It's funny how things remind you of other things. Yesterday, I went through the Jack In The Box drive-thru on my way to work. Nothing sounded good except for the French Toast sticks. As I drove, I grabbed one and took a bite. I suddenly felt my stomach do a flop, and I got overwhelmingly sad.
I turned on the stereo and put on song #2, "Hey Oh" by Red Hot Chili Peppers. My sadness grew and the French Toast Sticks swelled in my stomach. My throat felt tight. Why were they making me so sad?
Suddenly, it hit me. April 2006. Road trip to San Luis Obispo. I assume most people who go to SLO have college students to visit, or to be tourists of this part of the California coast, or have relatives or friends living here to visit. It is a gorgeous, trendy little community that I would actually consider living in, if it weren't situated in California (I can say that, I'm an ex-Californian). We do have friends in SLO, and we do have a family member there; the reason for this trip. We were going to visit my youngest brother, who is 5 1/2 years younger than me.
Before we went to see him, we had to kill some time until 9am. Jack in the Box was close by, we were hungry and knew it would be a long day, so we ate breakfast there. I got the French Toast Sticks. I tried to eat them, and I managed to choke down a few bites. They made me sad, even double dipping into the maple syrup didn't help me get them down. For I knew that these were the very last things I would eat before my life changed forever.
You see, just up the road from that Jack in the Box is where my brother lives. No, he's not enrolled at Cal Poly. You have to drive a couple more miles north on Hwy 1 to get to his residence. As we we left Jack in the Box and drove north, the French Toast was feeling like it never made it down my throat and I did what I always did when my mom was driving me (terrified) to a doctor's appointment. My whole body tensed, and I pushed an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger side of the car. It's something I've always done when I'm out of control in a situation where I am being taken to a place I don't want to go.
California Men's Colony is one such place. That is where my baby brother lives at the moment. He is property of the California Department of Corrections. I'm shaking as I type this...Before prison touched our family, I would never considered going near a prison. In fact, it took everything in the deepest part of my soul to go there to visit him. But I knew what I had to do.
It may have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do thus far in my life. And I've done it several times now, and the time has come to do it again. Hence, this post. As I usually use humor to get me through a situation, I cannot find humor in this one. I try and try, but it's a different world there, where humor seems to have no place.
I do not know how I got through that first visiting day. When I saw my brother for the first time since being locked up, it was a mixture of raw emotions. It was joy and sadness, happiness and grief, loss of control and yet having to keep everything under control, if that makes sense. The second day of visiting was our last day. And it was much easier that the day before, knowing what to expect. But the last two hours proved to test my sanity and strength. These became some of the hardest hours I ever remember.
Tears began to trickle at first. I put my sunglasses on to hide them from my brother, my kids, my husband, and especially the guards. But soon my entire face was wet and my brother looked over at me. The look in his eyes made it happen. I let out the hideous sob that was coming from the pit of my stomach, and I could not regain my composure. My brother reached out his arm to try to console me, but touching is not allowed during a visit. The guards sitting closest to us watched. I felt violated. It was the most unnatural feeling, to be together as a family, but have strangers imposing boundaries on us like that. I tried with all my strength to stop crying, but I could not. I was in fact pregnant with my third child, and something about knowing she would be almost 4 when he gets out made me want to vomit, and it would have been so easy, as the French Toast and vending machine food that was our lunch seemed to have refused to be digesting.
As my brother sat there, unable to console me, yet knowing his actions were the reason for my unbearable grief, a look crossed over his face. And at that moment I knew he would be ok. I knew he would make it out. I knew he wouldn't resort to violence, gangs, weakness or corruption. I knew I had given him enough reason to make it through his punishment. I have three of his greatest loves in my possession; my kids, his nieces and nephew. It's enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. And it has. We made promises. He's kept all of his during these 3 1/2 years of incarceration. I am proud of that boy. He is different than most in that vile place. He will make it with the help of all his family. We are his lifeline.
How could I deny him that? And so, even though normal things that I used to enjoy get tainted with memories and emotion linked to my brother's lock down, I have to keep going. I have to fulfill my promise not to let the kids forget him. I have to give him hope. Sometimes hope is the only thing that one has, but it can be enough.
Info: My brother was sentenced to 6 years in prison in 2005 for having 2 Strikes that resulted from 2 bar fights. Though I do not condone fighting, no weapons were involved, no one pressed charges, but California's laws are different. He has stayed sober in prison, not gotten into any trouble, not affiliated with any gang, keeps to himself and now he's being transferred this week to a lower level prison (Level 2) for good behavior.....
....so why is it that good behavior is rewarded with having to go to a much more horrendous prison....San Quentin?!
Oil on canvas painting by my brother, copyright 2008, from his prison cell.