But for the grace of God, there go I
By Dale S. Recinella
The first time I meet her is in Louisville, Kentucky near my college stomping grounds. I am attending the annual meeting of the National Coalition to Abolish the U.S. Death Penalty. While I am still at the podium gathering up notes and papers after completing a three-hour presentation on the Bible and the U.S. death penalty, she approaches quietly from the back of the room.
“Thank you, Brother Dale, for seeing my guy.” She is dressed tastefully, modestly, professionally and smiling warmly.
“You and he are both most welcome,” I return her warmth. “And thank you for being willing to share your and his story with this audience. Your presentation was spellbinding.”
“Let me just say that I know all the limitations you must work under in order to have access to the men.” She continues. “Thanks for putting up with all of that so that you can be there for them.”
“Yes,” I laugh softly, “And the state watches me like a hawk. Something about my being a lawyer makes them nervous.”
“But you don’t practice criminal law, do you?”
“In fact, I don’t practice any kind of law anymore. My deal with the state of Florida is that I have no law practice of any kind so long as I’m seeing men on death row.”
“And you’re okay with that?” She seems a bit stunned at this lops-sided bargain I’ve been saddled with.
“Nobody asked me if I was okay with it. They asked me if I would live with it. If I said “no”, I’m out of the prisons.”
“Well, we certainly don’t want that. Those guys need you.”
“Thank you for that, and even more, thank you for the consistent and faithful support you provide to our guy.” I know by her shy but visible response, that no one except her guy ever acknowledges that to her. It’s really tough to be in love with someone on Death Row. Mostly the world has no clue how to support you emotionally in your love.
Many years later, on a chill fall morning in north Florida, I answer my home phone. It is the kind lady I last spoke to in Louisville. She is now married to her guy on Death Row whom she visits monthly. She is calling to inform me of impossibly bad news.
Her husband on Florida’s Death Row has continued his regular pastoral meetings with me. He has been baptized and confirmed, just like his wife was in her youth. In addition to his deepening spirituality, I try to prepare him for either his likely execution or death by natural causes. His wife has been true to her promise not to reach out to me unless its life or death. Now, she is calling me at home. This will be a rough phone call.
“Good morning, Brother Dale,” she whispers sweetly. We exchange pleasantries, but I am bracing myself to hear that he has passed away overnight. Yet, the reason for her call is even more shocking.
“I was supposed to visit him this weekend, but I’m not well enough to travel.”
“But surely you will resume your visits after you feel better, right?”
There is a long pause while she musters the strength to tell me the full truth. When she resumes talking, it is through tears and sobs.
“There won’t be any feeling better, Brother Dale.” She describes her terminal diagnosis. I recognize the description and know it is an aggressive killer. It is my turn to fight down my emotions so I can speak.
“How long? How long are the doctors giving you to live?”
“Three weeks, maybe four. But most likely, barely three. It came on so fast,” she explains. “Last week I went to my work on Monday. Tuesday I didn’t feel well. By Thursday, I could not get out of bed. The next day they put me in the hospital. Now I’m at home on Oxygen so I can die in my own place, in my own bed.”
“Oh my Lord!” I am already wrestling with the devastating impact this will have on her husband. “Oh my Lord! What can I do for you and him?”
“There’s nothing anybody can do, Brother Dale. The docs tell me that by next week I probably will not be able to speak. Already I cannot write. The warden and chaplain have arranged for me to speak to him tomorrow morning so I can say goodbye to him.” There are no words, no cries to fill the void of silence as she pauses to let this news sink in.
“Could you please, Brother Dale, please arrange to see him on Death Row tomorrow at his cell. He is already in so much pain from his terminal condition, that the shackles and cuffs for a pastoral callout are excruciating. My doctor is faxing a diagnosis to the warden to verify my condition, so they will know this is all legit. The chaplain said if you call him to arrange the special cell-front visit, he will walk it to the warden for approval—but only after they have my doctor’s fax.”
“I will request it immediately.”
“Thank you, Brother Dale, and thank you for all you’ve done for us and the others.” Before I can even respond she continues, “Goodbye for now. I hope to see you in heaven.”
“Goodbye for now but allow me to say a prayer for you and for him before we disconnect.” As I lead this holy woman through my last prayer with her, I hear my own voice, as though from a distant room.
I decide my request to the prison Chaplain should be made in person. The 15-mile drive to the prison allows me to collect my thoughts and pray to hear God’s thoughts, too. There are no distractions on the long stretch of two-lane road called Highway 121. It runs a block east of our house and passes two miles from the prison at Highway 16. The whole way it is just me, the cows, and the pine trees. And, I hope, an escort of angels of travelling mercies which Susan and I pray for every morning.
The moment of a prison death notification can be very volatile and, in some cases, dangerous. One must be prepared for anything because no one can predict how a man will respond to the horrible news that a dearly beloved person is gone. When it is a sudden passing that was not anticipated, the trauma of the message is all the more devastating.
