Thursday, May 21, 2020

For My Brother

By Anthony Ehlers

My cellie’s name was James Scott. He was a good person. He was always smiling, and always laughing and making others laugh too. Most people smiled automatically when they saw him coming. We had been in the cell together for almost five years. He was my best friend, and he died on Monday, April 20, 2020, from Covid-19.

Some of you may know about the spread of Covid-19 here at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, and the response to it, or lack thereof. I was sick, very sick, when we went on lockdown and James had some preexisting health problems. A few years ago, he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma, which he fought hard against. And one point he was getting chemotherapy every day. I helped take care of him in the cell and he fought with sheer will and desire to live. He beat cancer and had been in remission for over a year. He was also diabetic, but his doctor had recently said he was going to take James off insulin and put him on a pill. James also had asthma. Covid-19 was spreading in our prison, and I was sick, but we were left in the cell together during lockdown. James caught what I had.

I should have been quarantined. Then James might not have caught it and he might be alive today. But instead, I remained sick in the cell, with James taking care of me at one point. And then James got sick. He tried to stay in the cell with me, but his breathing got bad, and I got him medical attention. James was taken out that night, March 29th, and I never saw him again. 

I never once thought that I wouldn't see James again. He was such a fighter, so strong, and I knew he would never give up. There was never a doubt in my mind about that. So, when I got the news that he had passed away, I was devastated.

Since James died, I find myself going back and forth between being okay for short periods of time and crying until my eyes hurt. This place is so macho and testosterone-driven that you can't let anyone see you cry. You have to hide your pain and your hurt or people might use it against you.

In prison having a good cellie is a huge part of your prison bit. If you have a bad cellie, or a cellie you don't get along with, it's miserable. If you have a cellie that's alright, you can endure it, but when you have a good cellie, it makes your life so much easier and better. This is a person you to wake up with every morning, the last person you talk to at night, the guy you eat with, talk to, and confide in, who helps you. You share a bond in trying to survive prison as unscathed as possible. You get close, you become brothers. So when James dies, I not only lost a cellie, I lost my best friend in this place, my support system, my brother.  I lost my family.

James and I were an odd couple to be best friends. Guys used to make fun of us. We didn't care. I'm sure it looked kind of weird from the outside. James was a short, bald, dark skinned black guy, and I am tall, and very white. But we were inseparable. He was calm to my hyped-up, he was friendly and talkative to my quiet introverted personality. We balanced each other. I took care of James when his health wasn't good, and James helped me through some very tough times. He could always make me smile. 

I understand on an intellectual level that grieving is mostly based on selfish emotions. I lost this, I don't have that anymore, I miss this, but it doesn't stop my emotional pain. I love that old man. How do you heal when a family member dies? This pain hurts so much. How do I bear this?

James was 58 years old, I called him “Old Man” a lot, mostly because it seemed like he'd been around forever. We laughed at everything. He used to say it's too hard to be miserable, it takes too much effort. Sometimes if I was down, he would sneak up on me and hit me a couple times in the ribs. It always makes me laugh. When I look back, I can see how much James took care of me in little ways. 

Prison is such a lonely place. You could be surrounded by other guys in school or in the chow hall, and still feel utterly alone. When you're lucky enough to find a best friend, here or everywhere, it makes your loneliness go away and you know you have someone to turn to. I don't have that person I can turn to, or talk about things with anymore, or ask for advice or lean on. And that's hard. It makes life in here much darker with James’s light. I have so much pain and guilt and anger, and I don't know how to get through it.

James likely caught Covid-19 from me. A corrections officer stood outside my bars and said, "You killed your cellie, huh?" I just wanted to punch him. But is he right? I can't help feeling guilty. It makes me ache. Did James die because of me? And anger. I have a lot of it for these people, because James didn't need to die.  If they had just done what they were supposed to do, maybe James and some of these other guys would still be alive.

I'm angry at James too. How could he leave me by myself in this place? I know that's a selfish thought, but emotions aren't often logical or rational. Why did he have to go? He was always there no matter what. He had such a good positive spirit, and he truly did touch a lot of people. Friends keep sending me kites (notes) about him. It's nice to know how many people care, and I know their intentions are good, but I wish they would stop. Their notes make me cry. I've cried so much, and I can't stop.

James was always smiling and cutting up, and talking shit to make you laugh. The old man always flirted with the female corrections officers and Med-Techs, and made them laugh too. He touched everybody. He was something else. And I miss that. I miss him. We had so much more to talk about.

I don't make friends easily. I generally don't trust many people. So, a friendship like I had with James is really special to me. I miss him so much! I'm hurting, and I would give anything if the pain would just go away. But I guess that's how you know you really loved someone, when their absence devastating. I feel utterly alone right now. 

James fought cancer, and diabetes and in his last days, he fought for breath. Now he doesn't have to fight anymore. Rest brother. You’re in a much better place. You don't have to struggle for breath or worry about cancer coming back. I imagine James is happily reunited with his wife and family... And he's free... After thirty-six years in prison, James is home. Knowing this doesn't stop the pain or make me miss him any less, but it does make me happy.

James Scott was my very best friend, a good and kind man. His light has dimmed, but it will never go out. I love you brother.

Anthony Ehlers B60794
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434
My name is Anthony Ehlers, I am a former Death Row inmate. I am an artist and poet. I am a college student taking classes through Northwestern University, earning my Bachelor’s Degree. I write, and paint, and read as much as I can. I’ve been locked up twenty-eight years and am still fighting to get out of this place. Feel free to contact me.

1 comment:

A citizen said...

Anthony, you are a good man.James is right with you and I can assure you, you guys will see each other again.
The worst part of life is losing someone you truly love.
The ignorant guard who made that comment? Let it go. He’s not worth acknowledging.
It was James time. You had nothing to do with it. It would actually be selfish and arrogant to believe you had that power. The prison was/is infected. Can any one person stop a spread in a prison which is close quarters? Of course not.
Think of how James would want you to handle this. He would tell you to be strong I bet. How many people have friendships like this? Not many. You are fortunate. Bury your head in the pillow and cry. We all do. Is it feeling sorry for ourselves. Yes. However we are human and eventually we get it.
Stay strong. This is how you show your true feelings for your best friend.