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Life Inside

’Til Death Do Us Part

After my mother was diagnosed with cancer, she married the love of her life even though he was still behind bars. Then he got sick, too.

My mother had a lot of problems with love.

In her 20s, she drove trucks and started dating her male co-driver. They had a shotgun wedding, but it turned out she wasn’t pregnant. He was a troubled man, and they had a bad relationship. Then I came along.

I was 19 when they divorced, and we all celebrated. After that, my mom wanted no part of any man. She was single for the next 17 years. We’d ask her, “Don’t you want to date?” But she’d say, “I just want to be all about you kids.”

In 2015, my older brother Daniel—who’s serving 25 years in federal prison for drug charges and firearm possession—befriended a fellow inmate, a soft-spoken Southern gentleman named Steve. He decided that Steve and my mom should date. My mom was like, “Uh, no. I’m not trying to hook up with anyone in prison.”

But Daniel worked on my mom overtime for weeks, singing his friend’s praises. (When my mom asked, my brother told her that Steve was in prison for a bank robbery in Tennessee.)

Finally, my mom agreed to have one phone call. Soon he started calling her every night. It started as a friendship. He would ask about her life. What were her kids like? What made her happy? No one had ever talked to my mother this way. She’d had her heart in a cave, but now someone was plucking her out.

Then the love letters started. She would sit by the front door like a kid before Christmas, waiting on the mailman. After she read his letters, she’d be beaming.

And she started visiting him regularly, driving from her home in Indiana to the federal prison in Kentucky.

When we saw how Steve was making her feel, our hearts grew.

In spring 2018, my mother was sick and thought she had pneumonia. The pathology came back and said she actually had Stage 4 lung cancer.

When she told Steve, we could hear him through the phone saying in his quiet drawl, “It’s gonna be okay baby, we’re gonna fight.” He reminded her about their future plans. They were going to get a mobile home and see all the things neither of them had seen.

And then they got married—her pastor served as a proxy for him. They wrote vows and mailed them to each other.

One day that July, Steve called saying he had severe pain in his abdomen. Two weeks later, when I asked how his pain was on a scale of 1 to 10, he said 11. But the prison was just giving him a hot water bottle, he said.

His voice was shaky and desperate.

After several months, Steve was transferred to the federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, where the medical facility is. And then he was diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer. It had spread to his abdomen and kidney and the walls of his chest, they told him. It was everywhere. There was no option for chemo, and it was non-operable.

That call was early in December. They moved Steve to the prison hospice a week later.

My mom started talking to Steve about “compassionate release,” a federal program that allows terminally sick or elderly people to leave prison early. The new First Step Act passed by Congress had expanded it to more people. On December 13, Steve applied. But just over a week later, President Trump shut down the federal government, which meant everything non-essential at the Bureau of Prisons was put on hold.

On New Year’s Eve, he called to say he didn’t know if he could make it any longer.

We were all at my house for the holiday. My mom got up and left the room, sobbing. She said his voice had changed; he was 63 but sounded like an old man.

I went into fight mode—they call me the bulldog of the family. I told my mom right then and there that we were gonna go down south to see him; it’s just one day from Indiana to North Carolina.

A few days later, we loaded up the car: me, my mom and my 16-year-old daughter.

When we walked into the visiting room, it was packed with people sitting on white plastic lawn chairs at matching plastic tables. Steve was wheeled in. My mom bent over to give him a kiss. He was just skin and bones—and his hands, I call them dead hands. If you’ve ever been to a funeral, you know what those hands look like.

We had a photo taken, which still sits on my desk in my bedroom. We sat for two hours just visiting and got to laugh a little bit. When my mom went to get him something to eat from the vending machines, I told him, “You’re coming home.”

He half-smiled and winked at me.

When it was time to leave, they came and wheeled him back toward his cell. My mom and Steve blew each other kisses. She said to me, “I won’t see him ever again.”

My mom was still fighting her own cancer. She was very tired and in constant pain. She was also doing chemo and had to get blood transfusions at every doctor’s appointment.

Soon, Steve stopped calling. My mom kept asking the prison, “What’s going on with my husband?” But they wouldn’t give her information.

Finally, the chaplain told her that Steve couldn’t call anymore because the computerized inmate voice-recognition system no longer recognized his voice.

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Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

“Can you at least confirm that my husband is still alive?” my mom asked him. She said the chaplain told her that Steve was in the end stages of his life.

Still, she worked on getting Steve compassionate release. She explained that her husband was terminal. She sent them everything we had: Steve’s diagnosis, her diagnosis. And we started preparing for him to come home, transforming her bedroom into a triage station, with bed pads, bed pans, bed rails, a shower seat, hand sanitizer. We started scheduling doctor’s appointments for Steve.

On January 31, my mom was told that the judge had just signed the order. Steve was coming home. He was one of the first prisoners released under compassionate release under the First Step Act. I was at WalMart when she called and told me, and I screamed with joy. I said, “Mom we did it.”

Then in the parking lot, while loading my groceries into the car, I got another call. My mom was crying this time. “Steve passed,” she said.

I dropped to the ground in the parking lot.

Steve had been granted freedom early that afternoon. When the chaplain went to tell him just after 3 p.m, he found that Steve had died just a few minutes earlier.

When I got to my mom’s house, she was sitting at her desk banging her fists, so angry that the world is this way. I just held her.

My mom and my daughter and me got in the car again to head south to Kentucky. Steve was buried there, in a cemetery near where his parents lived. At the funeral home, my mom stuck fake ladybugs on the casket, because Ladybug was his nickname for her.

Several weeks ago, my mom called and said to come meet her.

“My doctor has taken me off care,” she told me. “I only have three to six months to live.”

My first thought was of my brother. We may not have gotten Steve out in time, but we still had a chance with Daniel. I called him and said, “I’m going to do everything I can to bring you home now, to be with our mother, our best friend.”

I can’t even tell you how many certificates my brother has earned in prison. He’s written poetry, essays, been a mentor, done all the programs. He has an IQ of 140. He has a lot to offer society.

My brother doesn’t have a terminal illness, and he’s not elderly. So our only option to apply for compassionate release, we were told, was for him to present a family story—one that is “extraordinary and compelling.” I believed we had just that: A loving mother who wanted to be with her son again before she died.

When our mother passed away last week, my brother was still in prison. I'll always regret that we weren't able to bring Steve or Daniel home while she was alive. But I find comfort in knowing that my mother knew how loved she was.

Rachel Douglas is a resident of Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a mother of two.

Eli Hager Twitter Email is a staff writer covering juvenile justice, family court, indigent defense, fines and fees and other issues; he also works on the "Life Inside" series of essays by incarcerated writers. He was a Livingston Award finalist for his 2017 investigation of the for-profit prisoner transport industry and is a three-time finalist for the Education Writers Association awards.