The Chaplain is expecting me. We meet at the admin building and sit down together in the office of the Assistant Warden who supervises all things chapel related at death row. They both spontaneously share from their experiences of the lady I met in Louisville.
“She is a super person and extremely brilliant,” the chaplain is shaking his head as if the motion will help him to absorb this blow. “She has never given us a lick of trouble. She’s always asking how she can help.”
“And her husband is the same way,” the warden is shaking his head, too. “Unbelievable, that both of them are dying and neither of them can travel to the other.” He looks at me, “Brother Dale, the death notification and phone call is scheduled for 11am. Your cell front visit needs to be after that, but first we must clear the lunch carts.”
“No problem, sir. I will present myself to security at Gate 5 at 1pm. The gate officer knows me well, and can hold me until the Death Row Captain gives her the high sign.
“The husband is on 4 Right downstairs, 4th cell on the corridor.” He pauses and shakes his head again. “The Chap and I will handle the phone call with the wife in a Death Row interview room. I don’t relish that. But, frankly Brother Dale, I definitely wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. By 1pm the news will have settled in on him. Are you sure you’re up for this?”
“Please let him know that I’m coming at 1pm. The last thing this guy needs after you meet with him tomorrow is any more surprises.”
The next day I am cleared through security, and the chaplain escorts me through the fence tunnel to the death row building. Usually there is banter and jokes with each person encountered and even salutations being hollered from the solitary cells with windows facing the fence tunnel. Today, nothing. The very compound seems hushed. Even the birds cannot find the energy to sing or chirp. This entire place is in mourning, I think to myself. She will be deeply missed.
We clear entry security for the death row building. The guards are especially thorough in searching me, just like for a death house visit next door. I understand. The last thing anybody here needs is a misguided religious volunteer smuggling contraband into cell-front so an emotionally distraught death row inmate can kill himself.
“We’ve got no problem with her husband and appreciated her,” the Hall Sargent offers profound words for this building. “They are good people. Take good care of him, chap.”
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
I am released from Hall Control and escorted to wing control where I will wait on the quarterdeck until admitted to his corridor. Every officer that passes me offers words of condolence for the inmate and admiration for the wife. The electronic bolts that lock the metal door to wing 4 Right downstairs are released with a resounding slam from deep in the concrete walls. I immediately look to the control station in the center of the quarterdeck to confirm the noise is for me. The officer inside the bulletproof glass box signals me “Yes” with a thumbs up and a nod. I pull open the door and step onto the concrete gate walk of wing 4 Right downstairs.
Usually, at this time of day, the gatewalk for this floor is loud with commotion. Arguments about sports teams, banter about media stars and politicians, shared aspirations and bitter disappointments about food. Today there is not a sound. No televisions or radios blaring. No banter. Only absolute silence as the wing officer announces my presence.
“Brother Dale on the wing!”
Even as the heavy metal wing door slams shut behind me, I hear a man in agony cry out from his cell, “Brother Dale … godfather … godfather … Help me! For god-sakes please help me!”
The inmates in the first three cells are each standing silently at the black mesh to their barred door. No one speaks. As I pass, they each lower their head in a respectful half-nod. It is not for me, but for their longtime neighbor and colleague in the 4th cell. Even here, in the shadow of the death house, mindful flesh confronted in the intense suffering of another can realize, but for the grace of God, there go I.
As I step to his cell front, he is lying prostrate on the concrete floor of his cell with his head pushing up against the bottom of his door. When I first met him over a decade ago, his head was covered with thick black waves of hair, as black as mine. Since then, mine has turned completely grey and his is much thinner.
“Oh God, Brother Dale, my sweet wife is dying. I had to say goodbye on the phone and I’ll never see her again. Oh my God, oh my God, what will I do?”
Without actually thinking about it, I instinctively move to be as close to him as I can in this intensely restrictive environment.
I drop to the floor of the corridor in front of his cell. I’m short enough that I can lay prostrate with my face directly opposite his and the soles of my shoes up against the wall of steel bars on the other side of the gate walk. And I can extend my arms through the open space in the bars underneath the steel mesh.
Without exchanging any words, he accepts my hands in his. The concrete floor is already wet with tears.
“We pray,” my dear brother. “We pray for your sweetheart, we pray us, and we pray for God’s grace and mercy to see us through this agony.”
“I can’t pray! It hurts so bad!”
“Let me pray out loud for both of us and you join in with me in your heart.”
“’Okay”, he muffles sobs, wiping his tears on the sleeve of his prison orange without releasing my hands.
“Let’s start with the prayer Jesus taught us. Our Father ….”
It’s been said that the sincerest prayers are the cries of abandonment to God for help in dire circumstances. Our sincere prayers echo down corridor 4 and, via the ceiling microphones and cameras, to the prison control stations, the regional office in Gainesville and to the central office in Tallahassee. Whether flesh hears our prayers is unknown, but Scripture guarantees that God hears and answers them.