One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on death row is the societal disconnect of being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, death row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens. Though outlets are provided as a source of information – like TVs, newspapers, and visits – the basic cable viewing and local coverage lacks the exposure to stave off the inevitable.
In June of 2016 telephones were installed on death row. This avenue for communication was an enormous leap from the single ten minute phone call that we had previously been allowed annually. The holiday phone calls, as the process was known, were administered under strict procedures and they often found their targets at work or unavailable, and if they were available, there was not enough time to speak with all those who were available and eagerly waiting. Not to undermine the value of those precious moments and the tender voices of our loved ones, but ten minutes a year is insufficient time to fully sense that you’ve spoken with someone. Today, things are different. The atmosphere on death row is alive with the promise for potential amendment. With the telephone installments, I am a notion and a few clicks away from breaching society.
The first call I made was to my mother, who relocated to be nearby after I was sentenced. My mother has visited me weekly and provided for me in such a way that I am seldom in need. She and I have sang, prayed, and cried together throughout the years to lessen the pain in each other’s eyes. Just being able to talk with my mother by phone was an honor.
The second person I called was my Aunt Patsy. Much like my mom, Aunt Patsy has been essential to my endurance with her continuous faith and optimism. She has visited, written, and sent funds, dutifully, as if I was her own son. Aunt Patsy has been a friend that I could confide in, and, right or wrong, she believes in supporting her family in every way she can – I admire that the most about Aunt Patsy.
After those two calls, I got around to making the most anticipated call that had been seventeen years in waiting. A call that came with hesitancy and doubt, and would either offer an incredibly wonderful experience or sizzle with awkwardness and discomfort. With jittery fingers, I punched in the digits. The phone rang once, then twice. Each clatter of the ringing that thrummed in my ear made the dissonance in my head more evident: desperately hoping someone answered, on one hand, while, on the other, praying to God that they didn’t.
Suddenly, the automated recording sprang to life as I resisted the impulse to hang up. What was I to say? Where would I begin? I was completely unaware that my breathing had stalled, until a sigh of relief escaped me.
“…Thank you for using Global Tel Link.”
Then I heard her voice, “Heyyy, Duck!”
And everything hit me at once, a plethora of memories and emotions from a life I once knew. A tear slipped out of my eye before words left my mouth as I realized why the moment was so endearing. It was because nothing will ever be more important than family. I’ve always stood by that philosophy, and I’ll die by it. I smiled as my worries morphed into joy.
“Hey, Aunt Pudding. It’s good to hear your voice.”
Aunt Brenda, whom everyone in our family called Pudding, was my mother’s older sister by one year. As kids, the two were best friends. My mom looked up to Aunt Pudding and wanted to be just like her. Then, at 16 years of age, Aunt Pudding married and moved away from home to start a family, which left my mom to feel abandoned. Their relationship hardly suffered, instead, it strengthened as they grew. The dynamics of family closeness was similar with all my aunts and uncles. Whether a bill needed paid or someone needed a place to stay, they’d always provide for each other. This closeness was the inheritance for us children of the family. Aunt Pudding, herself, was the mother of six, though my brother and I made seven and eight. I spent countless Saturday mornings on her living room sofa watching Bugs Bunny cartoons and Soul Train. In the backyard was an old pecan tree I’d climb while Aunt Pudding hung clothes out to dry. Her house was a staple in the community for many of the neighborhood kids, and the lesson that our closeness reinforced most was that nothing was more important than family.
All that changed, May 17th, 1999, when our closeness went awry. Aunt Pudding’s eldest son learned of my interest in a murder and covertly alerted the authorities. After meeting with the detectives and detailing the crime, he was given an ultimatum: testify as to my involvement in open court or be criminally charged himself. This act caused a rift in my family from which there would be no healing.
I never blamed Aunt Pudding for standing by her son. It was indicative to how my grandmother raised her children. It’s why my mom stood by me. It was because, regardless of our children’s shortcomings, they are our greatest responsibility. Still, the ordeal took a toll on my mother and Aunt Pudding’s relationship. The sisters spoke occasionally, though careful to avoid mentioning their two sons. Other family members differed in opinions and ultimately chose sides. Some doubted that the cousin would lie about something as serious as murder, while others were persuaded by the testimony of DNA findings. It was an explosive circumstance that fragmented our family’s closeness with few whom I wondered if I’d ever hear from again.
Then about five years ago, while visiting with my mother, Aunt Pudding took ill and was hospitalized. Initially, the diagnosis looked bleak, but she slowly began to pull through. Many in our family gathered at her bedside to offer support and prayers. It was the closest we’d been in fifteen years.
Though I was unable to share in the experience, I agonized in seclusion. I’d lost my grandmother and an aunt already; I couldn’t bear to lose Aunt Pudding. There is no greater pain than the hurt I’ve felt in not being able to say goodbye. If I ever had the chance, I’d find a way to make things right.
With the telephone installments on death row, I was given that chance. I expressed my eagerness to reconnect with Aunt Pudding, and my mom made it happen. Aunt Pudding and I were in such high spirits that all the messiness seemed forgotten. Our conversation flowed like cool spring waters over the jagged stones of past controversy. It reminded me of more pleasant times, back in the days when Aunt Pudding’s doors were open to me, even in the wee hours of the night, or when I would raid her fridge to sate my appetite while she encouraged me to eat more. Back in the days when our love was unconditional and the only sides to be chosen had long been determined by blood. I will always love my Aunt Pudding, though amidst the chaos, I’d forgotten what that felt like, until now. And yet, nothing will ever be more important than family – the proof is in the pudding, just listen to her voice…
“Hey, Aunt Pudding.”
What could be more important than that?