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Life Inside

Finding Peace—and Briefly, Freedom—at My Grandfather’s Funeral

“Saying goodbye with the people who loved him—and me—I remember that I am not the tomb that imprisons me.”

At Sing Sing, once classes are over in the school building at night, we are allowed to use the phones in the yard. Chaos usually erupts as inmates race to the phones like stampeding bulls. It’s enough to make me avoid the trouble on most nights. But there are times when I fiend for the voice of a loved one and am forced to join the herd.

One late summer night in 2014, I get in line and hand my I.D. to the officer. When I hear my name called, I squeeze past the other inmates and dial my mother’s number. I listen to the automated message and anticipate the melody that is her voice. As soon as she speaks, I know something is wrong. I could always sense her pain, even when I was a child. It runs down my flesh like the chills. My heart pauses, like that first big drop on a rollercoaster.

“What’s wrong, Ma?” I ask.

Her words are calm and precise. “I want you to listen,” she begins. “Daddy is gone, he passed away this morning.”

There is a long silence. She continues, probably about the funeral arrangements, but I am lost in my own thoughts. I still feel dazed when I hang up. I walk around the yard until it is time to return to my cell. I don’t bother to undress. I just lay on my bunk, stare up at the paint-chipped ceiling and have a conversation with my grandfather.

“You couldn’t wait just a little while longer?” I ask. “I know I let you down. But if you had given me more time, I believe I would’ve made you proud. Every virtue I have, I inherited from you. You taught me how to forgive, how to love. You taught me that a real man puts family first.

“Thank you for waking me up every four hours to give me cough medicine when I was sick. Thank you for allowing me to make mistakes and never turning your back on me.

“Oh, I never apologized for the time I made your nose bleed when we were playing W.W.F.! Remember, I was the Ultimate Warrior, and you were Hulk Hogan?

“I’m sorry for not being by your side when you took your last breath. Please forgive me.”

He never says a word.

The funeral is a few days later. I won't know until the last minute if I am allowed to go. On that day I stay in my cell, not wanting to be hard to locate if I am called to take the trip. By noon I am getting nervous. At quarter to one, I hear my name being called over the loudspeaker to report up front to the O.I.C., the officer-in-charge for the housing unit.

The two officers who will escort me to the funeral home lead me to the processing area. I am strip-searched and shackled from waist to ankles. One officer reads off a bunch of rules to follow, or else. I nod, half listening.

The two officers are wearing suits. I am dressed in my state greens, a matching button-up shirt and pants that resemble the pajama sets my grandfather used to wear around the house. I am not allowed to wear anything appropriate to his funeral. I am made to put my incarceration on full display.

When we get off the highway, it’s the first time in 13 years that I see the South Bronx. It has the same look and feel as it always did. Street vendors, bodegas and Chinese restaurants sprinkle every block. Merengue and reggaetón blast from speakers, occasionally drowned out by rap from a moving car. People of all shades hurry to their destinations. It’s like I straightened up my room before I left and no one set foot in it since.

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When the prison van pulls up in front of Ortiz’s Funeral Home, my heart is racing. I see my father standing near the entrance. Once he notices the van, he tries to approach, but the officers deter him. “Move back, away from the van!” one officer says.

I walk through the funeral home door with an officer draped on each arm. The shackles attached to my ankles only allow me to take small steps or else the metal cuts into my skin. And I made the mistake of wearing ankle socks. I’m greeted with smiles and nods from inviting faces, and my heart settles as if it knows it is home.

We continue into the chapel area, and suddenly it’s harder to breathe. The room is full of mourners here out of love and respect for my grandfather. A woman across the room looks at me, smiling intensely. I return her smile and mouth her name. Evette. Her smile gets bigger, and she blows me a kiss. It’s my older sister’s best friend. She looks nothing like the chubby teen I had a crush on as an adolescent. She is more beautiful than ever.

My cousin approaches—a tall, powerfully built woman with long dreadlocks and a voice like Maya Angelou’s. She gives me a strong embrace that lasts for minutes, then grabs my face with both hands and kisses my cheeks. This woman changed my diapers, fed me, and rocked me to sleep on her bosom alongside her own children. I want to embrace her in return, but my wrists are chained to my waist. Then I see my oldest sister staring at me with what looks like a mixture of fear and sadness. As she walks toward me, she looks to the officers for a sign that it’s okay to approach. It must be hard to watch someone you love shackled like some animal. “It’s alright,” I tell her, “you can hug me.” She stands on her toes and wraps her arms around my neck.

Over her shoulder, I see an elderly Latina woman looking at me as if she knows what my heart has been through. As I get closer, I see that she is Gladys, my babysitter from the time I could walk until I entered kindergarten. She would keep a shrine of candles and religious ornaments such as crucifixes and pictures of saints near her door and scold me if I went near it. I learned later that she practiced the religion of Santería. As she gets closer, I see the tears in her eyes. She leans in and whispers, “Que dios te bendiga”—God bless you.

When the service begins, I sit next to my mother in the front row near the casket. The two officers are posted in the back, keeping me in their sights. I look around at all the people who loved my grandfather, all the lives he touched. He was a minister and mentor to everyone here.

Preachers say kind words and hold prayers. Friends and family get up to speak. At some point, I am asked if I wish to say something, too. I stand up and face the room. But when I open my mouth, nothing comes out. Tears stream from my eyes. I stand there for five minutes trying to pull myself together. My heart is having a tantrum inside my chest. Finally, I manage to mumble something incoherent. I didn’t know I was in so much pain. I wore it for so long I forgot I had it on.

After the speeches, people line the walls of the chapel to get their last look at my grandfather. As they do, they take a look at me, too. Most of them haven’t seen me in over 13 years. As they walk by, they say hello or grace me with a loving smile.

When it’s my turn to view the body, I refuse at first. I can’t see him like that. My sister insists it will give me some closure. I inch a little closer, as if I could fall over the edge if I get too close. As I look inside the coffin, I do not recognize him.

Memories of my grandfather flood my mind like the moving snapshots in a silent film. I see him chasing me down the street in a foot race. There he is shouting from our window to come upstairs and eat. Over there he’s cutting my hair as I keep fidgeting in his barber’s chair. I walk away knowing I will have to proceed through life without one of my biggest supporters.

I take one more look around the room before the guards grab my arm and say it is time to leave. This is the freest I’ve felt in my adult life. It is easy to lose one’s self inside a cage. But here, saying goodbye to my grandfather with the people who loved him—and me—I remember that I am not the tomb that imprisons me. Somehow, I have kept my essence.

As I’m escorted through the crowd of mourners, I receive hugs and condolences. But I don’t really acknowledge them. I’m already preparing myself for a return to captivity. I’m ushered into the back of the van, lay my forehead on the window and let out a long deep breath.

Robert K. Wright is a research assistant for the Center for Justice at Columbia University, where he is pursuing a master’s degree in education. He speaks at social justice events, helps develop programs for justice-impacted people, mentors undergraduates, and contributes to articles examining the effects of trauma and punitive practices on urban communities. Robert holds a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science from Mercy College. In March 2018, he was released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility after being incarcerated for close to 15 years on one count of assault in the first degree.