By Michael Lambrix
She told me that she had a birthday present for me and as she leaned over the table towards me, our hands reached out across that cold steel surface that separated us and I immediately felt her warmth as we came together, our fingers naturally entwined like the roots of an ancient oak tree hanging precariously over a rocky cliff, and with that faintest Mona Lisa smile, she leaned in even further until only inches separated us. Now, face-to-face, with me all but hopelessly lost in the depths of her bluish-gray eyes that eternally sparkled with a laughter that came from deep down within as they so often did in those stolen moments that we shared together, and in that unmistakably mischievous whisper, she barely breathed now: “Now close your eyes,” but I didn’t want to, as our time together was already far too short and I treasured those moments in time when our very souls became one in that communion we shared. In those moments all else ceased to exist and no matter what the world might throw our way to keep us apart, in that moment we truly became one.
But she insisted and I could only smile. I obediently obeyed her playful command and as my eyelids dropped and darkness descended down upon me I felt her one hand pull away and instinctively I held the other that much tighter as if there was something within me that feared when I opened my eyes again, she would be gone and I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it, although we had only relatively recently been brought together. We shared so much common ground that it seemed as if we had always been together. Again, she softly laughed and reassuringly squeezed the hand she still held, as if to say that I need not be afraid because she would always be there with me…she’s like the wind, I would tell her.
Barely a moment had passed, but it already seemed like forever until her soft voice laughingly admonished me to keep my eyes closed. I wanted so much to peek but for a second, but didn’t dare as I couldn’t disappoint her. Soon enough my patience was rewarded when in that soothing whisper she barely breathed, “Now, smell this”, and I realized that she was holding something up to my nose.
I breathed in and at first was puzzled. The sweet fragrance seemed so familiar and I knew that I knew what it was, but like the fading shadows of a dusky memory buried deep down in the recesses of a past life, I just couldn’t quite grasp what it was that it was. Again and again breathed that fragrant scent in.
She saw that I was struggling and in that soft laugh that I knew only too well, she teased and then tantalizingly began whispering words, only one word at a time, each deliberately spaced out a few seconds apart as clues… “outdoors”… “spring”... “meadow”… “California” – and then it hit me with amazement. I had no doubt and I all but shouted out “California Poppy!” And as I opened my eyes I could see her laughing with a triumphant joy that radiated through every fiber of her body and with a smirk of satisfaction now painted across her face, she held a single, small golden flower in her hand, and only then did we both realize that the packed room around us had become silent as everybody looked our way, and we again laughed.
Those familiar with Karen would describe her in single words: fun, adventurous, fearless, compassionate, infectious, selfless, but above all else a free spirit in which life itself was her gilded cage that could not hope to confine the boundless energy within her, an energy so overwhelming that despite a fragility that came from the pain of a past that haunted her, she soared above it floating freely in the thermal winds of the warmth of her compassion towards all life.
Her first letter was a card she wrote to let me know how much she enjoyed reading what I wrote in one of my essays about sitting in my solitary cell smelling the fresh cut grass through the distant window and how often she too felt that her own life was like living in a solitary cell looking out from within, and that in that solitary space, she found her own tranquility.
Soon, the letters flowed back and forth and we came to be amazed at how much common ground we shared. We were both the same age and grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, and had been to so many of the same places and it became a game to shotgun through places and times trying to figure out whether perhaps our paths had once crossed long ago in a life so far, far away. And although we couldn’t quite figure out a specific time and place, that undeniable connection between us convinced us that our paths were one, destined to be drawn together and in that infinite expanse of eternity. The time it took for our paths to finally merge was immeasurably inconsequential, as it was meant to be.
We shared an insatiable passion for the freedom of the open road, of traveling in a way in which the unexpected twists and turns would take us on adventures, as they so often did in life. I would tell her about the years I spent on the road when I left home at 15 and found work with a traveling carnival – and she would tell me that if ever we could go back in time, she would have run away with me and we wondered in how many infinite parallel universes our lives were spent together.
Karen would perk up like a schoolgirl and in graphic detail tell me about her own travels with her faithful companion Katy, her beloved white shepherd and her reclusive black cat “Fat Charlie” that was perfectly content curled up in her motor home and together the three of them traveled the highways from California, up to Canada, across that northern highway and many other trips, even down into Mexico.
Unassumingly pretty and petite, nobody would have expected a woman like her to take on the open road alone, and everyone she met became an instant friend, addicted to that infectious sense of adventurism that embodied her. Soon she developed a regular following as she posted videos of her solitary travels online (you can see Karen’s videos here).
