Parallel Universe

About thirty years ago, when we had our first dog and no children, in our first home, we were robbed.

We didn’t actually know it until a police officer came to the door that evening. Earlier in the day, the thief had shown up at our bank with a forged check he’d snitched from the middle of our checkbook. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, an off-duty cop was at the bank when he pulled his stunt—and recognized him.

We were shocked. Sukki, our lab-springer-golden mix, had apparently welcomed him with a friendly wag of her black-and-white tail as he went through our desk drawers and my jewelry box. Not only did he steal the check; he also fenced some of my jewelry, a pearl necklace from Al and a gold charm bracelet that my grandmother had given me. But at least he didn’t steal our bank balance.

Maybe a year later, we went to the county courthouse as witnesses in his trial. Let’s call him M. We met a few other victims. To the best of my recollection, one of them told us that M had stolen a TV set and then called a cab to take him home. Needless to say the guy had bad judgment. He was a crack addict. We waited around for hours, only to learn that the case had been plea-bargained, and M would soon be sentenced.

Since that time, every so often, we receive letters under the Commonwealth’s witness protection program about M’s whereabouts in the correctional system. He would move from minimum security to medium security and back again, fail to achieve parole over and over. For three decades. About a month ago, M came up for parole and actually made the cut. I have to admit, I was both astonished and a bit glad for him. Thirty years is a long, long time to be in prison. But I was not optimistic. (I am not in the least concerned that he would reappear at our door since we moved so many years ago.)

Sure enough, on Monday I got another letter from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. M was back in temporary custody “due to a possible violation of the conditions of parole.” I’m guessing that he must have sabotaged himself. Think of all that has changed in the past three decades. How would any of us be able to adjust to the outside world after spending all that time in the structured, restricted, but in-its-own-way-predictable prison system?

In some ways, I measure my life against M’s. Since he’s been behind bars, I’ve lived with my own sentence of scleroderma, which emerged a few years before the robbery. But I’ve been fortunate—with excellent medical care, a supportive family and a lot of luck, I’m living a fairly healthy life, all things considered. I’ve raised two daughters, built a successful career, pushed the envelope on discovering what I can still do despite medical constraints.

M remains mired in a dismal life. Some of that is surely his own doing. I wonder, however, what real support he’s had in trying to turn himself around. I think he was about my age when he went to prison. He’d be in his 60s now.

I don’t have an easy conclusion for this one. It would be too facile to say that we each make choices in how we meet life’s challenges. I know nothing of M, other than the occasional progress reports (or lack thereof) that we receive in the mail. We never saw him at the courthouse all those years ago. Suffice it to say that incarceration is as much a state of mind as a prison is a fortress of cement and stone and barbed wire.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Christian Bardenhorst

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