“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31 – 32
The heavy sound of old rusty metal scraped along the ground as the gate opened. The high tone of intersecting locks clinked and harmonized a dissident refrain, as the latch closed the gate behind her. She silently stood there and waited. It was almost noon and the summer sun made no apologies about its heat. Sweat had already formed on her brow.
“Face forward,” the guard instructed. These two words merely informed the prisoner what to do, not who to be. Today was different, though. This phrase had been repeated so often in her ears – years of hearing it instinctually made her react. She turned. But instead of seeing the long narrow hallways of the prison that had led her in and out of her cell block or day room or showers, she saw in front of her a parking lot and the big stone main gatehouse. The highway was accessible just a mile or so from there. She had entered through that gate to where she stood today, eighteen years ago – to remove her from the world as she knew it…or to remove the world as she knew it from her? It was a coin toss. She thought about this irony and smiled slightly, knowing her pockets were empty. She spent her last penny on the outfit she currently wore, which she had bought to wear for her release day.
She sighed, as the flashbacks started to fill her mind. She knew those memories would remain with her as long as she lived. Yet, she was determined to keep learning how not to let them haunt her. Something, indeed, was dead the first time she entered through the gate into the prison compound. She was found guilty for a capital crime that she did not deny committing. She was sentenced to twenty-five years. Her prison time was calculated according to her age and offense. She was tried as an adult; after all she had just turned eighteen. Ironically though, she had felt so childlike, but the courts didn’t care about that. She had no family to care about her either back then; at least, not the healthy kind that could solve problems without making more of a mess. She closed her eyes and sighed again. As she inhaled, she thought about the fresh air she breathed. She heard the swooning sound of the cicadas, and thought about them trying to find their mates to ensure something about them would live to another season. What was this new season for her going to look like? Did it matter that she was free now? She felt so alone. The air she breathed today was the same air that surrounded the prison the day before. The locusts in the trees were the same locusts she had heard yesterday, as she laid in her bunk thinking about how hot it was, just like today’s temp.
Then she opened her eyes and saw a car drive through the main gate and make its way around the perimeter of the parked cars to pull up to the place where she stood. The restless feeling inside her chest eased a bit. She sighed a third time, smiled widely and her eyes began to tear.
“They came,” she thought. Had she doubted? Maybe a little. The triggers were real and heartache would always be part of her life, regardless of whatever side of the prison gate she found herself. Her parents pulled up a few feet from where she stood. Her dad was driving and put the car in park, leaving the blinkers on. Her mom got out first. These folks were not her birth parents. Her birth parents had died while she was in; though they had abandoned her before she ever went in anyway. The people that came to greet her now had helped give birth to her spirit. They started visiting from the local church a decade and a half ago, and an important connection was made – the kind of love and attention she had never known, always wanted to know. As her “mom” stepped out of the car and walked towards her, she felt a foolish blush come over her, as she thought about her doubt that they would come for her.
Her mom seemed to sense her moment of weakness and smiled as any loving mother would. “Did you think we forgot about you?” her mom noted, less as a question and more as a reassurance that her fears were not un-noticed. “We got stuck in traffic for whatever reason. But here we are!” her mom announced. Her mom embraced her tightly and they lingered in that pose for a few moments. They were allowed to now; since during visitation, quick hugs were mandatory.
Her dad, she had come to appreciate, was the strong silent type. He simply stepped up, put one arm around her, kissed her on the forehead and said, “Let’s go”.
She turned back to look at the guard. It was such a reflex. He nodded and said “Walk on”. Then he added, “God bless”. Her eyes scanned the concrete facade of the correctional facility that had been her home for what seemed a lifetime.
“Yep,” she thought, “what a blessing it’s all been.” She wasn’t just thinking about her parole that she had prayed would come for the past five years, but her entire incarceration experience was its own blessing in disguise. She had arrived there so long ago, dead inside and feeling like she was being buried. She was initially convinced that any sort of “living” was not possible within those walls. But she would soon come to find out what resurrection really meant. Feeling dead, discarded and alone were lies; and she had learned, while she was imprisoned, what it meant to be alive for real, loved unconditionally and acknowledged as something special. She committed her time in to learning how to serve others with the same compassion that was shown to her. How would she show it now? She was still committed to finding the right path to serve best.
She got in the back seat of her God-parents old Buick and belted herself in. Her dad looked at the center rear view mirror at her.
“Ready?” he asked.
She looked at him and then shifted her gaze to look through the windshield towards the gatehouse. “Yes,” she said. She did not look back. This intentional gesture felt significant.
“I think taking the back roads will be best, rather than the highway,” her dad said. “We’ll take the scenic route,” he added, looking back at her via the mirror again.
She faced forward and replied, “Okay”.
- Lost and Found; oil painting by Sylvia Martinez 2015
- Prodigal God by Tim Keller
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- Cain’s Redemption by Dennis Shere
- Learn about Face Forward Re-entry Program; Volunteers of America