She dreamed of driving up from California to Alaska, and finally retiring after 30 years of working for the State of California, Karen sold her house and bought another motor home and began preparing to hit the open road. But we all know what they say about the best-laid plans, and her lifetime dream of seeing Alaska would wait a bit longer, as in early 2012 the U.S. Weather Service released the names assigned to the Hurricane Season, and as if the gods of fate had destined it to be, Hurricane Karen was to blow into Florida.
The words of songs became our way of expressing our inner-most feelings, and for Christmas of 2012 she bought me an MP3 player so that at a particular time each night, no matter how many thousands of miles might have separated us, we would each lie down in the solitude of our own space, close our eyes, and imagine being together as we both got lost in those words that meant something special only to us, such as the words of one of her first songs she asked me to order… “I want to have ya’ ‘til I die, ‘til we both break down and cry; I want to hold you ‘til the fear in my subsides” (“Sometimes When We Touch” by Rod Stewart.)
Both of us, each for our own reasons, shared a fear of letting others get too close. Each of us knew only pain from past relationships, and were afraid to reach out even when what we both wanted so much seemed to be within our grasp if only we would reach out and embrace it and allow it to possess us as nothing else ever had.
We wrote about all the places we wanted to see and somehow it just naturally evolved into an unspoken understanding that we would one day see them together. One of her dreams was to visit Key West and we spoke of how we would stand in that sugary sand where both the sun rose in the morning and then again set each night and how perhaps that is where time itself would stand still and never run out and like the Siren’s song of her own personal odyssey, she felt compelled to fly across the country just so she could stand in that sacred spot while looking out as far as the eye could see across that infinite expanse of perfectly blue water, with picture-perfect puffy white clouds hanging on the very edge of earth in that distant horizon, and at least in that moment of time, she once again believed in heaven.
Although she had to be back in California by Monday morning, after watching that magical sunset, Karen rented a car and drove all night northward, arriving at the prison in the early morning hours on that cold January morning and was the first in line waiting to get in.
I was not expecting a visit – she didn’t even know she was coming to Florida until that Friday night. For me, it was just another Sunday morning in my solitary cell and when the guards called my name for a visit, I didn’t know what to think. My first thought was that it was a mistake – they must have called out the wrong cell, as I didn’t get many visits. Very few of us here on Death Row received visits, much less regular visits, and I had no reason to expect a visit that day.
Moments later the wing officer was standing at my cell door, wanting to know why I wasn’t ready yet. It wasn’t a mistake. Quickly, I washed up and brushed my teeth and threw on that neon-orange shirt that all condemned men must wear when outside of their cells, and I was handcuffed and escorted to the dress-out room where I would be strip-searched both before and after having any contact with those who might come to visit.
As I opened the door that led into the visiting park (a large cafeteria-style room with three rows of stainless steel tables where Death Row visits were allowed), I anxiously scanned the room in search for a familiar face, but didn’t see one. I walked towards the guard’s desk up front and as I approached the front of the visiting park, there she was. She had not yet seen me, and had her back towards me as she looked out of the window at the green grass beyond and the sunlight was radiating through her long auburn hair and for a moment I stool there mesmerized by that angelic image and at that moment she turned and as she recognized me, now not more than a feet away, a smile came over her face as she called my name, and in that instant she all but leapt into my arms and for the first time, we kissed, and I held her tightly as if I never wanted to let her go.
The hours passed far too quickly when our time together was up. And in the way that was so much her, she suddenly took both my hands in hers, and looked at me in the eyes, and in a matter-of-fact sort of way said what I never expected to hear, “Michael, I love you,” and even before I could respond, she began reciting the words of a song she had insisted I listen to so many times in her letters….
“You might have heard my footsteps echo softly in the distance through the canyons of your mind;
I might have even called your name as I ran searching after something to believe in;
You might have seen me running through the long abandoned ruins of the dreams you left behind;
If you remember something there that glided past you following close by, heavy breathing;
Don’t be concerned – it will not harm you. It’s only me pursuing something I’m not sure of;
Across my dreams with nets of wonder….I chase the bright, elusive butterfly of love.”
(Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind)
It was all I could do to choke back tears. It wasn’t so much the words, but the way that she spoke them. Just that quickly the guards escorted the visitors out, and she was gone, barely giving me time to tell her that I loved her too.
