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By Isaac Sweet
This morning I wrapped my arms around my best friend, we shared a momentary embrace, then watched (actually, I turned away) as he walked out of my life for good. There is a lump in my throat, it's hard to breathe, my legs feel like cement, and all of a sudden I'm nauseous. My eyes burn as something inside me dies. Unless something changes judiciously or legislatively I still have more than nine years to serve on my prison sentence. He has three and a half left on his, so it was time for him to transfer from our main institution to a short-timer's prison camp.
Saying goodbye may not seem like that big of a deal to most people but when you say goodbye in prison it's for good. There is no writing letters, texting, phone calls, emails, etc. There is no way to continue cultivating a relationship between prisoners warehoused at separate facilities. Goodbye is final. Sure, in a few years, when one of us gets out we could reach back and I genuinely hope he does but, lost during that friendship hiatus will be the intensity of it. We're human; we move on, make new friends, start over.
It sure was nice having a friend. It's hard to explain how awesome it is to have someone to look forward to seeing every day. Someone you can trust, especially in this dark place. To the world at large I say: in three and a half years your prodigal son (my friend) returns and whichever community receives him will be pleasantly augmented.
We weren't supposed to be friends to begin with. When we met roughly three years ago he was twenty-three, I was thirty-five. He is brown (Mexican-American), and a member of a street gang. I am white (European-American), a “square," and have served two decades of a thirty-five plus year prison sentence. Here, making friends outside of your race or gang is taboo and as far as my friend and I go, we couldn't have come from more opposite ends of the spectrum.
Our paths first crossed in the gym, while speaking the single most universal prison language—working out. He was occupying a piece of equipment that I asked to use in between his exercises. Instead, he continued his exercise routine on another piece of equipment. His response really impressed me. He was able to do what he needed to do, I got to use the equipment I wanted, he didn't have to be seen sharing equipment with someone he didn't know (another taboo—had I turned out to be an "undesirable"), and he was mature enough not to be put out by my request or feel as if I was trying to muscle him out of the way. Smart, courteous, and mature—not what I expected.
Not long after that he obtained employment in the prison factory where I worked. He seemed a bit out of his element because, although he had roughly thirty "homies" at any given time on the prison yard, he was the only one from his social circle who worked at the factory. In a way he was a bit of a pioneer: the one who had slipped through the cracks of the prison administration. We shared some introductory conversation and discovered that both of us were primarily focused on learning as much as we could and staying out of trouble. Our friendship ensued.
This most recent goodbye isn't my first one—not by a long shot. Every few years, following the drama, severity, and permanence of institutional separation from one of my friends, I swear off making new friends altogether. It just hurts too much to flush years of friendship down the toilet. I've spent years thinking like that, walking laps around the prison yard by myself, fighting the urge to be social. But every so often someone breaks down my wall and I allow them into my life to begin another friendly journey that always seems to end with the helpless feeling of goodbye-for-good.
I really thought I had addressed that issue with this last friend. After so many years of prison conditioning not to associate or make friends outside of our respective races or social memberships, I thought that the expiration of our friendship would somehow be less significant. That was an errant concept. I just spent nearly every day of the last three years with this guy while he matured from a youth that the rest of the world was afraid of, into a man that seemingly anyone would be honored to claim as their friend. Like me, he is committed to living the remainder of his life with honor and integrity and we define that as simply doing the right thing, in every situation, to the best of our abilities, no matter who or if anyone is watching. I don't know how much, if any, influence I had on him throughout his maturation, but just being along for the ride was a privilege. I've been around him while he was at his best, his worst, and at every stage in between. To be perfectly honest that went both ways. This year I lost two of my precious sisters. He was my wingman through it all—ready to change the subject before my voice could crack or punch me in the short rib if it did. That may seem a bit insensitive to some, but in prison, I couldn't have asked for a better friend. He understood exactly what I needed and delivered it on time.
During the decades of my incarceration I have lost my Dad, my Grandma, and now two of the girls I grew up with. I've said goodbye-for-good to numerous friends and loved ones and I've learned that the more you love and appreciate them, the greater the devastation when they are gone.
You cannot measure the misery of a life spent in prison.
Time to go walk some laps....
|Isaac Sweet 752399|
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777
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