I’m up too early, anxious, because—among other horrors—one of the two brothers I wrote about a couple months back, Junior, has disappeared from his recovery home.
I’ve gotten used to this kind of loss over the years, but I fear the good folks in the <quote-11>OPOP<quote-11> church who’ve come to love Junior—those who wrote him letters and prepared welcome-home funding to pay early months of rent and get collections off his back while he got his driver’s license—are unprepared for this loss. Back in early February, I told them that if they were worried about their own safety, they were worrying about the wrong thing. It’s highly unlikely that any of these guys you’re building a relationship with out of prison would take your purse or lift a hand against you, I told them. If they’re headed down an old road, they’ll just disappear and hurt themselves, not you. They won’t break into your house; more likely they’ll break your heart—which will hurt much worse. That’s what I said.
But did I say it enough?
This was all weeks before the pandemic, of course. Junior came home from five years in prison on March 1; our state went into quarantine March 23. This team of largely retired folks who prepared and trained to spend time with their person his first three months—rides to appointments, meals and hikes together, figuring out calendars and court payment plans and evaluations and piss tests and job searches—they are all locked up at home now. The presence he most needs has been denied to him.
Did you guys see that LA Times article about retirees gathering at a church for choir practice, nineteen of whom later tested positive for the virus? And two of them died within a week, another one weeks later. Guess what? That little church from the national news was this church: Mount Vernon Presbyterian, just two blocks from my house. The choir actually wasn’t the church choir but a community chorale that rents the worship space down the hall from our Underground Ministries office space. You can imagine why the silver haired team isn’t taking chances with the virus. But Junior didn’t really get it (Is this a white people thing?). No one on the streets is wearing masks or taking it seriously. So Junior doesn’t understand why these folks who’ve been writing him and planning his release can’t come see him or pick him up or hug him or even come near him, especially because he hasn’t been distancing. Unable to stand the loneliness, he’s been riding his donated bike to old friends’ houses downtown. This makes him a genuine health hazard to this vulnerable age group. It’s been too sad to witness.
I’ve taken him on walks in the forest with Abram and me a few times, just to find a way to welcome and embrace him into this new life. He tossed pinecones with Abram into the trickle of a spring stream running underneath a bridge in our nearby forest of ancient mossy cedars and ferns, of bright new alders and young oak leaves backlit with rays of yellow sunlight. Tossing pinecones is Abram’s favorite, second only to playing swords. I could tell Junior enjoyed this way of spending the afternoon together. Standing in that glade of ferns and mossy beams, he fell open. He didn’t stop talking, processing his anxieties. Joggers came by cautiously, not used to seeing guys with full facial tattoos in the forest, let alone crying.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how to train people for relationship—or at least I am trying to this morning. I’ll be writing a grant all this month to help transform our One Parish One Prisoner program into a national model. How to navigate the actual re-entry barriers from prison, how to roll away the maddening civic and systemic stones with phone calls and letters and the swipe of a debit card—those instructions are easy. It’s strengthening relationship that is difficult; the anemic bonds of untested relationship too often break apart when a fragile person gets out of prison, when they’re fighting against the current of their lives, of the world, those first several months out of the tombs.
This is where my head should be—my focus.
And yet, I can’t stop looking at my phone today, can’t stop reading the articles, watching the news. Can’t stop replaying the George Floyd video, or at least a part of it: “Momma, I love you. Tell my kids I love them.”
I can’t stop thinking about Abram’s momma. About Rachel.
Four years ago, right around now, in the late light of late Spring here in the Northwest, Rachel and I sat in a carpeted office space with six other pregnant couples, learning the basics of birth. <quote-01>Some couples planned on doing home births with midwives; some planned to have their babies in hospitals<quote-01>. Either way, the idea was to be involved in your own miracle. Not only did we have little quizzes about the maternal mechanics beneath those bulging bellies—familiarizing ourselves with the placenta, cervix, round ligament, and pelvic floor—we memorized the stages of labor, going over them the way you’d trace a trail on a map before a long mountain hike. We practiced breathing together, both for when the hurt would storm and for when it would subside. Partners like me learned to be good first mates, to not be surprised by the storm, to whisper, touch, to be informed and know what to have on hand—a tee-ball-simple primer on this ancient process so I could truly be with my wife in this transition, able to say, “I got you” and mean it. <quote-02>We practiced holding ice together to simulate physical discomfort for her and empathy for me<quote-02>, all the while watching a timer app on my phone to feel how long two minutes can be, one minute, all the while timing dilations. Our homework was to practice this at home.
