Christmas Lonely

In prison, he did not know what time it was, because the lights were always on. It could be any season, any year. Every hour looked the same from his cell.

No one waited for him, no friend, no relatives. His child didn’t want to know him or be like him. His parents were dead. So were most other people he had gone to high school with. Dead or gone on the other side of the wall.  He’s been in prison now for 30 years of his life. The crime that was half a lifetime a way was with him every day. Stupid. If he’d controlled his impulse. .  . but he hadn’t. This was his 30th years inside prison.

Three years ago, the last flicker of hope had gutted out. He’d placed an ad for a pen pal, just a voice on the other side of the wall. But no one had ever answered. Who would write to a prisoner? Who would care? People are put in prison to be punished, so who would think to extend a hand in friendship?

Sometime he had fantasies that there was no one alive on the outside world. Beyond the sweating gray block wall there was nothing. In his abandoned world, his life had shrunk to the routines of the prison. The one hour a day he was allowed to be outside, a roof over his head, so he couldn’t see sky. Standing in the steaming hot laundry room, loading and unloading uniforms. Eating meals scooped into the hollows of plastic trays.

There were days he went without talking. No need. He’d feel his teeth with his tongue to make sure they were still there, in case someone said something to him.

But no one did. The guards yelled, the bells shrilled, the door clanged. All on schedule. He had done something horrible 30 years ago. He knew his sentence would end when he died. He didn’t think he was innocent. He was just alone. Abandoned.  No lawyers to talk about appeal. No family to tell him he was missed. He deserved it. Except he would like to see a sky again. Know what it felt like to walk on grass. See a moon rise. To eat a meal someone who knew what he liked to eat had cooked for him.

A warden appeared at his door. “You got a letter.” He reached for the envelope. Who would write him? Who knew he was here? It was no one he knew. Someone who had seen the ad, which had been reprinted in a magazine. Someone who had written a stranger, knowing he was in prison. Just to offer some human communication. Someone who asked him about himself. Not what he had done wrong, but who he was, what he thought.

In that one instant, he had a life again. The outside world was not abandoned. Cars began to rush down streets in his silent imagination. People began to talk. Refrigerators opened and closed, factories roared to life.

And his heart beat in his chest, not as a countdown to his death, but knowing he could write back and know someone knew where he was. He was not abandoned.

It was a letter from a stranger who knew the loneliness of prison and wanted to make one spark of sudden light into the dark. Her description flooded light and color over him as he read. After three years, someone had seen the ad. He looked at the date on the letter. It was winter, December. He counted the days it would have taken for the letter to pass the censors. It was Christmas. And he was no longer alone.

Quinn McDonald wrote this story after a friend began a correspondence with a prisoner who will spend the rest of his life abandoned in Pelican Bay, a maximum security prison. She began to think about the real meaning of loneliness, and admired her friend for the example of true compassion.

14 thoughts on “Christmas Lonely

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking piece. I love to write letters and all my beliefs include the power of language and communication. So I will look and think through writing to someone that has no one. Thanks again and wishing you a wonderful holiday week. Lori W at Art Camp for Women

  2. Wow, this was great. Very well written, Quinn. Thank you for sharing. It’s odd how God works in my life and I’m still amazed when something like this shows up in my inbox. I had a wonderful Christmas with family for a few hours and friends for an hour earlier in the day. Other than that, I was on the road to and from Scottsdale with lots of quiet driving time to think. I wasn’t lonely and I’m not alone. For that I’m grateful. I recognized EXCESS this year while I was with my family and friends and decided to make a much wanted and needed change for 2012. While my word for 2012 is HEART, I also plan to use it for the word MINDFUL. That’s my goal – use my heart to be more mindful about all that I say and do. Again, thank you for the great story.

  3. HI Quinn,
    Wow, what powerful a story! Unlike the other commenters, I do not have any first-hand knowledge of people in jail or prison. I think society portrays imprisoned people as outcasts (maybe to make the thought of them easier to deal with?) This will help me think differently of them. Thank you.
    Vicky F

    • We often think of people in jail as those who did wrong and don’t deserve any shred of kindness. But they we have to ask ourselves what we expect from years of punishment without any sort of re-training to the behavior we would like to see. Not all criminals feel remorse, but there are also innocent people in prison. I’m a big believer in creating a system of change in prisons. Make it a place where people can recover, become useful again.

  4. My son-in-love is spending this Christmas as he did his first wedding anniversary, in jail 10 hours away from us. So far two charges were dismissed and two (having a radar detector and a suspended license) have ended in fines. There is one charge pending, possession of a stun gun (which belongs to my daughter). He is fortunate, because we do whatever we have to so that he can talk with her on the phone, write us, and have some puzzle books to pass the time. Bless you for another brilliant and moving piece. Merry Christmas.

    • We are all part of one whole. I’m so happy you are supporting your son-in-love (I like that so much better than son-in-law), needs your love and support. I’m so glad you are strong enough to be there for him. Life is complex. We help whom we can, when we can.

  5. I agree..what a beautifully written story. It held my attention, and took me back to some very lonely and alone times. A prisoner in my own home and mind. Thank you for sharing this capsule of hope and freedom. Yes, a Merry Christmas and a very productive New Year to you and all the readers.

  6. A beautifully written story about loneliness. A reminder to all of us how lucky we are to have what we have. My nephew is in jail right now over something silly, and while he won’t be in there very long, I know how much he looks forward to letters or to those rare visitors he gets for a few minutes each week. Merry Christmas.

  7. This struck a chord as 12 years ago I was the one sending that letter, that flood of light, into a prison cell & someone’s lonely life. What a difference it has made, not only in the inmate’s life but mine as well.

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