“Truth is beautiful and divine no matter how humble its origin.” –Michael Pupin.
He spoke, his voice barely audible above the noise of the visiting room at the prison. We’d played a few hands of cards and munched on some cookies. We’ve only been visiting regularly for a few weeks, chatting about school and his family, and what he wanted to do when he got paroled.
I’d seen it in his eyes, a dark inner story pent up inside, needing to be told.
Tonight, it was time for truth, raw, unvarnished, naked and real.
Sweat beaded up on his forehead, his eyes locking into me.
He laid the cards down, leaned towards me, and began to tell his story, about how he ended up here, making some bad choices, wrestling with the many demons that had stalked his childhood, sending him down his dark road.
His thirteenth year was the worst, the culmination of so much darkness.
His eyes glistened, and he wiped a tear away, as he kept telling his story, filling me in on where he’d been in his young life, and where he wanted to go.
We were doing his homework tonight, working on an assignment that was past due, a requirement for his real graduation, getting out on parole and moving on with his life. This was his duty, to get real with me and tell his story, with all its darkness and shame. In the telling, he held the keys to the door. Being open with me was his path out, his road to freedom.
“I’m scared,” he said. “I just want to be a kid, to have a childhood I never had. Out there terrifies me.”
“I doubt that I’m ready,” he said.
I nodded, telling him we all find the world scary, challenging even in the best of times. We all have our demons and our doubts, I told him.
“You’ll do fine,” I said. “You have your act together. You’re a good man. You’ve got your support team.”
“I’m here to listen to you,” I said.
He wiped his eyes again, and told me more about his life, unloading his shipload of guilt, shame, and remorse.
“I’ve written this all out, and shared it with my family,” he said. “But, I’ve never said all of this out loud before. It was too hard to say the words.”
He’d brought paper and a pencil, but after he wrote out the names and ages of his victims, he laid the pencil down.
“I’ve got to just say this,” he said. “I’ve got to tell you face to face.”
He paused, looking me, a look of expecting something horrible.
“And man to man,” I said. “I’m here for you now.”
It all came out, one slow sentence at a time. He’d look at me, half expecting me to throw a punch, curse at him and walk out on him. His eyes told me that his sins were beyond horrible, unforgiveable, nearly unspeakable.
But, I didn’t move or bat an eye. I stayed there, glued to my seat, ears open wide, my heart aching as his river of pain flowed across the table and flooded the cold cement floor of the visiting room. I was an audience of one, my mission to listen, not pass judgment, to be here as a vessel of unconditional love.
Truth was being told here, his truth, with an occasional tear falling on his hand of cards for the abandoned game, and the rest of the cookies, now forgotten in the telling of this tale.
I leaned forward, eye to eye, and heart to heart. One man to another. Two survivors, two men on our own journeys in life.
“I hear you,” I said. “I hear your truth.”
His shoulders lowered a bit, and his hand waving the half eaten cookie stopped shaking.
I waited, letting him have his space, room to find one painful word after another. They came out slowly, one story and then another, the autobiography of a strong young man.
Finally, there were no more words. I felt at ease. My brave soldier breathed deep and let it all out.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thanks for being brave. And honest. For telling your truth.”
He nodded, the cloud of shame and guilt clearing, the atmosphere in the room easing up.
“Do you want to finish our game?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “You’ve done great work here, and you’re tired. I’ll go so you can get some rest.”
“Being brave and telling the truth is hard work,” I said. “I’m honored to have heard your story tonight.”
He nodded again, a faint smile lighting up his face. We hugged, and I told him I was proud of him, proud of who he was becoming.
We’ll do this again next week, and he’ll tell me more. Not that I want or need the details. I am merely his witness. He needs to tell his story, and speak his truth to the world. He needs to be free of so much.
–Neal Lemery June 2, 2016