On the beach, he found himself looking at the waves crashing onto the clean sand. Seagulls flew by and landed in a group, just above the incoming tide. The skies were clearing from yesterday's storm, and the air was fresh, clean, and free.
He was alone, except for the waves, and the gulls, and me, a hundred yards away, watching, watching over him, this first day of freedom.
I saw him gulp the cool, salty air, and then, another gulp, until finally his chest relaxed and he let it all go, released.
Released. Let go from prison this morning, after six and a half years. He knew the exact number of days, and had been counting down each one of them for as long as I'd known him.
The gate swung behind us and clanged shut. A familiar sound to me, after all the visits here with him and other young men, but a new, and final sound for him. Other young men had brought all his belongings from six years behind bars, filling my car, readying us for his trip today to his new life, his new beginning.
We drove away and he could only say "Man, oh, man."
I honked the horn at the empty road ahead, and offered a shouted "hooray", and he laughed, finally.
He fell silent, after all the good byes and handshakes and hugs with all the other young men, and the prison staff. Bittersweet, after months of anticipation, almost afraid to go, and move on with his life, from the known and the routine, into new places, new routines, and a new, fresh life.
The waves kept crashing onto the beach, and he had to run back a bit, when a wave moved up farther, almost soaking his shoes. It was a good dance, turning into a bit of a jig, as he became a part of the incoming tide, a part of the morning at the beach, joining the world.
He'd sat down at our breakfast table, laughing at the big plate of eggs and bacon and sausage and the plate of biscuits fresh out of the oven, everything he'd ordered for this day. A real fork and a real knife, not the plastic of the last six and a half years.
I'd thought the event warranted breaking out my mother's silverware, and candlesticks, and china. Placemats, and all his favorites cooked to order, served on a china platter, and strawberries in a dish.
I refilled his coffee, and waited on him, hand and foot. I thought he needed that, after all these years.
His birthday was tomorrow, and we only had this morning to spoil him. I'd baked him a cake, and I slipped back into the kitchen, ready for a party.
I slipped back into the dining room, with blazing candles, and we broke out into a rousing "Happy Birthday".
He laughed and nearly cried, and gave a lusty blow out to the candles, as we applauded. I bet his wish was already granted: freedom.
He laughed again, the thought of birthday cake, and now, ice cream, for breakfast. He said his grandmother wouldn't approve, but then, he laughed again, and said today was probably a good reason for an exception to the rule. We laughed at him being the rule breaker, the scofflaw, not even an hour into his parole.
The sky got lighter and he spotted the neighbor's horse in the field, and the pink of the dawn. It was a new view, after all. Six and a half years in the same fenced compound, and now everything was new.
He had a second piece of cake, and a bit more ice cream, and then opened up his card, and his presents. Wonder sparkled in his eye, sitting here, in our house, and not where we'd always visited, behind that gate, that gate that clanged for him today, for the last time. It was all new, and it was all delicious, sweet.
It was all about him today, all about getting out and making a fresh start, and moving on with his life.
Soon, we'd be in the car, and driving south, a big day. A lot of miles to cover, and a lot of time to catch up on.
First the beach, and then, along a bay, and then a river, and through the forest, then farmers' fields, and a city. He stared out the window, not saying much at times, and on we went.
He asked me about the trees, what they were called, and what about the salmon in the river, and what kind of logs were on that log truck.
We came to a place where we could go one way, or the other. Both roads led to where we were going, so it didn't matter, and he told me which way to go. He chuckled then, at the choosing of which way to go, which road looked better. He's made a decision; it was not a big deal, but then, maybe it was.
In the city, we met up with his good friend, a guy who had gotten out of the same place a week earlier, and was doing fine. He'd settled into his new home, a halfway house. He had a seven p.m. curfew, and laughed when others there thought that was too confining. In a month, he could be out until eleven, more freedom than he'd ever thought could be.
I took the two young men to a steak house, so they could eat their fill of meat. They'd both been craving barbeque, and big, greasy ribs, for quite a while, and ordered the big plates of beef, and chicken, and a mound of fries. Menus and ordering and making decisions on all the food was new to them, and when the attractive waitress joked around with them, they didn't quite know what to do, at least for a minute.
All too soon, the big plates were clean, and bellies were full, and smiles were seen all around.
We said good bye to the young man we'd picked up, and headed off, heading to where home was six and a half years ago. We laughed about lunch and all that he could eat, and the extra slice of birthday cake I'd packed for him before we left my house.
He got quiet then, when the freeway sign told us how many miles it was to home. All this freedom was getting to him, finally, getting right into his heart.
Off to the side of the freeway, there was a beautiful field, shining in the sun with that first bright green that comes with the two or three springlike days of February. Those days are always a tease, making us think spring is here, but it isn't.
The green was real, though, and worthy of mention.
So were the sheep, grazing on the grass. An entire flock of ewes, and their newborn lambs. The woolly babies were running and jumping, celebrating the newness of their lives and sunshine and green grass and promise of spring.
"I'm free," he whispered then. "I'm finally free."
Fresh tears flowed then, from all the eyes in the car, and we didn't speak for quite a while, caught up in that moment.
We were both free, that day, even if the promised spring was not yet here. There was freedom in the air, in the rush of the incoming tide, in the color of the sky at dawn, in the light on his face from all the birthday candles, and the dance of the lambs on the fresh green grass of a new spring.
Neal Lemery 2/26/2013