In the world renowned classic Christmas story “The Christmas Carol”, crabby old Scrooge was visited upon by the Ghost of the Christmas Spirit. Perhaps this tale touches each of us in it’s own way as we too each find ourselves reflecting upon what once was and what might have been if only our lives had taken a different turn at a particular fork in the road at some point so many, many moons ago.
As I write this, it is Christmas day, 2009. A with each Christmas now for over a quarter of a century I sit in a solitary cell on Florida’s death row. It has become a world of loneliness and despair, of overwhelming sense of abandonment and regret that I have become only too familiar with – a virtual hell that neither body or mind can ever truly escape from as once one has descended into the “bowels of the beast” it becomes branded forever on your soul as a never ending nightmare that one will never awaken from.
But the manmade hell of steel and stone have become the only world that I know now and although the eternal nightmare is as constant as the sun rising with each day, on some days it becomes worse and today is one of those days. Today I will again struggle with the ghosts of Christmas and find myself tormented and haunted by what once was and what might have been, if only.
Growing up in a large family, Christmas as I remember was always a traditional event. I can still recall the anxiety of awaiting Santa Claus when I was a child and smile at the memories of threats of getting put on that feared “naughty” list. More often than not for getting caught eating the Holiday cookies and treats that were always prepared and laid out on the dining room table, supposedly for the guest that might visit – but they knew that us kids would find a way to sneak the treats just at that moment when no one was watching, then quickly retreat to a hidden corner to savor the fruit of our labor.
Along the fireplace mantle, stockings would hang empty, each with our names written in glittering gold and to the nearby corner would stand a brightly lit classic Christmas tree, with the antique ornaments and flashing colored lights and ribbon of silver and gold tinsel laced upon the evergreen branches – and the on top an angel with her fragile wings spread and angelic head bowed but always watching from above.
Each Christmas Eve the ritual would repeat itself. Each of us kids would invent excuses to stay up as long as possible but inevitably march off to bed for fear that Santa Claus would not come. And fight it off as we might soon enough we would surrender to exhaustion and slip off to sleep – only to be awoken in the early morning hours with that scream that every child anxiously awaited to hear – “Santa’s come, Santa’s come!!” and suddenly as if on cue all of us kids would jump from our beds and run into the living room and be ready to receive the gifts we waited so long for.
Only now, knowing what I did not know as a child when I still believed in the magical miracle that Christmas was do In now realize just how much my father struggled to preserve the sanctity of this sacred event. When I was still so young the family business was forced into bankruptcy and almost overnight we went from being a comfortable middle-class family in the suburbs of Marin County, California to living on welfare with ten kids crowded into a two bedroom farm house in rural central Florida.
But even when our whole world was turned upside down, Christmas remained the same. Looking back, I don’t know how dad did it. Although we more often than not did not get what we asked for, we were never disappointed with what we got. Now I can only smile and cherish the memories of what once was, and even to this day it brings joy to my heart when I picture all us kids gathered around that Christmas tree, each anxiously awaiting our name to be called as dad plucked one brightly wrapped gift from beneath the treat a time and by the time it was over all that could be heard was the ripping of paper and the unsuppressed excitement and joy of children that only Christmas can bring.
That was the Ghost of Christmas past, the warm memories of what once was but will never be again. Like a wisp of wind they are so quickly gone, replaced by the cold chill of the Ghost of Christmas present and the reality of where I am today.
Now I look around me on this Christmas day and I see only empty pale pastel walls around me. As I sit here in the early morning hours sipping at my barely warm cup of black coffee, there are no sounds of children or the magic of Christmas. It is just another day, a day most of us try to ignore as we don’t really want to remember that today is Christmas – and yet, how could we forget.
Christmas on death row wasn’t always so bleak. But with each year that passed those with nothing but malice and hate in their cold hearts have gone out of their way to take from us even the spirit of Christmas itself. When I first came to death row in early 1984 Christmas was something to look forward to, a time of the year when the true spirit of Christmas penetrated even the steel and stone walls of death row.
