Sunday, February 14, 2016
Over 42 Million Heartbeats
Every one of them empty. Every one of them painful.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in again.
A year’s worth of pain is nothing new in my life. The difference this year is: the flavor and severity of the pain, the expectations of those around me to hide it, and the utter shock and trauma experienced by those around me when I fail to do so.
I visit my husband at the prison nearly every day, and have been doing so since he was taken from me a year ago. Visitation itself has been a battle with many twists and turns along the way. I have gotten to know the guards at the visitation desk well; considering some of them casual friends. I have seen abuse and indifference from some staff, but I have also seen extraordinary concern, care, and struggle to help families trying to access their loved ones from many others.
These people see me nearly every day. Many of them know the car I drive. They know my husband’s OB number and location by heart. They frequently call for him before I even make it in the door. We talk, we joke, we gripe about our days. And yet, recently I was slapped in the face by how little they understand about my life.
The administration of the prison lashed out at us months ago, throwing my husband and his entire Mod (housing unit) into solitary confinement. They attempted to permanently cut off all the men from physical contact with their families, but we fought them at the statewide level and won a small victory. They were forced to allow us a single contact visitation hour each week. The facility forces us to choose only one day each week to actually hug them, despite the fact that the facility is currently maintaining the staff to allow contact visitation every night of the week - a policy that seems created from pure spite.
The other nights of the week, we are allowed video visitation only. The video camera on the inmate’s side is pointed so absurdly high, that Clayton has to sit on the back of the provided chair, and attempt not to tip over backwards, to be seen from more than the nose up. The video quality is so unfocused, discolored, and grainy that I was shocked in a recent contact visit to see that my husband had grown a substantial amount of facial hair which I hadn’t even been able to see in my nightly video visits.
Only one phone is provided to hear them through, and the cord is painfully short; requiring family members to huddle over the single receiver in incredibly painful positions for the duration of the hour-long visit. Family members who are hard-of-hearing have opted out of coming to these types of visits at all, because they are unable to hear him clearly. The only consolation is that visitation hours allowed for video are broad and flexible; allowing families to come in and start a visit anytime between 9 am and 9 pm.
I came to the prison late one night. I was having a very rough week. The pain in my body was high from both my regular pain condition, and the recent head-on collision I was involved in on the highway which totaled my car. I was struggling with sudden water damage issues in my home, and managing the comings and goings of the various contractors I needed to rescue me. I had waited to head to the prison as late as possible. Waiting had allowed me to help Clayton’s family receive a phone call from him, and share a conversation as a family before I went to visit him alone.
I came into the prison at about 10 minutes before the latest visitation time, eager to see my husband. One of the guards I know well, and appreciate very much, smirked at me casually and said, “Running a little late are we?”
Under normal circumstances, the comment may have flown right by me, and I may have even cracked a joke in response. But I was near tears already. This guard was not seriously irritated with me, and I knew that. However, this was the fourth time I had been asked this question that week, and the others had heavily implied that I was inconveniencing them with the need to serve me so late.
I remember staring at him and trembling. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry and rage. I had so many things I wanted to shout; not at him, but at the entire facility. I swallowed them all down, and kept my tears running down my tear ducts only. I briefly explained that I had been waiting for a call from Clayton, and nodded before heading to my locker. I noted the guard’s mild confusion as I walked away.
If I could have poured out my heart without fear, this is what I would have said:
Please, please, do not forget that I am not like you! I try to be patient; sometimes waiting an hour for a visit because I know the new inexperienced staff member is struggling. I try to be kind, because having someone like you in this job is an essential Godsend in my life. But can’t you see? Don’t you understand when I speak with you each night I am waiting to see my SPOUSE?
You are not a prisoner here like me. You are here by choice; by profession. You leave here each night or morning, and return home to your spouse. You have the choice to kiss them. You have the choice to hold them as you sleep. You have the choice to make love to them when you see them suffering. You could choose, if you truly wished, to simply watch them as they sleep.
How can you not understand?
My spouse was taken from me. I HAVE TO come here to see him. He is being held here by force, and he has done nothing wrong! Many of you have come to know him for nearly a year, and know this to be true. Sometimes he is treated with compassion, but often he is mocked and abused by those entrusted to keep him safe.
I watch him suffer each and every day. He’s being held captive in a small cell; only lucky enough to track time because he managed to purchase a watch before being thrown into hell. You see him smile when I come to visit him. You see him thank you, from the bottom of his heart for helping him see me, and it warms your own.
Do you even think about what it’s really like for him all the other hours of the day? About what it is like for me?
Tick tock, tick tock. My prison is a clock.
I wait every morning for his short opportunity to call. I worry when he doesn’t. When he does, I know the call will be 15 minutes exactly. I struggle to adhere to that interval of conversation, and frequently want to scream at the recorded woman’s voice who announces the 1 minute warning, and then callously cuts us off.
I watch the clock all day every day. I calculate again and again how to fit the visit into the day. It’s a minimum 2-hour chunk of my day removed from whatever other tasks I need to complete. I calculate commute times from each and every location I go to. But it’s more complicated than that. It has to fit into his schedule as well as yours.
I try not to visit on top of meal times. I try not to visit during the brief periods he will be released from his cell each morning and night, or he will miss out on the opportunity entirely. I try not to land on top of commissary delivery the day it arrives; or they will not allow him to have it, and he will go an entire week without the supplies he ordered two weeks ago. I try not to land on shift changes, or the guards in visitation easily get overwhelmed, and I am delayed anyway. I try not to land on top of counts in the mod for the same reason.
The schedule changes frequently, and I struggle to keep all of its layers straight in my mind. I keep notes stashed in my house, in my car, and on my person. Sometimes the guards out front ask me about the schedule in the mod casually, because it’s not their area and they know that I usually know.
I watch the clock and wait for his call every night. Worrying again when it does not come, and celebrating when it does.
When I visit him, I watch the clock in the waiting room. I never fail to be surprised by how much time continues to pass as I note the date I sign in on the sheet each day. Sometimes you have him ready before I can even get my belongings stashed in a locker. Sometimes I wait and wait, trying not to look impatient and calculating again and again how the delay will affect the precarious schedule I’ve built in my head; praying the house of cards will not collapse.
When I visit him for contact, the hour flies by. We work diligently to communicate important information first, from each side, so we’re not pressured for time. We’re often surprised when our actual bonding conversations are cut short. I sit there at the table, itching to hold his hand, touch his face, sit in his lap, or simply beg him to hold me. I am not allowed to do any of these things. Occasionally, when times have been hard, I’ve felt my heart stop as I nearly made the mistake of kissing him for comfort, or even out of the old but fading habit. My heart races after time is called. We briefly hug and he steps away. I try to keep sight of him for every moment I can before one of us has to walk behind that door.
When I visit him for video, I struggle with discomfort and pain from the equipment provided, and I know he does the same. We often comment that the struggles are worth the benefit of seeing one another. I feel like crying every time I get the timing wrong, and I see something going on that he will miss out on because I chose to see him at this time, or was delayed by circumstance. The entire time we talk, a clock counts down the hour by the second on the corner of the screen. We’ve learned at which second to begin saying goodbye, and say I love you again and again while we can before the screen goes black.
Tick tock, tick tock. I go home, try to wind down, and wait for tomorrow’s clock.
7 Days a Week
52 Weeks a Year
42 Million Heartbeats
1 Man. 1 Woman. 1 Prison.