Whenever the cold walls of my solitary cell begin to close in around me, I try to get my head out of this place by throwing in my ear buds and listening to my little MP3 player. There, on “Playlist One”, I have a host of songs from way back that allow me to mentally escape to a better time. I lay back on my bunk and close my eyes and try to control my breathing. I take in a long, deep breath and hold it, then slowly breathe out through my nose.
It has taken years of practice to perfect my form of meditation. It’s one of the very few “privileges” of being in solitary confinement on Florida’s “death row” – where I’ve been for about 34-years. Had I been sentenced to “life”, and sent to general prison population, I would not be able to exercise the selective metempsychosis I employ to escape reality.
I’m showing my age but am by no means ashamed to embrace it. The odds have long been stacked against me living this long when everyone around me is dying. The music I find refuge in tends to be easy-listening, the soft-rock of the mid- to late-seventies; with a few of my favorite Bryan Adams and Bon Jovi songs (Heaven, Please Forgive Me, and Amen) thrown in for good measure.
Although I tend to put the player on “random play,” the very first song is always Paul McCartney’s Yesterday. In my world, there is no promise of tomorrow and the only good memories are of way back when I had a life.
The words of the song begin to whisper softly in my ears:
“Yesterday, when all my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay,
Oh, I believe in yesterday…”.
I find myself relaxing, slowly breathing in and out. I push myself to imagine my long-ago past; to find something that will make my heart and soul smile, despite the misery my life has become.
Today my means of escaping the thoughts dragging me down has failed me. Sometimes the pervasive nature of reality is unwilling to be shut-out, and determined to beat you down – and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it.
I thought I was doing pretty good, lying there with my light out (check out my previously posted, award-winning essay, Hello Darkness) and earbuds in; scrolling through the depressingly short-list of memories I cherish the most. As if reaching into an imaginary file, I pulled one out from back when, as a child, I would spend the early-summer days at the family ranch – which is now part of the Port Reyes National Seashore.
Back then, it was called “The Diamond T Ranch” (the “T” stood for my uncle’s last name: Turney). The family would often camp just below a bluff on the banks of the middle lake of three that fed into Tomales Bay: a large estuary separating the island from the Marin County mainland. At night, we would all gather around a campfire, while our father played his well-worn guitar. Many of his favorite songs are now scattered throughout my own playlist. I still smile when Burl Ives is singing “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly” randomly comes up. He would sing along with it, we children would laugh and sing along with him; but it was usually followed by the more tragic melody of Down in the Valley.
That’s the thing about the innocence of a child. For all the times I heard my father sing Down in the Valley, it wasn’t until I found myself on death row that I realized it is about a guy missing his lost love as he awaits his imminent execution at the Birmingham Jail. He’s looking out his solitary window, and down in the valley below, is where he wants to escape to.
As I lay there on my bunk, I channeled my memories towards a particular early-summer morning at the ranch. The sun was barely up, the smell of a new day hanging heavy in the air. My brothers and I were tasked with scavenging the area for bits of dried wood, which – more often than not – was just a convenient excuse for exploring the rolling hills and shrub-choked canyons. Yet we always came back with armfuls of broken branches and whatever else we could find.
There’s something about sitting on an old log, by a campfire in the early-morning hours –the smell of fried potatoes and onions, with a bunch of bacon thrown in for good measure -- it sticks in my memory. Digging into the recesses of those days, my eyes closed and breathing relaxed, I can almost smell the air as if I was there once again. Not only the bacon and potatoes, but the salty aroma of the nearby ocean, as it sweeps by on a gentle breeze.
Breakfast passed, and we each obediently did our own dishes – throwing scraps of bread to the nearest menacing seagulls, as they quickly multiplied, just as we ran out of the scraps to feed them. As we knelt by the shore of the lake washing our plates, they’d dive much faster and closer, demanding more food, until, finally, we would run off, laughing.
Not far off – no more than a hundred-yards from the campsite - the bluff rose sharply to the height of a tall tree. We children would compete to climb up its nearly vertical banks. The first one to reach the top would scream in victory, the rest following until all of us stood at the meadow stretching westward towards the Pacific Ocean. Then, as if by telepathic agreement, once the last one had reached the top, we’d scatter across the meadow in search of whatever we could find. The boys went after the large, locust-type grasshoppers that almost magically sprung up in front of us as we moved through the scrub-grass, only to disappear again just as we thought we’d caught one. Our sisters would collect an assortment of wildflowers. I can remember how I quickly gave up on the grasshoppers and, instead, committed myself to collecting ladybugs and butterflies. They made my younger sisters smile and, even as a child, that always made me smile.
One particular day, armed with an old plastic bread-bag, I set-off to collect as many as I could, since the following day was my younger sister’s birthday. I had nothing to give her, and I wanted to give her as many ladybugs and butterflies as I could find.