Every day after that visit we wrote, each talking endlessly about everything and even nothing at all. All that really mattered was sharing that time together. She would send me pictures of her laying there alone at night reading my letters, and I would anxiously await each day for mail call, knowing that it would bring yet another letter. In the weeks that followed, her beloved longtime companion, Katy, that fearless white shepherd that shared her playful and adventurous spirit traveling the far corners of North America, had to be put to sleep and Karen lost her companion and wrote about how she never felt so alone as she did that night in her empty house, but that I seemed to be the only one who understood that sense of solitude and emptiness that imprisoned her in that time of loss.
She knew that as a condemned man, I could never promise her a tomorrow – only what today might hold as we hoped that the gods of fate would give us a tomorrow. Our letters shared our hopes and dreams as they evolved from the singular of she or I, to what soon enough became only us as we naturally came to see our future together.
As we continued to write each other, the words of songs to express our growing emotional connection, the song Satisfied by Jewel became a constant theme, each of us writing down a sentence or two at a time and expecting the other to complete it. At night I would find myself laying there in the stillness of my solitary cell unable to sleep, wondering where she might be at that particular moment, and whether she too was laying there alone thinking of me and as if time and distance eroded altogether, I could feel her presence with me and I would softly sing the words of that song and as I did, the tears would soak my pillow as each word touched my soul:
“If you love somebody, you better let it out;
Don’t hold back while you’re trying to figure it out.
Don’t be timid don’t be afraid to hurt
Run through all the flames; run through all the fire,
And hold on for all its worth…
Cause the only real pain a heart can never know
Is the sorrow of regret when you don’t let your feelings show,
So, did you say it? Did you mean it?
Did you lay it on the line? Did you make it count?
Did you look him in the eye and did he feel it?
Did you say it on time? Did you say it out loud?
‘Cause if you did, Hon – then you’ve lived some…
And that feeling inside; that’s called “Satisfied”
A few weeks before what we both know could have been my last birthday, Karen sent me a card, asking me if I could have anything in the world for my birthday, what would it be? That same night I wrote her right back, telling her of how all I would want, if I could truly have anything, would be to spend that day in that particular meadow at Point Reyes where we had both been (although at separate times), and lay a blanket out on the grass and have a picnic there in the midst of the wild flowers so common to coastal California in the early spring and as the day drew to its inevitable end, we would lay there with her head nestled upon my chest as I ran my fingers through her long hair, and as the sun would slowly sink into the distant horizon across the Pacific Ocean, with the infinite shades of crimson reds and golden yellows giving way to the twinkling of the first stars we see in that dusky twilight, I would take a single golden California poppy and place it in her hair, and in that moment I would know that no matter how much steel and stone they might pile up around me, and no matter how many thousands of miles might separate us, I would be home.
Before I could get a response to what I wrote, that following weekend Karen again jumped on a plane and flew to Florida, unexpectedly surprising me just before my birthday and we spent our second Sunday together. It was during that visit that she playfully insisted I close my eyes and when I opened them again, there was the single California poppy which I then took from her trembling fingers and with our eyes locked in an unbreakable embrace, I reached out across what little space separated us and placed that flower in her hair.
In that moment, without another word spoken, we knew we belonged together despite the too many obstacles that stood in our way. It was there in the visiting park that early spring day that as we stood in the line waiting our turn to buy our lunch from the visiting park commissary that Karen laid her head against my shoulder and with her eyes closed, she whispered that she just wanted a moment of silence, and hoping that the guards would not see, I held her close to me.
A moment later, she looked up at me with a childlike uncertainty and asked me if I really loved her, and I immediately said yes and then she turned to face me and taking both my hands in hers, our fingers again intertwined, she looked up at me and whispered those words that I never dared to dream I would hear: “Michael baby” – and then she momentarily paused as she searched the depths of my soul for even the hint of uncertainty, “If I moved to Florida, would you marry me?”
Without hesitation, I said yes, and her face lit up like all the stars in the sky and in that instant and overwhelming happiness consumed us as I pulled her close and held her tightly for as long as I dared, as unauthorized physical contact could cause our visits to be terminated and we couldn’t risk that.
That night she flew back to California and I again returned to my solitary cell unable to sleep and utterly intoxicated by that feeling that I never thought I would have felt again. A part of me feared that it was all a dream; that if I did dare fall asleep I would wake up to realize that I had finally descended into desperate psychosis creating that final fictional reality as I fell helplessly down that proverbial rabbit hole of insanity, as I could not imagine anyone loving me that much as never before has anyone wanted to give me that measure of unconditional love that Karen now so freely gave.
