By Neal Lemery
I call it Freedom Day. One of my friends, who experienced it from the prisoner-getting-out viewpoint calls it the best day, but the hardest day of his life.
After six or seven years, being locked up since you were sixteen, you are free. There's so much going on in your head, you can't even cry. Oh, we shout, and I honk the horn as we drive away, but the young men fall quiet, and just look at the road ahead, the countryside, as we drive away.
Part of me wants the Mormon Tabernacle Choir here, singing the Hallelujah Chorus, as we march out to a parade of confetti and balloons. But, usually, it is just a staff member or two, and a cartful of their worldly possessions, their parole papers clutched in their sweaty hands, their faces stony with a mixture of fear, joy, and anticipation.
Everything they've known for the last seven years is back there, behind the fence, behind the locked door. The trunk has a duffle bag, a day pack, and a few garbage sacks of all they have in this world.
They even dawdle a bit, hugging buddies goodbye, everyone a bit teary, even though they are getting out, they are free now.
They slip into the front seat, put on their seatbelt. It's their first ride in a vehicle in seven years without wearing a jumpsuit, their hands cuffed, and chained to their ankles. There's a deep silence now, as that bit of their new reality sets in. No handcuffs. Just going for a ride down the road. Just like the rest of the world.
Two of the guys I've driven away from their life behind bars have clutched their Bibles, hands sweaty as we turn onto the road, and head away. One guy grabs the wood carving he's making, a Raven mask, symbol of his tribe, his heritage, and the long, courageous road he's already traveled in his young life.
I took a couple of them to the beach, a place they've been close to for a third of their lives, but have never walked on, never felt the bit of spray from the waves, or smelled the salty, fresh air in their lungs. They both hesitated, as we got out of the car, the early morning salt air cold against their faces.
"Aren't you coming?" they each asked.
No. This is your time. Go. Walk. Run. Talk to God. Yell. Put your feet in the water, and feel it. Experience it. Be the wild boy you need to be. This is your day, this is your time.
You haven't been alone for all these years, except in your mind, on your bunk in a dorm of twenty five, late at night. It is time to walk your beach, to be free, to be on your own. If anyone deserves to talk on their own, on the beach at dawn, it is you, my fledgling eagle.
Go fly a bit. Stretch those wings.
For two men, on their Freedom Day, they both looked back, to make sure I was still there, and then they moved forward, purposefully, manfully heading to the water. The waves crashed, the breeze freshened a bit, and the gulls mewed, as these brave young men gaze out to sea, so many thoughts racing through their minds. I stood there, in silent witness, a tear of joy, of exultation running down my cheek.
I say a silent prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving, and guardianship, wanting them to be protected, wanting them to blossom into strong, healthy men, men who embrace and cherish freedom and living a good, loving life. May this be their last day ever in prison.
Yes, I would wait for them, I would stand guard for them, these brave young men, taking flight, testing their wings and singing their songs, beginning a new life.
For one man, we celebrate Freedom Day and his birthday with a big breakfast. And candles, cake, and ice cream for dessert, on our best china, toasting to his freedom with sparkling cider and crystal goblets. It's his second birthday cake in seven years, and the first time he's had candles on a cake since he was ten. I broke out my mother's silver, and cloth napkins. Time for a little spoiling, I think. After all, it is Freedom Day.
"More, please," our young Pippen asks, and I pass him the platter of his special ordered sausage, bacon and biscuits. He fills his plate, mentioning that the knife and fork in his hand are metal. He's only used plastic for six years.
"I guess I'll have to get used to this," he chuckles.
We sing "Happy Birthday extra sweetly for this man-child today, our hearts finally feeling what this day means. He blows out the candles, making a wish, as a tear slides down his face.
"Mom would never let us have cake for breakfast," he says. "But, I guess we can break the rules today."
Oh, yeah. We laugh when he asks for seconds on dessert.
One man comes to my house to shower, after his run on the beach. He's in the bathroom quite a while, and comes out wondering what to do with his towel. He giggles a bit.
"First time I've had a shower all by myself in a bathroom in seven years. I had to just enjoy it."
The rest of those Freedom Days become whirls of activities, of challenges, and adventures. We drive through the forest, far away from walls, and inmate counts, and lining up for a meal, or to go to a class, or any of the other institutional rituals in his day. We stop when we need to pee, or have a meal, or when we spot a herd of elk beside the road.
The closer we get to their new home, and their new challenges, their new life, the meaning of it all hits hard. They fall silent, their whirling minds even reaching me, tensing me up with their anxiety.
I've traveled these roads a lot, but on those Freedom Days, I, too, am feeling the freedom, sensing the beauty and peace of the forest, and fields, and little towns, the sun bright in a blue sky, unmarked by a fence, or a wall, or the numbing tedium of prison life. The routine of this trip isn't ordinary today, and I start to appreciate the simple things, the ability to make some choices. Near the end of the trip, I take another road, just because I can.
We hit the variety store, picking up some necessities, getting a cell phone, one of today's essentials. And, the mayhem, the crowds, the frenzies of others, normal to me, wash over my young men, overwhelming them with sensations. All their treatment work, all their counseling work on how to live now, out in society, as normal, healthy men, hasn't prepared them for this, the chaos, the cacophony of our daily world. All this isn't book learning, or "the future", now. It's reality, and it's hard. And, it doesn't stop. This class doesn't end.
One Freedom Day, we head to a family lunch, in a busy restaurant, and I get to see some of the old family dynamics unfold, my buddy trying to deal with that, and how to order food, and how to deal with the chaos and drama at the tables around us. He finds words to say to his brother, a guy he hasn't talked to in seven years. I see them ease up a little, sharing a joke.
He asks me what to order.
"Anything you want," I grin.
And, we laugh, on every level.
I catch his eye and grin, giving him a wink. He lets out a chestful of air, and grins back. Yes, this is your new reality. You can do this. We are doing this. And, it will be all right.