I suppose it’s a good thing that it surprises me every year. But then I’m surprised that I’m surprised. Because every year for the last four years and every other year for the previous five years, that fat envelope, addressed to my son, has arrived in the mail. And I’m surprised. And angry with an impotent rage that has no outlet, has no relief, just an free-floating sense of injustice and futility and in the back of it all, a twinge of fear for the what if factor.
But this isn’t about me. It is about my son. To be more precise, to tell the story properly, you must know that legally, he is of no relation to me. He was my step-son when I was married to his father. But laws and legalities mean little to us. I became his mother when he was three and I remain his mother even now when he is facing his 25th birthday.
You see, I raised him because twenty one days after his first birthday, a man accosted his mother in a parking lot, kidnapped her at gunpoint, drove her to a patch of woods in Ridgeville, raped her and listened to her plead for her life, not for her sake, but for her children’s sake, then shot her in the head, leaving her body for hunters to find three months later.
The following year, in 1984, this man admitted to what he had done, not only to my son’s mother, but to another woman who he also murdered, and many other charges.
The fat envelope I get each year lists all he was sentenced to and the amount of time for each count. That takes two pages of the envelope’s contents. Seven life terms plus 355 years for a slew of other charges.
When my son was 17 years old, this man came up for parole. Fifteen years after being sentenced. For “good behavior”. My son had not even reached adulthood. See, in South Carolina, a life sentence means 20 years. With time off for good behavior.
And now that the twenty year mark has passed, we get that envelope every year, telling us when the parole hearing will be. This was the first civic duty that my son began attending too. The families of the victims gather their strength, prepare their words, and go to Columbia to sit before this man and the parole board and ask, beg, plead that he not be allowed to go free. That he serves out the sentence imposed upon him.
This year, my son was worried, he thought his ship might be out at sea on the date of the hearing and he planned to submit a video to be played for the board. But he thinks he may be able to attend in person.
The man who did these horrible things was young at the time. He is now in his mid-forties. And part of what my son fears is that the man is still capable of doing horrible things. That another family will suffer. That another little boy will grow up with no memories of a mother who loved him very much. That another child will think of his mother’s face and have only the images from fading photographs come to mind and who has no memories of his own, only the memories borrowed from others.
And there is always that vague anxiety. Could this be the year? Would they really let him out? We don’t know. It could happen. This is why he goes, why the other family members go every year. To say no. To say remember the victims. Remember us.
This is his life. Since he was seventeen and probably for the next thirty years. It will be his duty. He will plan vacations, weddings, graduations around it. He will one day take his children to a small marker on the ground and try to explain it to them. When they ask about their grandmother, he’ll only have those borrowed memories and the few fading photographs to give them.
And yet, he is not bitter, he does not and will not let the victimization go any further. It empowers him to be able to stand up and say no. There is no other gift he can give to his mother but to stand and speak for her.
And I have no greater gift than the right to call this man my son.