It was December 23, 2015, the last day to get out of jail before Christmas and we were expecting a big release. We did, in fact, end up serving 16 women arriving in two shifts, far more than on a typical Wednesday. But what stands out in my mind is not the chaos and busyness of that day or the great turnout of volunteers for which I was, and always am, extremely grateful. What stands out is just one small moment, a brief exchange with one woman that tugged at my heart and continues to make me teary eyed every time it comes to mind.
We were standing in the Greyhound bus station, several of the women still in line to cash in bus vouchers, others borrowing volunteer cell phones to call home. A thin, blonde woman stood next to me using my phone to talk to family members. Sadly, I cannot remember her name. The station was noisy and I was alternately talking with several different women regarding their situations and with volunteers about how we could address various needs, multiple conversations going on all around me. I was vaguely aware that the woman using my phone was speaking with different family members as they passed the phone on their end around from one to another. I heard her voice catch several times, struggling with the intense emotion the moment must have invoked.
Finally she told the party on the other end that there were others waiting to use my phone. She said, “I love you. I can’t wait to see you,” and with a final “goodbye” she handed the phone back to me. Then her eyes brimmed with tears and her voice wavered as she said, “My son…his voice changed.” The words caught in her throat as the tears spilled over. “He’s 15 and his voice changed while I was away. He didn’t sound like that when I left.”
In that moment I had to fight to keep my own tears at bay. I put my arms around her and hugged her and told her it was going to be ok, which, I realized was a very trite and unhelpful thing to say. But anything more meaningful escaped me in the emotion of the moment.
I wish I had told her that he still needed her. At 15, the person behind that manly voice was still just a kid who, whether he could admit it or not, was going to be glad to have his mom back. We both knew there was no getting back what she had lost. But I wish I had offered her the simple reminder that there was a lot of mothering still left to do and she had a lot of motivation to make the best of the time that was left. I suppose my own emotional reaction got in the way of finding those words for her. As the mother of two grown sons, the thought of missing that transitional phase of their lives filled me with empathy but left me without the tools to express it in a more helpful way.
There was much to do, much busyness and noise around us, and as the moment passed, we collected ourselves and I got back to the tasks of passing my phone around, asking about bus schedules, addressing food and clothing concerns. But later as I drove home, I teared up again thinking about that mom and her 15 year old son. The brief moment settled on my heart. a frozen, crystalized moment in time that reflected both the light of joy that is my love for my own sons and the shadow of loss one mom can feel in empathy for another.
When I got home I had the chance to hug both my sons, as the older is usually around and the younger was home from college on Christmas break. Later that evening I found myself sitting across from the youngest, looking at him, filled with love and the emotions of the day. I tried to relate the earlier moment to him, with my voice catching and my eyes starting to brim again. I’m certain my emotional response made very little sense to him and probably seemed over the top in that “it’s a mom thing” sort of moment my sons have learned to accept without fully understanding. Nevertheless, he did exactly the right thing. He put his arms around me, hugged me tightly, and said, “It’s ok, Mom. I love you too.”
I don’t know why the thin blonde woman was in prison, what she did, or why she did it. I don’t know how much time was lost during that separation between mother and child. I do know that both parents and children grieve deeply the separation that comes when a parent is incarcerated and I wish that, as a society, we would look for better ways of dealing with non-violent crime; ways that do not involve breaking up families. Every week, when we pray with newly released women, we ask for healing and wholeness in their families. For what is broken to be put back together again, even with the cracks and scars. And quietly, in my heart, I pray for big hugs and for the women to hear the words,, “It’s ok, Mom. I love you too.” Kathie Gallagher