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Closed Doors

Prison is no place for grief and closure. Yet even as I mourned, glimmers of love and life surrounded me.


“Bad news, huh?” I knew the answer before I asked. A surprise visit on a Thursday afternoon was foreboding on its own, and my fears were confirmed when I laid eyes on my brother. Lou nodded and I saw death all over his face. His eyes were circled by darkness like the reaper himself, and his attempt at a smile was closer to a wince. He couldn’t put words to the pain he was in, and I didn’t force him to. The face of death said it all. It was my mother. I dropped my head and waited, expecting the pain to wash over me.

Ma. Not alive. Ma. Gone. I couldn’t compute it in my mind. My biggest fear had become reality. My mama passed away before I made it out of prison. My mother was dead. My mother—

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to tell you over the phone.” His words brought me back. I had been calling frequently since my mother had come down with a “bug.” With each call, I was hoping to hear that she was back at full strength. Due to a high risk for blood clots, she had been advised against vaccination, making her vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. Making me uneasy anytime she had the slightest cough.

Now, as I saw my brother for the first time in five years, a sense of displacement overtook me. I didn’t know what to say or do, so I kept talking. I wanted to flesh out the details, but I also feared what was waiting in the silence. Lou knew this news could crush me and he braced for my breakdown, but it didn’t come. My relative poise eased his concern, and I began to feel relief as I saw his face relax.

“Good visit?” It was a typical attempt at small talk as the CO performed a strip search. My brain was still trying to decide if what had just happened was real.

“Not really,” I responded. The uncomfortable groan that escaped him made me wonder if death had now coopted my own face.

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“Sorry to hear that,” he offered as he lost interest in his search. He looked off at nothing as we cycled through the routine, passing each article of clothing back and forth until I was in my boxers. Satisfied that I didn’t smuggle death into the facility, he left me to my sorrow. I got dressed and scoffed at my outfit: black jeans and a black button up—I had somehow dressed for the occasion.

When I exited the B building, I was blinded by the sunlight. As I stepped into the warm air, I felt the world cave in. My chest shattered and my legs became soup. I shuddered at the images my brother’s words had conjured up. Dimmi in a panic after finding Ma unresponsive. Aaliyah riding in the ambulance with Ma as she came in and out of consciousness. All of them watching as doctors failed to keep her alive. It was something about being under the open sky that made it real. My mother felt distant, far off, but she was tugging my heart away with her.

Prison is no place to feel sorry for yourself. Being surrounded by people experiencing hardship limits the emotional spectrum and the social contract doesn’t allow for the expression of sadness. Although everyone here experiences pain, it is usually hidden until we are behind closed doors. Grief counselor Annie Adams explained to a USA Today reporter that the “bereaved need an experienced, understanding support network to feel safe enough to process and learn how to embrace the grief.” My experience with the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) provided none of the above. However, I was fortunate to be part of a supportive community within the prison. Being a part of a network of friends working to change the experience of incarceration has been my saving grace as I navigate life’s biggest test.

Part academic community, part cultural awareness advocates, and part dreamers, I refer to my network of friends simply as “the fellas.” I think of us as a network rather than a circle, because circles are closed off, whereas we are always looking to incorporate people into our community. The irony of my grief journey was that I was checking in on one of the fellas when I got called for that unexpected visit. It was Monday night when my friend received devastating news about his father’s health. Since that evening I had been stopping by to offer support, not knowing it was the same evening that my mother passed away.

A set of coincidences left me feeling as though life was toying with me. To my friend I had offered counsel that I would soon need myself. I went to visit my brother dressed as though for a funeral. The preceding Sunday I’d received this sage advice from one of my mentors: “Don’t waste a minute.” It was in reference to my plans to interview my aunts and uncles for a book, but the point was to realize that tomorrow is not promised. A new cellmate had moved in with me the day before the visit. Young, energetic, and curious, he’d picked my brain for hours. He’d asked: If you got out of prison, what’s the first thing you would do? My answer had been that I’d go see my mother and enjoy her cooking. In between the sadness, the guilt, and the tears, I replayed these events, marveling at the way pain could be poetic.

Day-to-day life in prison is very structured—grief is not. My bereavement offered no escape. I needed space, but I was housed with nearly ninety men. I avoided the chow hall for days. I had no appetite, and I only left my cell for long showers where I could cry in peace. Making matters worse, I had to explain to my brothers and sisters that I would not be able to attend my mother’s service.

My siblings wanted to have a small ceremony at the cemetery, just us and my father. Something intimate after her service at the church. DOC policy made it unlikely that I would be able to join them. Because I am serving a natural life sentence, any arrangements that they believed would assuage security concerns were useless. It was something I knew ahead of time, but explaining DOC procedure to people who are free requires a fracturing of common sense. Although furloughs are still on the books in Massachusetts, they are rarely sought and never granted.