In the days that followed, I anxiously awaited her next letter just knowing that once she thought about it, she would want to retreat her promise of commitment to spend our lives together and I knew that I could not blame her. Already in my head I thought of how I would respond, how I would tell her it was alright, that I understood as I had nothing to offer, not even a promise of tomorrow. I knew that she was my Elusive Butterfly and I would patiently write those words we have all once heard…. "If you love something, let it go…if it never returns, it was never meant to be…but if it comes back, it’s yours to keep forever.”
Each day the anxiety built up and I would pace back and forth in that solitary cell anxiously awaiting mail call and yet so afraid of what that letter would say…nobody could love me that much. Letters she mailed before flying to Florida that weekend came and I quickly scanned each for even the slightest hint of doubt, reading and re-reading each into the early morning hours as sleep would only come when I would finally succumb to exhaustion.
Then that letter came, a long letter postmarked on that Monday morning in Sacramento and I sat on the edge of my bunk and all but ripped it open, turning first to the very page to see how she singed it and my soul smiled as I read those few words… “with love forever…Karen” and I knew then that it wasn’t a dream.
Enraptured in that moment of ecstasy, I could not remember ever feeling such joy as I did in that moment and as I began to read that long letter, I found that I could not concentrate, and instead focused only on the page in which she shared her own thoughts so similar to my own of how she had never dared dream she would be as consumed by that feeling of love as she did when we were together, and that although our time together would be limited to those few hours each weekend, it would be enough just to know that our souls had somehow become one.
She had already planned to take her dream trip to Alaska and was almost ready to go when instead once she placed her furniture in storage and loaded up her motor home, she began her long trip across the country to be with me. Alaska could wait as she had a new dream of us being together.
But her cross-country odyssey became an obstacle course. There was a spot in the high desert wilderness in Arizona where Karen had heard that the stars could be seen at night like no other place on earth, and she wanted to see that so she could share with me. But the rough ride down miles of bumpy dirt road took its toll on both her and the motor home (you can see her video of this trip on her You Tube channel.) But she slept beneath those stars and wrote long letters of how magical it all was, especially as she dreamed of us sharing it together. That moment beneath the majesty of the universe surrounded only by the miracle of Mother Nature cost her a week of recuperation and repairs she hadn’t planned on and she barely left the area when a few weeks later a devastating wildfire swept through that wilderness leaving 19 firefighters trapped and dead.
Towards the end of May, she was out on the open road again and heading for Oklahoma City as I had told her about the antique airplanes placed high up on concrete pedestals at the Oklahoma State Fairgrounds and how so many years ago at night I would lay down beneath them, and looking up into the night sky I would imagine myself flying away to the places that only existed in my own dreams, and she wanted to share that piece of common ground with me.
But as she worked her way east on interstate 40 towards Oklahoma City, the area was hit by a number of twisters that left devastation and destruction and as I sat in my solitary cell I watched helplessly as the news showed picture after picture of twisted metal and debris of vehicles caught in the path of the twister on that Interstate, and desperately I searched for any sign of her motor home, not knowing whether she was alright and again on edge I waited until I would receive another letter letting me know that she was alright, which I finally did the following week.
That first week of June was the official start of hurricane season, and we both laughed at how the eleventh named storm of that 2013 season would be named “Hurricane Karen.” That June, Karen swept into Florida with the force of a hurricane herself, and every Sunday that followed, rain or shine, Karen would be in the prison’s parking lot waiting to come in so we could be together.
Getting married on Death Row would not be easy. By law, the prison couldn’t stop us, but they could make it all but impossible by imposing a long bureaucratic process that all but the most determined would not see through. Prison rules required that we first request permission from the prison chaplain and we each wrote letters professing our unconditional love and asked for approval. Then the prison psychologist had to conduct a mental evaluation of me to determine whether I was still sane, and miraculously, I passed only to have Karen mercilessly tease me about what she would do if I had failed that mental exam, all the while laughing as she said all men should be examined.
As the process dragged out, Karen continued to visit and during the weekdays she would visit the beaches around Florida, which she quickly came to love so much. And every Sunday she would share it with me, painting a picture of us together in such detail that when I closed my eyes at night I could see us together in the sugary sands of the beach with the soft summer breeze blowing through her hair and the sound of the waves rhythmically slapping the shores.