For hours and hours, I searched amongst the wildflowers. I gave chase to each and every butterfly – only to have most fly far beyond my reach. But, by the grace of God, I caught a few of the delicate creatures and, oh so carefully, tucked each into that bread-bag. As the morning gave-way to midday, it became too hot, and I grew tired; but, looking into my plastic bag, I knew I had enough.
Returning to camp, I sought a place to hide my stash of heavenly creatures. Somewhere to protect them from any fate that might befall them until the next day. I remember how happy I felt thinking how happy my sister would be when I gave her this gift the next morning.
Wandering up the dirt road that led along the banks of the lake, I made my way to the old dairy barn and ventured inside. It was late-afternoon, the summer sun scorching the ground outside - I entered the dimly lit interior. It was cool, inviting me to take my time in finding the perfect hiding spot. Finally, I decided upon hanging the bag from a lower rafter just inside one of the vacant stalls. I shut the broken wooden door, feeling that would keep them safe until I could retrieve them again the next morning.
Making my way back to camp, I kept my secret to myself. The late afternoon gave way to evening, and, once again, our large family gathered around the campfire. We roasted hotdogs, and indulged in the obligatory ritual of holding marshmallows impaled on a sharpened stick to the flames until each blackened, then burst into flames. Only then did they become worthy of eating. Once the flame was blown out, we’d allow them a moment to cool off, and pop them into our mouths, biting down on the crunchy, charbroiled crust, the molten lava-cream within sticking to the roofs of our mouths. Each of us, in turn, would jump to our feet in an exaggerated dance of fictitious pain while the rest laughed. As this played out, and the fire died down –dad continued to strum his guitar, just a little softer as the night passed. One by one, we would stagger off, exhausted towards our sleeping bags – and sleep like only a child could.
Our parents and the younger children slept in the small travel trailer, but my two older brothers and I made our bunks in an old, canvas, military-style tent, not far away. On that night, as on many others, I pulled my air mattress and sleeping bag just outside the tent, and laid down so that I could watch the stars above in the open night-sky. I was always hoping to see a shooting star – even just one – that I, and I alone, could wish on. On the rare occasion I caught a fleeting glimpse of such a star in the heavens above I would faithfully close my eyes, as tightly as I could, and whisper my wish –not quite so loudly that others might hear.
Beneath the night-sky, in the cool of the night, I laid there for hours, unable to sleep, listening to the sounds: a nearby owl; a coyote on the other side of one of the hills; the frogs; and more in that wondrous symphony. And, in all of that, I fell asleep.
Early the next morning I awoke before the sun came up. Dad was already up, making a fire – no matter how early we got up, he was always up before us. Making an extra effort to be as quiet as I could, I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and set it down next to the tent. I reached inside to retrieve my jeans and shoes, then, ducking around the backside of the tent, I discarded my pajamas and got dressed for the day. I then moseyed over to the campfire and sat down.
Dad had planned to go fishing and, although I never cared too much for it myself, I liked to tag along; just to share that time with him. It wasn’t about the fish we might catch, or, how every time that little red plastic bobber was pulled under at the bite of a fish, dad would jump like a child, convinced it was going to be the “biggest yet.” From time to time he would hook a decent steelhead trout, one that would put up a hard fight. In those moments my dad was at his best, projecting an infectious joy, coming alive in a way seldom seen.
But that particular morning I didn’t want to go. I was glad to see that my older brothers were up, and willing to join dad. They took off, down the little path along the shore, until they reached the leveled-off spot a few hundred feet away from the camp. I could hear the excitement in their softly spoken promises of catching that big fish, all while they baited their hooks with those slimy little balls of fish eggs that the trout loved so much.
With the sun creeping over the low-lying hills to the east, I ate a bowl of cold cereal, then snuck away. I was anxious to retrieve my little plastic bag. I wanted to be the first to give my sister a present.
Making my way up the dirt road with our cocker spaniel named “Quest” (after one of our favorite cartoon characters “Johnny Quest”) I passed the ancient wood-frame house where the Indian caretaker lived. I waved at him as he peeked out the door. I continued on, until I reached the barn. Once there, I pulled open the heavy plank door, just wide enough to enter the cool darkness. Then I went straight to the stall where I had left my collection of creatures.
Careful not to rip the bag, I reached up and struggled with the string. I untied it, took possession of my treasure, then went back outside, where I could see them in the light.
I stepped into the sun and looked in the bag, and stood in silent shock. All the little butterflies I had spent the previous day collecting were now lying motionless at the bottom of the bag. All of them were dead. But the ladybugs seemed alright…
I didn’t understand how this could be. At first I thought I must have killed them by forgetting to poke holes in the bag, so they could breath. But if I had poked holes, then the little ladybugs would have gotten away, and I couldn’t risk that.
I sat down against the wall of the barn and stared at the bag, trying to figure out what could have happened. Why did the butterflies die, but the ladybugs were just fine? If they had run out of air, then all of them would have died, not just the butterflies...