Midway through the class, one of our organization’s wealthiest donors—and a good friend now—gave Rachel and me a week at their rustic cabin resort in southern Utah, amid that unreal landscape of ribbon streams bending through soft meadows, orange mesas, and Dr. Suess-like wobbly towers of crayon-red stone. This was just an hour from where we all gathered for Koontz’s wedding a few years earlier. Actually, Koontz met up with us and guided Rachel and me through one of those narrow slot canyons, our shoes sloshing in shallows of pristine water the whole time. Rachel moved slowly, Abram a perfect beach ball shape under her tank top. Back at the cabin, however, it was quiet. No TV. No wifi for our phones. We read. We made a fire. But what I most remember was doing our birthing class homework: lying on the floor together, on our sides, my body contoured to hers from behind, breathing. When there’s no epidural, when the brain says I can’t do this shit, breathing is how mothers move through the waves of pain.
There in that cabin, coffee table pushed aside, fire crackling, horses nibbling on grass in the Utah sunset outside the window, I breathed along with Rachel on the rug, supporting her in <quote-03>soothing labor positions<quote-03>, imagining the waves of pain neither of us could yet feel, awkwardly practicing presence with each other, what we needed from each other, arguing through tiny misunderstandings, rehearsing a technique and a tenderness we’d use for the rest of our lives together.
A week before her due date, Rachel woke to the bed wet all around us; I woke to her yelling. At the birthing center, the midwives said she broke water but wasn’t dilated, and no contractions. The bubble had popped inside, but the gates weren’t even starting to open. Because of this, the baby would be fatally vulnerable to infection if it didn’t get out in the next twenty-four hours. If contractions—the body opening in jolting waves, centimeter by centimeter—didn’t start in the next couple hours, we’d need to get to the hospital. They did, however, tell us about an old fashioned kick-starter, one that wouldn’t induce the body dysphoria of chemicals like pitocin. “Ever heard of castor oil?” They gave us a recipe.
At noon, still no contractions, we made that damn peanut butter, banana, and castor oil milkshake, and Rachel woofed it down. Sure enough, the earthquakes began—quick status, as the homies say.
For the next two hours, half of what we’d studied went out the window. The slow hours of labor we learned to endure together—breathing, moving, rocking, focusing, massaging the places Rachel had let me know most soothe her—all that gave way to screaming from and <quote-04>shitting<quote-04> into the toilet between rapid waves of mega contractions, then shifting back and forth to a position on the edge of the tub where she wanted me to press harder, harder, no harder, on her lower back. I spent those two hours in a blur of back and forth: one full minute kneading then punching Rachel’s lower back as she directed, then when the pain stopped suddenly, I’d reset the stopwatch on my iPhone and have a minute or so to race to the kitchen and grab a bite of microwaved spaghetti, another minute or so to <quote-05>pack some items into the suitcase<quote-05>, another minute or so for something like grabbing a clean towel, and then a frantic return to Rachel’s screams—“Baby! Chris! Now!”—to again beat back the pain in her back while giving her fresh towels and toilet paper and kissing her sweaty cheeks.
They said we’d know when we crossed from contractions to the dreaded transition, this all-important pivot point when the internal gates are opened enough and the body shifts gears into irreversible push instincts. “You’ll feel like you want to die,” they told us. <quote-06>With castor oil in the hyperdrive, we blew right through transition like the Millennium Falcon entering lightspeed<quote-06>. Yes, the midwife on my phone said so so calmly—Rachel still screaming for me to keep hitting those lower muscles—if the contractions are still a minute apart or so, come on in. She’d get the jet Jacuzzi ready.