She wanted to watch a rocket as it lifted off from earth and climbed high into the heavens beyond, and began making pilgrimages to Cape Canaveral where the Space Shuttles once launched from and was still equally amazed when it was but a commercial rocket and as eagerly as a child on Christmas morning she anxiously waited that Sunday when she would tell me about it.
But soon I wasn’t enough as she so desperately wanted me to be there with her as she pursued each new adventure and inspired by something she saw online, Karen created “Flat Mike,” a card-paper cut-out that she sent to me and had me color in, then I mailed it back to her and from that day forth Karen took Flat Mike everywhere. The beaches she loved and front-row seat on a Super Coaster at Universal Studios and an Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, where Karen mischievously placed Flat Mike into the open jaws of a statue of a large alligator as if being eaten alive and then sent me the picture and we would laugh about it. And each night Flat Mike would sleep by her side and keep her safe, and each morning that personification of me would be there with her so that we were never apart.
But Florida was anxious to carry out its executions, and with my new evidence/actual innocence appeal only recently denied (please check out: www.southerninjustice.net), in October the newly compiled list of those considered death warrant eligible came out and my name was on it. (Read: The List). Karen cried, and panicked at the thought that I might soon be put to death and leave her alone again, and at length we talked about life and death and our mutual belief that our mortal death could never defeat the eternal consciousness within and I reminded her of the spiritual experience that I had when I once before came close to execution (Read: The Day God Died).
With tears in her eyes, she would whisper that she couldn’t imagine living her life without me and I would do what I could to comfort her, wanting only to take her into my arms and hold her forever, and feeling so utterly helpless. Our time together would only too quickly come to an end and I could only watch as she walked out that door and I would again count the hours until I would again see her that next Sunday.
We would imagine that when freed from this mortal condemnation called life, our spirits would be free to wander across the infinite Universe and like fireflies on the darkest of nights, we would be drawn together in the unified glow of our eternal love, and our song became Drops of Jupiter by Train, and each Saturday night at precisely 10:00 p.m., no matter how many miles might separate us, we would each lie there in our bed with our eyes closed, and as that moment when consciousness reluctantly surrendered itself to that edge of the abyss of dreaming, we would imagine our souls rising high above in that infinite expanse of the Universe, searching in that vacuum in which time never mattered, until our souls would once again come together and find comfort in each other’s arms, and then that very next Sunday morning she would again be in my arms, and at least for those too few hours we had together all in the Universe seemed right again.
The months passed as we continued to wait for the prison’s approval to be married. But Karen began experiencing excruciating pain that didn’t seem to want to go away and became progressively worse. She was convinced that it was the mattress in her motor home, where she continued to sleep each night. But as the pain became worse, I all but begged her to go to the doctor, but she had no health insurance in Florida and refused to go.
Just before Christmas, Karen decided to postpone our wedding plans as the constant pain had become too much for her to bear, and she returned to California to see her doctor. As I stood there watching as she walked out that door of the visiting park, turning back at that last moment to smile at me as she always did, it never even for a moment occurred to me that I would never see her again. But within weeks she received the diagnosis – terminal cancer, which had already spread to most of her vital organs and had fractured her spine. They immediately attempted aggressive treatment, but it was already too late.
Karen never recovered and never again returned to Florida. On Friday, May 30, she passed quietly as if going to sleep, with her family and friends by her side.
I never had a chance to say goodbye, but then again, that’s just how Karen would have wanted it as she would always say that when your loved someone, there were no goodbyes.
As empty as my solitary cell once was, it is that much more so now, and although I know that as long as her boundless spirit remains within me she will never truly be gone and that if only I ever have a chance to look up at the stars at night, I know that I will see her soul dancing across the Milky Way, looking down upon those of us who will miss her so much.
And as I close my eyes each night in the cold darkness that my solitary cell has now become, in my dreams she will be waiting there in that meadow where that ocean breeze still blows, and she will be smiling as if waiting on my forever, and once again I will take that single California poppy from her trembling fingers and gently place it in her long, auburn hair.
My Elusive Butterfly of Love has gone, and yet the words of the song remain. No words could ever hope to capture the incredible free spirit that Karen was, or the eternal soul that she is. You can watch her travel videos here and in her memory, think of the song Elusive Butterfly by Bob Lind.
On July 25, 2014, a memorial service will be held for Karen Abbe in Sacramento, California and a special mass/memorial service at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church in Macclenny, Florida.
Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017