When I looked in the mirror this morning, a pale and strained face looked back. Bags and dark circles, no make-up. The dirty hair limped to either side. It was a lifeless face of no distinction. But, in here, none of that matters. In a hospital, you don’t care what you look like, and neither does anyone else. You check your sence of social norms at the door, along with your pride, and enter a world removed, where life passes by on the outside and doesn’t look your way.
My husband, Cecil, has been in the stem cell transplant unit for two weeks now. He has several weeks left to endure. He sits in a bed with a big picture window before him, but he cannot touch what lies beyond the frame. He can see birds visiting trees, but he cannot hear them sing. Leaves dance on their branches, but no rustle makes its way to his ears, and no breeze blows across his skin. He cannot feel or sense or soak up the inspiration of the out-of-doors. Cecil can only sit within his four walls and imagine or remember what he cannot have. It’s the fourth wall that makes the difference. Though this one is benevolent, it completes the isolation, nonetheless.
For Cecil, life has been reduced to the space in which he is confined. Life is disturbingly small when you are removed from most of what makes it large. In some ways, it’s as if he has been caged up and locked away; as if we are catching a glimpse of what the feds had in mind for him when they tried to put him in prison for the rest of his life.
Just the past two weeks have changed him. How quickly it happens. He is absent from his life. What involves him is here and now, not out there and not what went before. Those things become irrelevant. The same goes for the people in his life. They move forward with the changes that come at them each day. It doesn’t take long before his life, and theirs, have turned different corners and gone their separate ways.
When Cecil was fighting off the feds, I swore up and down that, even if he were convicted and sent to prison, it would not change us; we would always be the same. I see now how naïve that was. The process of incarceration, by its very nature, does not allow connection. The inmate must forsake the bonds that once nourished him. He must, in fact, let go of his sense of self if he intends to survive. That part begins right away.
When the feds raided Cecil’s office, they read him his rights, slapped on a pair of handcuffs and delivered him to the jailhouse. An hour earlier, he’d been a doctor seeing his patients. Now he was part of the justice system.
They came in through the basement of the jail and rode up to an interior hallway. A guard ordered Cecil to sit on a bench, to which he was shackled with a chain that went from his wrists to a hook between his legs. From there, another guard led him off to have his mugshot taken. The inevitable shower while being watched by a stranger followed, then Cecil hurriedly put on the blue pajama pants they handed him. He accepted the blanket and pillow, and dragged the flimsy mat to a cell that would be his. Bright lights drenched the common room just outside the cell. A constant drone filled every space. The windows were at the ceiling - small rectangular inserts of glass, so encrusted with dirt they might as well have been made of wood.
Early the next morning Cecil was accosted by another prisoner who tried to take the watch I’d given Cecil for our anniversary one year. Others looked on, but no one intervened. It was up to Cecil to set his own course. He got up off the floor, where he’d slept, and shoved the bully into one of the bunks, snarling into the guy’s face, “I think I’ll keep it.”
It took four days to cut through the prosecutors’ posturing and chest thumping, so Cecil could be released on bond. While the lawyers wrangled in court, I visited Cecil in jail. The elevator doors closed behind me. When they opened, sterile air that smacked of anything but home blew up into my face. There were no smells. No fabric. Lights buzzed overhead.
Heavy doors to my right clicked open when armed guards pushed a button from behind bullet proof windows. Through the doors, the room was small and without decoration. On the left, a row of chairs sat close together, as though joined in a common experience. Each faced the same sheet of glass, a conspicuous divider between those who were free to go and those who weren’t. On the other side of the glass sat a line-up of men, each distraught and struggling for composure. Walls around them, guards, guns. It was a cage, and they were the encaged.
Cecil was among them. His hair hung in separate strands, filth somehow already having made its way to him. His face was rigid as he lifted the phone to talk to me. There was so much to say, but neither of us had the heart to say any of it. For a while, we sat and looked into each other’s eyes. We managed small talk and then a guard indicated my time was up. Already, the divide had begun.
I couldn’t touch Cecil, so I pressed a kiss from my fingers to the glass and got up to leave. When I turned back, his hand was pressed against the kiss. In his eyes, I saw anger and fear. I smiled at him, lingered a few seconds, then disappeared through the heavy doors that slammed shut and locked noisily behind me.
All of this did such violence to who we were, and it was just the intake process. Imagine where it would lead over time. Imagine life in prison.
For five years we did battle. For five years, I pictured my husband lying in a darkened cage – alone and desperate – the years of his life escaping him. Thanks to a jury that saw the government’s case for what it was, that ultimate travesty did not make its way to us. But it so easily could have.
I look up at Cecil, now fighting a different battle. He is confined within four walls, outside of which birds sing and leaves rustle. But, this confinement is different. The tubes and lines running into his neck are giving life, not sucking it from him. Those in control of the process are trying to save him, not knuckle him under. And when it’s over, he will be enriched instead of depleted. The fourth wall will come down and he will pass through to the outside.
Life has its rough edges. Cecil and I have been snagged by more than a few of them. We have been cut and bruised, and we are slightly bedraggled. But as long as we can feel the wind, life will be full.