Four weeks before his scheduled execution my friend was allowed visits from friends and family members up to three times a week. Pen pals, siblings, children, grandchildren, his mother and other relatives all made or tried to make an appearance. For many of them it was the first time during my friend's incarceration they came to visit. It was bittersweet.
He said to me, "It was really frustrating and sad to see some of them." All he wanted the entire time he had been locked up was to stay in touch and communicate with his family. He knew prison is hard on family connections, but he consistently wrote to his brothers and sisters and tried to be involved in their lives. Only rarely did my friend get a response and then it was a simple card, maybe a little money. What he wanted from his family more than anything they refused to give him.
Until the final weeks of his execution date my friend never met his grandchildren, and his son was only a sporadic writer at best, but now he wanted to visit and write everyday. Death has a way of reminding people of the things and relationships we take for granted. In the final weeks before his execution date my friend saw more of his lawyers in two days than he had in the decade since being appointed his case by the Indigent Defense Services.
All of the attention was overwhelming and emotionally enervating. To make matters even more complicated he received a last minute stay of execution, which was soon followed by an indefinite hold on all executions due to some legal challenges to the execution protocol. In many ways this was a torturous experience, being ready to die then getting told, "Oh. Sorry, not today".
Shortly after his friends and family discovered the stay of execution and this evolved into a de facto moratorium, my friend's loved ones disappeared. It seemed once they knew their brother-uncle-father-grandfather-friend wouldn't immediately die, there was no need to stick around. No more visits. No more letters.
It was hard to feel grateful his life had been spared when my friend was forced to experience being abandoned by his family all over again. Coming back from death watch and the acceptance preceding one's execution is trying enough, but to return to the desolation of an absent family is soul crushing.
I am intimate with the pain of being ignored and rejected by family members. Everyone on death row and in prison knows of this anguish. It's why so many of us can't help hardening our hearts just a bit, so when contact from the outside does come it doesn't hurt quite so much. In feeling the sense of loss I can't help wondering how many of my brothers, sisters, and cousins would visit if I were given an execution date in the coming weeks. I think about how bewildered, joyful, anxious, saddened and angry the experience would make me to see these virtual strangers after so many years of silence. Then I realize more than anything I would be overjoyed to see any of them because my love for my family has not diminished over the years and distance.
Maybe that is all that matters. Even if it is only at the end my brothers and sisters and extended family decide to say goodbye and tell me they love me their reasons for staying away are irrelevant. It does me no good to dwell on the pain, but serves as a reminder of the love I have for all of my family.