moved on. He dated a friend of mine for several years and into our early twenties. After a short stint in the minor leagues, he became addicted to meth. I heard stories about how he beat people to near death. He went on stealing things from people and friends to support his addiction and all of that landed him in prison for over a decade. I didn’t know him when he went in there. Shortly after going to prison the sweet woman he called “mommy” committed suicide.
I stole something from him, too. I took a photograph from his house that I still have tucked somewhere in a yellowed photo album in my parent’s basement. It was a picture of him at about the age of three. It is a close-up of his round, boy face. His hair is a deep monochramtic brown and straight as straw. It’s cut bluntly across his forehead covering the tips of his ears. His eyes were wide and lit up like sunlight dancing on muddy waters. Soft brown freckles were smattered across the bridge of his nose and sat on the peaks of his cheek bones like they’d been painted on a doll. He’s wearing a little tie, seemingly dressed for church on Easter morning. His smile is not big and happy, but contented. Only a mother would take that picture of her son and I felt bad for taking it from her because I’m certain now, that like him, it was her treasure.
I wanted that picture because that is how I saw him. I kept it to remind myself that I gave everything to that boy, and not that man who would later go to prison.
Every now and again, over the last decade he was in prison, I’d think about him. I’d think about what he was going through in that place compared to what I was going through in my life. I’d think about all the things he was missing and if he knew he was missing them, or if he even cared. I cried as I tried to imagine him learning about what happened to his mother while surrounded by bars and concrete. A couple of times I looked up his mug shot on the state’s website of incarcerated people. Over the years the tattoos grew, the eyes shrank and there was no smile. Sometimes I’d imagine running into him at a bar when he finally got out. I would know with just one look if that boy with the eyes as big as moons was still there, or if the harsh realities of a decade in prison had taken him away forever.
He’s out of prison now. I haven’t met him in person, but thanks to Facebook, I still know.
That boy is engaged to be married. He’s having a baby girl. He makes fun of himself for going to prison. He has no shame and I see that as a sign of internal strength. He’s still not afraid to tell the world how much he loves his mother and that same unabashed affection is now bestowed upon his fiance. With much regularity he writes posts about his great love for her, too. His declarations are cheesy, over-the-top, the grammar is all wrong and from anyone else I might roll my eyes and doubt the sincerity… but with him, I can’t help but smile.
That boy whose picture I took, who took things from me and then went to prison for taking things from others, did not let life break him. He lost his beloved mother while in that place, but he did not lose himself. When I see his picture pop up on my computer screen now, I wonder what sand dunes and mud puddles and snow-covered mountains he conquered while stuck behind those walls? Sometimes I wonder who he beat up, if he stopped beating people up, and when he decided he wouldn’t be beaten? Seeing his picture today, his features are hardened and aged, like mine, but I can still see the joy in his eyes and the love he has for life and the people still in it, and when I see that… I feel nothing but hope.
Hope that the innocent child in us all is strong enough to overcome any obstacle, be it mountain or marriage. And that is the story I want to tell today.