I've been adding to this blog for almost six years. (not so much in the last few weeks...just sort of down...sorry) A friend reminded me I wrote a piece on my 60th birthday. You have the ability to go back and re read it. I cannot. So, I have no idea if this will repeat themes from birthdays past. However, as this is my last birthday while being held against my will, I thought it an apt moment for reflection.
The first birthday in prison is soul sucking and psychically torturous. Why was I born? Look at what I have done with my life. Would it have been better not to have been born at all? How do I survive all the future birthdays in prison? Please don't wish me a happy birthday. I'm glad my parents are dead and can't see what I have done to their name. How will my wife and children cope? Will they ever forgive me?
This birthday occurs with the realization I should be home by Christmas and there will be no more birthdays in captivity. It also occurs to someone quite different than the man who cried and zombie-walked his way through that day in 2009. At least I've answered one query as I have survived up until now and I wouldn't have taken bets on that back in the day.
That first birthday, in Beaumont, Texas, took place far away from home...hell, far away from civilization and intelligent life. If my brief sojourn in the South is any window on that world, this nation is doomed to remain fractured forever. I had met a former head of allegedly one of the most violent drug gangs in Texas. He was a Puerto Rican from the Bronx trying to convert to Buddhism from cultural Catholicism. He taught me about prison and prison culture and how to get my head out of my ass and see trouble brewing before it starts. He knew he couldn't protect me, his people would never have gone for that, but told me to get to his bunk if violence broke out because no one could fault him for protecting his house and the people in it. On that first birthday he presented me with a gift...a pair of non-prison issue, thick, wool gloves. They were gorgeous and warm and valuable. Who would have thought such an act of kindness could happen in Beaumont, Texas. The gift was a counterpoint to the isolation...soul losing...recriminations...self-loathing I was going through at that time and were a miracle of sorts.
There will not be any gifts on this birthday. There will be visit from some friends...a former Maryknoll missionary who was a total stranger until he visited me three or four times now...an ex Franciscan and a dear friend from the City who has been a source of comfort and support through this entire journey. If there are any tears, they will be tears of joy and the soul nearly sucked out in Santa Rita, Oakland, Dublin, Oklahoma City, after a 14 hour bus ride with no food, Beaumont, and Lompoc, seems to be making a comeback.
Birthdays are moments, snapshots, of where we are and where we have been and contain the hopes of what we might be in the future. I have been consigned to the scariest place on earth...alone with my own thoughts. If one is at all honest, and willing to take a plunge into the ether which is ourselves, prison offers a chance to assess and unpack the behaviors and beliefs which led to the current circumstances.
On this birthday I can admit to so many shortcomings and bad choices which were mixed with an oversized ego...pride on steroids and an absolute belief life had wronged me, cheated me, played favorites and I would do anything, break any rule, reject any limits in order to get what was rightfully mine. I had a good heart, but a dark spirit which encouraged me to take risks, put my family in jeopardy and disappoint my friends all in the name of achieving fame and fortune.
A Franciscan friar who was a guest with me here for a while, Rev. Louis Vitali O.F.M., convinced me the way to do this time was to imagine it as a monastery. It's all men. We live in "cells". There is an inordinate amount of time for prayer and reflection and celibacy is easy to maintain. He nailed it. I have said publicly I didn't have an active prayer life out of fear one day God would answer back and make demands on me I couldn't, or wouldn't, carry out. Now, I pray begging to hear Her voice. I said Mass here for the first time in 30 years and it moved me deeply. It showed me how badly I wasted my chance to be a good priest and, ironically, how much better I would be today. After everything is taken from you, including your reputation, it is possible to see what is real value and on this birthday, if you said I could have anything I wanted, it would be to be home celebrating with my family basking in their presence.
There is still much more work to be done on me. I have to face the justifiable anger of family and work to regain trust. I hope God is not done with me yet and search for a new epiphany. I would like to work with the poor and do some prison ministry. I don't know if anyone will allow me back in the media, but boy would I have something to say and from a very different perspective.
Finally, if I can be so bold as to offer some observations on this day...we all make mistakes and we have to seek forgiveness, including forgiving ourselves, and not allow the mistake to define us. Please reject all the culture around you which glues you to your phone, computer, TV screen and a plethora of other distractions. I am convinced they are like fool's gold and have neither intrinsic value nor recipe for happiness or fulfillment. Instead, seek out people and places and times you love and moments of care and banish the easy path of cynicism. You, and I, were given a gift...this life...and it is a chance to be someone who cherishes what is real and loves with all your heart. Please learn from my mistakes. At least then maybe this tragedy can have a positive outcome.
I am thankful I was born. I am grateful to have four children and a wife who love me unconditionally. I am blessed to get a chance to reboot and see what Bernie 2.0 will look like. I am lucky to have all of you to call friends. It is a happy birthday.