My brother, Mike, died Friday. There wasn’t any family there to say goodbye to him. He fell asleep and simply did not wake up. He had stage four liver and colon cancer. If we wanted to be there, we couldn’t. You see, my brother died in a prison.
For years, I’ve been ashamed of my brother and the consequences of his actions. Only about a couple of dozen people knew I had a brother that was serving time. He’s been incarcerated for almost three decades.
This isn’t his story of how he got there. This is a story of forgiveness. For almost twenty-five years, I didn’t talk to him. Once I received a letter from him, which I ignored. I lived my life as if he was a chapter to be closed and forgotten. My parents visited him and my older brother, Paul, but I held on to my convictions and my unforgiveness.
A few years back, after a heart by pass, they found cancer in Mike. The cancer had already progressed to a stage four. My mom, brother, Paul and his wife, Mel, took a visit to see him. They spent two days, which amounts to four hours of visitation time. An inmate can only visit two hours in a day.
I wrestled with my feelings. Did I ever want to see my brother again? I wrestled with my faith. How could I hold on to unforgiveness, when God forgave me of my sins? God doesn’t hold one sin higher than another. Was I more worthy than my brother?
Growing up with Mike, we weren’t close. There was always something about his personality that didn’t sync with mine. We share the same mom, but we had different dads. I prefered my younger brother, John, or my older brother, Paul to play with. We shared more of the same sense of humor.
I decided to take my mom and visit Mike. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The whole process of getting inside a prision was eye openning. I felt like I was being judged for coming for a visit. The car was inspected inside, under the hood, and under the car while we were standing next to it. Then we were patted down in a search, complete with shoes off. Yes, almost like at the airport. Just like at a dog park, one gate opened and the other stayed closed until the other gate closed. Once there, we had a choice of sitting outside at picnic type tables or inside like cafeteria type tables. We decided the sunshine felt better.
We sat on the visitor side of the table and waited for Mike to be contacted and searched before coming out. To tell the truth, when he walked out, I didn’t recognize him. Mom said, “There he is.” The once young man, was now much older and so much thinner. He had a gray beard, receeding hairline, and long, gray hair. His eyes, however, lit up when he saw us and he smiled. He had no idea we were coming.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to see his reaction to us. Hugging is allowed in prision. He sat on his side of the table and we talked and smiled frequently. Twenty-five years seperated our memories of each other. He kept saying, “I can’t believe you came.”
The only thing that is allowed to be brought in with visitors inside the prison is a bag full of quarters for the snack machines. Twenty dollars worth of quarters is the limit. I think we had about twelve dollars in ours. We spent them on six Dr. Peppers and chocolate and vanilla cupcakes. I’m not sure how he held all those sodas.
As I gazed at him, I could see how hard his life had been. It showed on him physically and how he carried himself. He moved like a man much older than his years.
However, what I did see in Mike was a brightness and a peace. Inside the prision, he found something that he never looked for while he was free. Mike had been saved and talked about his faithful God.
Inside this prision, inmates lived in dorms. His partioned space was in the middle of the room. He talked about him and his fellow inmates reading the bible and praying together. He was sure of where he would spend eternity, which brought me great peace.
He talked about food and how if anyone got found sharing food from the commissary would be put on restriction. He shared stories of the people he met.
He shared how he declined going to Houston for Chemotherapy because of how tiring the trip to Houston was going on a bus from one prision to another, spending the night at that prision, before going to Houston and the route back took all the strenth out of him. A couple of times was all he tried it before deciding not to do it again.
He shared how because of it, he was frequently on restriction, which meant no outside time, and no buying food for the commissary. He said he didn’t mind not going outside, but he really missed buying food because the food in the cafeteria was awful.
Our two hours ended. They give a five minute warning to wrap up visititation. I know it was hard on mom to leave. Today, wasn’t a picture day, so there wasn’t a picture taken that day. I know she would have loved to have had one taken with him.
After that visit, Mike started sending me letters. Some were full of lists of items from the commissary I could order for him, but he always included how much he loved his family and that he was praying for us.
I sent letters. It’s hard to find something to write about when I know what his life in there was like. Sometimes, I sent copies of my blog or cards with jokes. On his last birthday, I made sure to send a birthday card. It’s really hard to find one that doesn’t mention having a wonderful celebration.
Mom and I went to visit him another time again. On our last visit with Mike, Paul and I went. That day was picture day and we got to have our picture taken with him. It’s a sad looking picture. The tallest one was in a white jump suit and we flanked him on each side. However, it is us as brothers and a sister.
My last letter from Mike was sent full of love and thanks for writing him. I regret not going to see him more often. I regret all those years of loss. I am thankful that I found it in my heart to show forgiveness because in the end, I was blessed.
At the end of his life, Mike and I had a peace as adults that we never had growing up. God did that. I’m thankful that I know where Mike is and that he isn’t suffering and that at last he has found freedom. It was through the awful valley Mike made for himself that he was able to climb that mountain.
Why now share about my brother? I’m sure more of us have secrets that we’d like to keep hidden. We don’t want to be judged on the circumstances of our lives. My brother, Paul, says it’s always better to tell the truth. Isn’t hidding something the same as not telling the truth?
The other day at work, I was a bit ashamed to tell my new fellow teachers that my brother had died while being incarserated, but I wanted to be truthful.
Yes, my brother died without us being there physically with him, but I’m sure he was welcomed by family.
Thank you, God, for your forgiveness.