My first Christmas on death row surprised me as I did not expect the kindness and charity of those that came into the bowels of the beast to share with us. The prison would allow church volunteers to come in and then the condemned would be led in small groups into the visiting park (a large fully enclosed dining hall). A decorated Christmas tree would be put up and the tables would be laid out with all sorts of Christmas cookies and treats. Groups of church volunteers would sit in communion with the inmates for just a few moments but in those few moments the love in their hearts became the greatest gift of all. Just as quickly we would be rushed out so the next group could be brought in. As we were handcuffed and led back to our cells the voices of the volunteers could be heard singing Christmas carols, slowly fading away as we were led further and further down the main hall towards the solid steel door that would once again open up to swallow us as we descended back down into death row.
Back then our families and friends could send in two Christmas packages with items such as shoes, or winter clothes or maybe a good radio and like little children we anxiously awaited what Christmas would bring. Even the State itself would go out of its way to make Christmas special. On Christmas morning we would awake to find a bag of fruit with apples and oranges and grapes. Only on Christmas day would the whole wing awake so early and many of the radio’s would be turned in to a local station playing classic Christmas songs in which many of the men would shamelessly sing along. Up and down the floor men could be heard trading an apple for an orange, or whatever, and many would pass out candy bars bought from the canteen and the cold-blooded killers we supposedly were became cheerful Santa Clauses to those we lived among that became our only family.
By noon the holiday meal would arrive and the trustees and officers worked overtime to pass out what the kitchen had prepared, each tray overflowing with the traditional feast of turkey and stuffing with gravy and thick juicy slices of honey baked ham and cranberry sauce and yams and so much more. Then a second tray would be brought to each cell, loaded with generous slices of chocolate cake and pumpkin pie and small plastic cups of thick fudge and dried fruit cups and again the trading would begin as each of us did our best to bargain for our favorite foods and through the day we would each slowly savor every bite.
A few weeks before Christmas the prison canteen (store) would start selling real fruitcake and boxes of chocolate mints and chocolate covered cherries that quite literally melted in your mouth, and large bags of Christmas cookies and candy. Even those who had no money got something as most of us who had enough to buy a few treats looked out for those that had nothing as that’s how it was on death row back then.
But all of that is now long gone. Each little piece of what Christmas once was stripped away until nothing remained. Each year something else was taken. Most often under the pretense of “security” concerns as those who wanted prisoners to suffer invented excuses to impose their malice upon us – especially at Christmas.
What little now remains is but a shadow of what once was. They still allow volunteers to come in as they attempt to share the spirit of Christmas with us, but no longer are we allowed sitting in momentary communion with them. The few treats they are still allowed to share with us are now brought to us at our cells, but each year they are allowed to share less and less. Today is Christmas and yet it is not. There are those who would reach out with Christian compassion and charity to the condemned on this holiest of days, but they are no longer allowed to do so.
Death row has become a different place and no longer is the spirit of Christmas among the condemned. Now each of us in our own way tries to ignore the day altogether. It would be only too easy to say that I myself have become bitter and perhaps that is true. When a man spends a quarter of a century in a solitary cell then bitterness becomes inevitably. I’d like to think that I’m stronger than that but I suppose no man is.
But this really is not about me or what I’ve become as I’m not responsible for the deprivation of even the smallest act of Christian charity that has come to define death row today. Rather, this is about what we have become as a society today, where it is now no longer enough to condemn a man to death for the alleged transgression he or she might have committed. Now as a society we thrive on making the prisoner needlessly suffer and reward politicians who invent ways to inflict even greater deprivation upon those we imprison.
What I speak of today is not about me, but about what we have become as a society. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote that when a man spends his life fighting monsters, his greatest fear should not be the monster itself, but should be of becoming the monster himself. When we as a society can no longer find that measure of mercy and compassion in our hearts that presumably defined us as a Christian nation, then inevitably we will awake one day to realize that the monster that we once claimed to fight now stares back at us in our mirror. Even as much as I now might be deprived of, it is we as a society that is deprived of so much more.