Just three weeks earlier, Ernie had been taken to the prison hospital complaining of severe stomach pain and nausea. Everything he ate came right back up. Since then, we’d heard bits of information through the prison grapevine. Stomach cancer. Ernie’s condition was worsening. Organ failure.
We received the news of his death, not from the prison chaplain but from a guard who had obviously flunked out of Empathy 101: “We might as well pack his stuff. He’s dead.” Sorry consideration for a man who spent almost 30 years of his life on the row and once came within hours of meeting his death in the execution chamber.
I lived with Ernie for the last four years of his life, got to know him, and counted him as a friend. He was a simple man who enjoyed watching sports and playing spades and dominoes. Although he didn’t have much, he was a hustler and had an uncanny way of wheeling and dealing for the things he needed. This was the life Ernie knew, and while he didn’t thrive, he did the best he could to survive each day in a place where the strong often bully those who seem weak or “slow”.
While he might have seemed soft and insignificant to some, or worthy of executing to others, those of us who really knew Ernest McCarver saw in him uncommon strength – the strength of a man who got up each morning and faced another day in this place with the sort of courage only a few can find within themselves.