As I sat there trying to solve this great mystery, the old Indian man snuck up on me. Leaning against the barn with one arm, so he wouldn’t fall, he looked down at me and asked what I had. Without hesitation, I told him the whole story of how I had spent the previous day collecting all the butterflies and ladybugs I could find – since they were my little sister’s favorites -- and I wanted to give them to her for her birthday. I told him how I had put them up where they would be safe, in the barn – only to find all the butterflies dead. By the time I got to the end of my story, I was crying, as only a little boy could.
The old Indian man laughed as if I had told him the funniest story he ever heard. He laughed so hard that he began to cough; a deep cough that came from long years of smoking cheap tobacco. Finally, he settled down and stared at me in silence for the longest time. He coughed again, a little softer, and then he spoke. As he did, he laughed again, and then he said, “Boy, don’t you know that them ladybugs are killers?”
Then, lowering his old, broken body down beside me, he patiently began to explain how the more beautiful God’s creatures are, the more deadly they could be. Those little ladybugs, he said, pretty though they might be, spend their whole life killing other bugs, feeding off them. The butterflies never stood a chance.
Of course, I didn’t believe a word he said. It didn’t make any sense. The butterflies were beautiful, yet they didn’t kill anything. He laughed again, shakinghis head, and speculated that maybe it was because the butterflies had to crawl – as caterpillars – before God gave them wings; while the ladybugs never did. I nodded my head, since it seemed to kind of make sense. I ripped open the plastic bag and shook it out. As the butterflies’ bodies fell to the ground, the little swarm of ladybugs flew away.
I stood and bid the old guy goodbye. I began to walk back to our camp, sad that I now had nothing to give my little sister. I certainly couldn’t give her a bag of killer ladybugs. She, too, was as beautiful as the butterflies – I couldn’t have the ladybugs hurting her as well.
I stayed away from everybody else the rest of that morning, until around lunch, when we were all called to camp. The folding table was set out with a big pink birthday cake, and we all gathered around and sang Happy Birthday. A few presents, wrapped in pretty paper, were passed to my sister. She ripped them open, to get to what was within. And, although I don’t remember what they were, she was happy...
Years passed, and I never gave any more thought to those butterflies – and I never collected another one again. Growing older, I realized what the old Indian man had said was true – that, too often, the most beautiful of God’s creatures are the deadliest. I came to accept this truth, so it came as no surprise when I learned that one of the world’s deadliest animals –which can kill a man – is a little, brightly colored “poison dart frog,” found in the Amazon Basin. Its toxin is so lethal that native tribes use it in blowguns to kill prey.
Somehow, all of this came to me as I lay on my bunk today, trying to get my head out of this place. I’d sought my refuge from reality, pulling up happy memories and, of those early-summer days at the family ranch, and I dug up the tragedy of that particular day. The butterflies that died so long ago… for no reason, save my childish ignorance.
I thought about those butterflies, and wondered if, maybe, I was a butterfly too, waiting for the wings that would allow me to fly free. God knows that I’ve done my share of crawling to get where I am today.
That got me thinking about ladybugs in my own life – they are the ones among whom fate has cast me. Although outwardly attractive, beneath a superficial veneer natural born killers that prey upon the butterflies around us.
With my ear buds still in, my MP3 player now playing another old – and almost forgotten – song that makes me smile (When I Need You by Leo Sayer); I get up from my bunk and take two shortsteps to where my little plastic mirror is taped to the steel-frame of my cell door. I look at myself – not so much the image of who I am, but something deeper within.
Long moments pass, and I continue to look deeper. The Eagles song, Peaceful Easy Feeling, comes on; and the man in the mirror smiles back at me. The smile fades. Decades of solitary confinement and the condemnation of death stare into the emptiness of are my eyes.
I lie back down, and play my favorite song – Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. I change it from random play, to repeat, and, let it play again. With my eyes closed, the sad words of a man who knows that death is at his door, playing over and over again…
“…We had joy,
We had fun,
We had seasons in the sun…”
My thoughts turn the darkness of familiar depression descending upon me, and I no longer possess the will to fight.
“Goodbye, Papa, please pray for me,
I was the black sheep of the family.
You tried to teach me right from wrong.
Too much wine and too much song,
wonder how I got along”
Again and again that song plays, and I become one with it.
Any time now, they could come and get me. For the past 19 months I’ve been under an active “death warrant.” Not so long ago, I came close to being executed (please read, Execution Day – Involuntary Witness to State Sanctioned Murder). It’s been a month since the Florida Supreme Court formally lifted my stay of execution.
No matter how much I try to escape my own reality, my thoughts now return to it. Each time, I can feel myself being dragged down even further into a depressive abyss – and, each time, it takes on a different form. Yet, no matter the variation; no matter the escape found in a long-lost memory, one that brings an elusive smile to my otherwise empty face; the image fades away as soon as I feel what those butterflies must have felt, those ladybugs swarming down. Then, my smile turns perverse, as I realize a fundamental truth: we’re all butterflies, and only in death can we truly hope to fly free.
…And that’s why butterflies must die.
Michael Lambrix was executed
by the State of Florida on October 5, 2017