We never got into that Jacuzzi. It was half full when Rachel waddled in and the midwife checked her dilation. The silver-haired sage smiled and said, “Baby’s here already. Let’s just get the stool.” My wife—my friend—suddenly bare from any self awareness perched herself on a minimal wooden stool and spread her legs, huffing and puffing, growling. I knelt by her side, one hand still “massaging” her lower back, the other ready to catch this child we did not yet know. <quote-07>I was in it, all pistons firing<quote-07>. I knew my partner’s breaths, I could smile into her eyes from inches away when she looked at me, even while she gripped my knee like she was dying.
Rachel then howled to the ceiling the most primal sound I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t a scream but a house-shaking roar from a well deep inside. I passed through terror into admiration. “Hell yeah, baby! I love this woman!” I looked down and a fuzzy head, or crown, had emerged. I asked the midwife if I could touch it. Bless this hippie midwife, she smiled through the roaring and shrugged, like, why the hell not, Dad?
None of this, of course, had gone as we’d studied and rehearsed for months. The castor oil had turned everything upside-down. But the training had prepared us nonetheless, coached our movements and minds, taught us something like teamwork. We’d gained the confidence to lean into whatever came, to assume we were the principal actors. Rachel trusted me even in her pain, and so too the midwives who came and went in the space of an hour.
This is the kind of training, I realize now, that I want to create for teams of churchgoers preparing to receive one precious person newly emerged from prison, fragile and scared, no matter what happens in the chaos of re-entry.
One last roar from Rachel and there he was, a blur of purple sliding into our arms and lives. That was the first moment I fell back from running point and watched two midwives swiftly move Rachel onto the bed, place her still tethered newborn—there’s the cord, my wife’s cord! I thought—onto her chest. I saw a maroon face, so silent at first, so small, eyes squinting and open before I thought that was possible. I didn’t even remember to look or think whether it was a boy or girl in that rush of revelation. Within seconds of seeing this tiny face, this face that had been confined in darkness, I fell into a weeping, even before the child cried its first. It felt like seeing a child pulled out from a storm drain or well. When I saw the face, I suddenly reimagined its prior enclosure as a confinement. It wasn’t a floating embryo; it was a person like me, all along, all alone in there.
I can see now that this is my projection, that Abram was not alone. But writing with you guys—reckoning with my college loneliness; seeing how different Murph’s emotional response was to little Wuck’s wandering hours; recalling my instant connections with men in plain prison cells and solitary confinement—I’m more aware than ever of how I saw my just born son that day through the curve of my own inner lens.
I guess what I’m talking about is training. Training the One Parish One Prisoner teams for the turbulence of prison re-entry, COVID quarantine or not. Training Rachel and me for the birthing process, castor oil or not. The specifics of a training might not apply, they may be forgotten, but the forging of relationship through a process of preparation—it’s stunning to me how that forging lasts and the relational muscles remember in new challenges.
Like when you guys thought I was drowned in the Skagit Bay last month.
Here’s what happened.
We usually kayak out to Hope Island. It’s our Neverland, as Abram calls it. But recently someone gave us a flat bottom canoe with a transom on the back for a small outboard motor. So I found a vintage three-horsepower motor on Craigslist and got it tuned up by a local boat shop. That bright sunny Saturday I hollered and whooped with Abram and Rachel as we <quote-08>made wake across the Skagit Bay<quote-08>. Abram sat on the front bench, skinny knees together in his life jacket, smiling against the wind in his face. Rachel too looked rather happy, comfortable and pregnant on the middle bench. I reached my arm back to hold the tiller on the little motor and steered us around the south end of Hope Island, the long way around to our tiny family cove on the far northwest side. The boat guy had said to give it a long first run, really let the old motor warm up and clean itself out. Around the far west side, the current was hard. The Skagit Bay gets really shallow at low tide and, like the last bathwater when draining, the shallow tide drains sharp and quick down certain grooves out to sea.
But we have a motor, I thought. No problem. So we buzzed into the tide, muscling into small waves. “We’re not making any progress!” Rachel shouted a minute later. She was right; the wet kelpy shoals and tide pools on the island’s edge, just yards away, weren't moving relative to our little craft, though the water rushed around us. I steered us out and away from the island, out from the conveyor belt of current, our white-shell cove with rope swing and madrona trees just a hundred yards away, Abram already pointing to it with his stick.
Then the loud roar of the motor went quiet with a hiccup. Rachel and I looked at each other. I carefully turned on my bench to pull the cord, like a lawn mower’s, to get it started. Again I yanked. Again. Nothing. We were floating backwards, away from the island, fast now.