The next plan was to view my mother’s service through video. I didn’t have much faith in the DOC accommodating me, but I assured my brother I would try since he had gone out of his way to have the service live streamed. The guilt I felt at not being there with my family outweighed the pride that would have kept me from making any petition to the staff at the prison.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Why didn’t you say something to me sooner?” I was stunned at the case worker’s reaction when I told him about my mother’s death. He spoke as if he were a friend or confidant. I couldn’t believe my ears, but I held my tongue. I will admit, he did seem earnest in his attempt to assist me. Did I want to speak with clergy? No. Did I want to speak with mental health? No. Finally, he asked for the information that he would need to set up the video:

Name of the funeral home: Davis Funeral Home
Name of the church: Morning Star Baptist Church
Time of the service: 11:00 a.m.

A day later I was called back into the case worker’s office. This time he had another case worker with him. Her demeanor was all protocol, even as she offered condolences. She began by telling me what I already knew: I would not be allowed to attend the service. Then she rattled off questions from her files:

When did your mother die?
How did your mother die?
What funeral home?
Where is the funeral home?

I tired of her in no time, but I stuck it out for the sake of my mother. Then she struck the final blow, telling me I would not be able to view my mother’s service through live stream.

Apparently, viewing a memorial service posed a threat to security. There was a danger in the possibility that I would be able to “communicate” with people there. After a curt apology, she left the cluttered office to continue her day’s business.

It was stupid, but not surprising considering the source. The DOC has been allowing incarcerated people to have video visits since the pandemic. I could have asked my sister to set one up, but the video kiosk in the middle of the recreation area was dead—hardly an ideal place to watch my mother be sent off, anyway. There were, however, multiple private areas where Zoom visits were conducted, but I was informed that the use of this service was for viewing the body of the deceased before the wake. The only person who would be allowed to be present was the funeral home director.

My mother had been cremated, so there was no body to view. This was in accordance with her wishes, because she didn’t want “no one staring at her dead body.” This ordeal made me realize the wisdom of her decision. I couldn’t imagine the awkwardness of looking at my mother’s lifeless body through video as a complete stranger stood by.

Before I could call my brother with the disappointing news, I was sent to see mental health. Life is still toying with me, was all I could think as I made the walk to the health services unit. The DOC does everything in its power to assure I have no closure, then wants to check on my mental well-being. One look at the clinician and I started to get life’s humor. Young, nervous, and covered in acne, he offered the most uncomfortable smile ever. It got worse as his cracking voice struggled through a series of scripted inquiries. I actually felt bad for him by the time he was done speaking.

Someone had set him up for failure. He looked too young to know anything about life, let alone death. Or doing life in prison. Or dealing with death while in prison. There was definitely no way he was qualified to be of any service to me. I let him finish and politely declined his services. On the walk back I found myself talking to my mother. She had always found humor in my bluntness, even while chastising me for being rude. “See, Mama, I’m being nice.”

I’ve often remarked that there is no right thing to say to the bereaved. However, with the outpouring of support I received after my mother’s death, a number of people proved me wrong. I heard bits of what I needed to hear from different people at different times. My siblings telling me that I inherited my mother’s resilience. My mentors praying that my mother’s memory be a blessing. My professor assuring me the ancestors will welcome my mother with open arms. And of course, the fellas:

“It’s okay not to always be strong, that’s what you got us for.”

“Pain can hold us down or give us light.”

“The only way out is through.”

“Live your life in a way that honors her memory.”

“She is gonna live through you.”

The messages came in cards, emails, and one-on-one conversations. Behind the closed doors of the DOC, we are humans who love, hurt, and empathize. It hurt me that I couldn’t be with my mother before she died. It hurt me that I couldn’t be with my family in this time of grieving. Yet, throughout the pain, I was surrounded by love. It didn’t hurt any less, and it still doesn’t, but it did remind me that there is life on the other side of this loss.

I was grateful that my new cellmate’s stay was short. Nothing against him, but I appreciated having space to myself on the day of my mother’s service. I’m sure he didn’t mind an escape from my intermittent crying either. I considered closing my door and spending the day isolated, but I decided against it. I was progressing through the two types of grief described by psychology researcher Lucy Hone in her book Resilient Grieving. Alongside grief reaction, which is largely physical and uncontrollable, there is grief response—the choices we make going forward. I had run the gamut of physical responses, from crying to cursing. The pain in my chest had become so familiar that I felt guilt for the moments when it subsided. However, no matter how inviting the idea of shutting down appeared, my obligation to honor my mother’s memory led me in a different direction.

It was Wednesday night, Asian Pacific Island Cultural Alliance (APICA) night at MCI–Concord. APICA is one of three inmate-led self-improvement groups I’m involved in. Not taking the night off was one of the small, but meaningful, choices I made in response to grief. I not only had to continue living, I had to live for my mama. APICA, along with the African Heritage Coalition and Spanish United, were groups that encouraged me to bring out my best. These groups fostered the supportive and safe environment that is so valuable in times of tragedy. I couldn’t be with my blood relatives, but the fellas were there as my extended family. An unlikely union of artists, scholars, rappers, and writers that emerged behind these closed doors.

Image: Akin Cakiner/Unsplash