In the Listening

I should never assume I’m in charge of the agenda.

The other day, I had a visit with one of my young friends at the local prison. I’ve been mentoring him, and he’d been teaching me, for quite a while. Visiting day was turning out to be the best day of the week for me, on a lot of different levels.

I had our time all planned out. I brought food, some of his favorites, and coffee. I brought my guitar, and planned to play a game. I even laid out, in my mind, what we’d talk about, as we ate, and played the game. Silly me, thinking I’d be in charge of our time.

Yet, when I arrived, he didn’t even open the bag from the restaurant. He barely sipped the special chocolate frappe I’d brought in. My guitar stayed in its case, and it was obvious he had a lot on his mind. His first words pushed me into the nearest chair and he took command of our time, his eyes sparkling with determination to speak his mind.

He talked, and told stories about his life, his family, and his fears. I heard about his grandma, and his most challenging wrestling meet, and how his coach believed in him. The coach was the first man who ever thought he could do anything in his life.

The restaurant food grew cold; there was a different hunger in the room today. It wouldn’t be satisfied by the burgers and fries.

I heard about his best friend shooting someone at school, and what it was like to watch that, and hear the gunshots in his high school hallway, what it was like to turn around and see his friend firing the gun and the other guy falling, and bleeding. And how he helped get the gun away, when the magazine was finally empty, and how it fell, clanging, on the hard linoleum floor, by the blood.

I had to remember to breathe, as his words quietly tumbled out, words without emotion, just relating the events, him being a reporter of what went on, as he watched a murder.

He took me there, his words painting a picture of his fear, and his empathy for his friend, and why his friend’s anger boiled over into gunfire. He didn’t cry, he just spoke, his voice firm, the sentences turning into page long paragraphs. I wondered if anyone had ever heard this story, even after the cops arrived a few minutes later, and took his friend to jail, leaving him in that long, cold hallway, next to the bullet riddled body, the empty magazine, and the blood.

His eyes told me it was not my time to ask, only to listen.

I could only nod, later occasionally offering a full sentence of empathy and understanding. His words tumbled out, keeping a steady pace, as the hand on the clock on the wall spun around, once, twice, and half again.

Finally, he took a deep breath.

“I guess our time’s up now. Can you come next week?” he said quietly, unfazed by his two and a half hour monologue, his story of murder, and loneliness, and losing a friend.

“Sure,” I said, nodding and giving him a hug. He hugged back, bear like, taking the sack of cold burgers with him.

“I’ll heat these up in the microwave. Thanks.”

When I got home, I took a walk, in the autumn afternoon sunshine, and looked at the colors of the leaves falling from the trees, and the last of the summer flowers, ones that had survived the first few nights of frost. The air was still, the rays of the setting sun still warm on my skin.

There were no birds, no insects, not even a breeze in the dying yellow leaves on the maple tree, as if the world knew I’d had enough listening for a while, and needed to let all that settle in, to find a place for what I’d heard that afternoon.

I heard his stories, again, in that silence, and let his tales sink deep into my soul. And, in all that, I realized I’d been given the gift of knowing him better, and in letting him finally be free to tell his stories and find his own way.


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