Rachel was calm, amazingly, or at least wasn’t voicing the panic we both had to be feeling. Abram shouted, helpfully, “It needs new batteries, Daddy! Daddy, get the screwdriver and put new batteries in the motor, Daddy!” Though his tools were wrong in this case—those we used to fix his toys at home—his attitude was right on. He didn’t whine but wanted to help.
I stood up carefully in this boat rushing backwards out to sea, and Rachel sidled her pregnant body under me in a balanced dance so that I could take the middle bench, slot the oars into the holes, and start rowing to save us from ending up on nearby Whidbey Island. That’s where the current would take us in less than ten minutes: a four-hour row from the car.
There is a fusion of bodily effort and conscious futility that creates a uniquely consuming despair inside of you. Rowing with more grit and muscle and heroism than your body is used to putting forth can feel thrilling when you see its fruits: movement. But when you do this and it gets you nowhere, when you let up for a moment to breathe and rest your burning muscles and immediately feel yourself slide backwards and lose in ten seconds the labor of the last ten minutes, that’s a small hell. I groaned. Guttural whines escaped my throat. But Rachel was right there, facing me on the stern bench, gently telling me it was ok. That I was doing great. Thanking me for getting our family out of danger. I screamed a few times, digging the oars into the emerald waters around us, bending them against the fulcrum of the boat, my feet against her bench, back arched and hollering to the perfect blue sky. Rachel sat and coached me softly with a strength I borrowed all the way across the bay. It was all mental. Abram seemed to vibe off Rachel and was amazingly cool, even said, “Good job, Daddy” a few times. “Sanks, Daddy.” While I sweated and cussed, groaned when each three-second rest slid us backwards, I thought of kneeling beside Rachel through the birth, her inner tides pushing in ways I couldn’t feel, how we trained for that, and how that training still flexed within us and held us, held me, now.
Ninety minutes later, we got to the east side of the island. I oared us into the clearwater shallows of another pebbly cove. After I cursed the engine with a quiet and focused hatred, we laid out our blankets and picnic in the quiet sunshine. Abram asked for me to play his favorite on my phone: “Daddy! David Bowie’s Peter and the Wolf!” His familiar British voice once more introduced the orchestra, the sounds that often fill Abram’s dark room as I say goodnight and shut his door. Exhausted, I set down the flutes and oboes and clarinets on a long driftwood beam and fell asleep, safe, on a different shore of paradise than we had planned.
Later that night, after we’d left the island, after I’d rowed us across a tranquil high-tide (picture how still the bathwater is when full, drain closed), two kayak campers found that same cove, along with a black cell phone face down on a driftwood beam where they sought to hang their lantern. They opened that phone and went to my last texts where they found The Dodger Thread. And twelve friends from my hometown in Southern California saw their phones buzz with my name—or some version of my name: <quote-09>Hoke, Hokel, Hokelberry<quote-09>—only to realize it wasn’t me but strangers who’d found a trace of me on an island. So you spent the night looking up Hope Island on your phones, calling Rachel’s old number to no answer, worrying, even picturing my adult body bloated on the bottom of the bay amid the bull kelp roots. Maybe it even had some guys praying. That I might make it home.
<quote-10>That’s how I feel every time we lose a guy to the streets<quote-10>. When he won’t answer his phone. Picturing the bottom of some apartment complex or basement where they might be drowning in shame and meth.
But then, just as I’m putting a period on that last sentence and taking a glance toward my phone for the latest in this disgusting saga, I get a call. From Junior. He sunk to the bottom of his worst relationship, he told me, with his addicted baby mama. He’d buried himself in her bed for a week on the other side of the valley but is ready to come home now. He hasn’t used a drop of drugs, he says. He went back to his hell and found it didn’t fit him anymore. A new life had trained enough of him to know he had better relationships now.
“I called Madeline and Sarah,” he told me on the phone. “And Randall at the Foundation House said they’re gonna work with me to take me back and give me another shot. I can’t wait to meet up with you, Chris. You know? Or maybe, I don’t know, maybe I should write some of this down, because I got so much to tell you. So many stories I can’t just say on the phone.”
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