Just as the news was hitting the airwaves about the virus my sister called and said, “Mom fell and broke her hip. She’s having surgery tomorrow.” This is particularly not good news for a 92-year-old. My sister, who normally looks after mom, had to go to Scotland for her daughters-in-law wedding. Talk about bad timing! I jumped on a plane and to mom’s bedside that day. My mom had survived open-heart surgery, the removal of a kidney, and other falls – so who knows – she is one strong woman. After the hip-replacement the hospital was in a hurry to get her to a rehab/ nursing home to make room for the Covid-19 cases that were expected to pour in. We got her moved and I was able to stay with her – for five days. For five days I was allowed to look after her, play music for her, encourage her, reminisce with her, even laugh with her. Then the bad news, “Due to the virus you cannot enter this facility again unless your mom is dying.” Mom was devasted at the idea of my leaving. She said, “I’ll just die then.” She sobbed like a child. And my heart hurt like a mother abandoning a five-year-old.
I have been chaplain in the Los Angeles County Jails for 12 years. I have heard the anguish of mothers handing over their newborn child moments after birth, of parents losing children to the system even before they go to trial. I have witnessed the agony of separation families affected by incarceration feel all too often.
I stood outside her window and spoke to her on the phone. Did it make her sadder to have me so close but through a window? She had mild dementia and could not understand why this was happening. “What is this place? Where am I?” My heart broke as I tried to reassure her that she was going to get better and go home.
I have witnessed mothers and fathers playing and laughing with their children with a sheet of glass between them. The joy and the pain all mixed together. I have seen moms and dads doing their best to connect with a phone in one hand and the other hand pressed against the glass. Some men told me they did not let their kids come and see them that way.
We thought mom was going to recover. She was getting stronger every day. There was nothing I could do now, so I headed home, driving this time. In Kingman Arizona at the Holiday Inn Express at 4:30am my sister called saying, “Mom’s in the ER, she has a perforated intestine – it’s not operable. She is going to die within a few days.”
I made it back in record time. She was coherent almost chipper. She asked me if my son was good – like you know good in the big sense. “Yes. Mom he’s good.” Then she asked me, “How do you feel about becoming a priest?” I was touched, deep down touched. She had never asked. I said, “Well, it’s a lot to live into. It feels like a big deal.” She lit up with, “Oh yeah, it’s a big deal! I have been bragging about you for years.”
That was all I needed. I felt her appreciation of where I was headed and that she was proud of me. That is what I guess we all really want from a parent. She died three days later at my sisters home surrounded by her loved ones. She said to her grandsons in her last coherent moments, “I want you to have faith.” Mom had not had an easy life, and it was her faith that got her through it. She was halfway to heaven, radiating with Divine Love, as she told the boys, “God is Love.” We could see the truth of this shining through her. And her last words to us were, “Jesus is all goodness.”
How many times have I sat with an inmate as they told me of the heart break of not being able to be with a loved one in those final days and moments? It is a special kind of pain to be locked up and not able to say, “I love you” one more time. No one has ever brought an inmate a facetime connection on an iPad like they are doing in hospitals now. How do the incarcerated get news of the death of a family member? Often, they hear the devastating news from a stranger – a chaplain. From what I can tell - losing a loved one while locked up multiplies the pain by a thousand.
Maybe the world witnessing people dying without their family being able to be with them will awaken empathy for our incarcerated community. Or do we really think that someone who has broken the law does not deserve what the rest the of the world deems humane? We need to come out of this crisis better people. Do we really think that just because someone does not have enough money for bail that they should be locked up while people with resources can sit comfortably and safely in their homes for the sometimes years that a trial preparation takes? We need to become a society with better ideas about justice and reconciliation; about healing and what it means to be rehabilitated. I hope that you know that most “criminals” suffer with the disease of addiction and that is what created the conditions for crime. I hope that you know that many of the incarcerated have endured terrible traumas in their childhood and that many have untreated mental illnesses. The incarcerated community has been treated and is treated with a severe lack of dignity and compassion. These human beings will be coming home someday – wouldn’t it be a better choice to treat them with decency and respect so that when they do come home, they are better equipped to treat others with decency and respect?
The suffering and isolation that our world is experiencing now is an opportunity to see with empathy those things that are wrong in our society. This time of crisis can be a wakeup call to be better and to do better collectively and individually. Let us take this moment to look inside and transform ourselves and our world into something more compassionate, humane, and just. If we do, then this catastrophe will not be in vain.
Sister Greta Ronningen, CDL
Author of Free on the Inside: Finding God Behind Bars