I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings.
— Paul Laurence Dunbar
One night in June a year ago, I was on call for my hospital chaplaincy training program. It was just a few minutes after 5 p.m., my start time, when my pager went off. I distinctly remember that it was raining like it is today and I was in Starbucks, across the street from the hospital, talking to a friend. “I’m sorry, but I have to get this,” I said, stepping outside.
Turned out, it was not a call from the hospital but from one of my best friends whose former daughter-in-law was found dead in her apartment, about a mile from where I sat.
My friend’s son was being questioned at the police station; he and his just-deceased ex-wife shared custody of their two children.
My friend was headed to the station. I told her I’d come.
When my friend introduced me to a police officer, she used the word “chaplain” and he let me go upstairs with her. The children had been brought in as well, and given food for dinner and toys to play with.
Mother and son were separated. He was questioned in one area, and she in another. I was able to be in the interview room with her. I remember that my heart raced. I didn’t say a word.
A few harrowing hours later, we were reunited with her grandchildren and were told they’d stay the night with her.
As the elevator began to close, however, we were summoned back into the hallway. Something had come up, the officers said. The children couldn’t go with us. Taken instead into state custody, they spent the next few weeks in a foster home. My friend’s son was released to her custody a few hours later.
The next few weeks were tense for my friend, and especially for her son. He was being watched. He knew it. He wisely kept a low profile at his job. He moved back in with his mother. She took him to and from work.
Then on July 1, I got another call. Her son had been arrested. They were walking out to her car, and the police were waiting.
A year ago Monday was the last time she was able to see her son, outside of the video monitors at the county jail.
Wisely, she hired a lawyer. He’s a good one. Methodical. Circumspect. She has had to raise money for this, as she’s not wealthy. Her lawyer hired a detective.
Soon after his arrest, my friend and I went to the local office of Department of Family and Children Services where my friend, as well as the mother of the deceased, told their grandchildren that “something bad” had happened to their mother.
How do you explain killing to children? But they did it and we each hugged them and comforted them as best we could. The young boy wailed and wailed as he was given the news, then wailed again when he had to go back to foster care. He clung to a desk.
Thus far, there’s been no indictment for my friend’s son. We have come to learn that we’re in a county that can hold people indefinitely, without an indictment. I ask this mainly rhetorically, but how in the hell can this be so?
I can hardly think of a worse injustice.
My proximity to the situation makes it even more painful, and certainly I’m not as proximate as my friend. The anger in me wells at times. I share that with my friend, in pieces. But it’s not another burden I want to put on her.
You would be amazed at this woman. She is honest and she cries when she needs to, and she’s dedicated to her work, her church, her family and her friends. She visits her son via TV monitor at the jail every Saturday. She is both sickened by the circumstances and determined to get life where she can.
Spare me the Polly Annas who smile when their hearts are really breaking. One of my friend’s favorite sayings is, “God’s got this,” but she is also able to voice anger at God. Frustration and tears and, yes, even humor. (She has a wicked sense of humor.)
As for her son, he writes these incredible letters in blue ink from the inside of a place that has very little light and humor. He sees a bigger picture at work. He envisions brighter days ahead, when he can see his kids again and get on with his life.
He encourages his mother, and the rest of us. He asks me about my husband, and my new job. He tells us to keep the faith, and not become bitter.
Imagine all that, coming from a place that doesn’t see fresh air or sunshine.
I don’t count him out, though. Or her.
I know why the caged bird sings.