When most women become moms, almost instantly they develop an awareness, a “tuning in” to their child’s every need, and every attempt at communication, verbal or non-verbal. When the child grows, that tuning in begins to diminish, and when they are adults you find it is nearly gone. You get your “self'” back again, so to speak.
Not so with prison moms. That “tuning in” returns with an unhealthy vengeance. It’s now a hyper-awareness of your son’s every move; every gesture, every glance of the eye, every inflection of speech, every word spoken and every word not.
At each visit, too numerous now to count, I would search for glimpses of the quiet and introspective person he was, but prison life had shoved it way back down inside. Most often I would see a haunted look in his face, a slump to his shoulders, a lack of animation, a dullness in his eyes, and a beaten-down demeanor. An overall general disconnect. Over the years it began to lessen, but at an agonizingly slow pace. All I could do was silently pray to God for something to bring him back to himself, for a light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, in the summer of 2012, I noticed a dramatic change. I got an excited phone call from him telling me about a class he had begun to attend at the prison. It dealt with centering prayer. He told me that its moderator had written a book on the process, and that I should get the book. I bought it and read it, knowing that this was what he needed, and an answer to my prayers.
In the last 2 years, his demeanor has changed markedly. He has things to say now, excitedly, and he reaches out to other inmates in the Visiting Room, something he never did. He is developing insight and compassion, two valuable things the prison system can take from you. He is still quiet and introspective, but he walks lighter now; some of the weight of prison life is gone. And wonderful laughter has returned.
Because of his involvement in the Contemplative Prayer program at Folsom Prison, his world has gotten larger and is no longer confining. He has found a source of freedom, right here in the midst of a well-controlled prison.
And that light at the end of the tunnel is now the light I see in his eyes!
The Look of Mary Robillard
In the spring of 1961, I was a senior at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. At that time a notorious killer was awaiting execution in San Quentin’s gas chamber. Two years previous, Alex Robillard was stopped in a stolen car by Hillsborough police officer Eugene Doran. Alex was 19 at the time and a professional criminal. He shot Doran six times, the last bullet fired in the neck to insure death.
I knew of the pending execution. Everybody did. In those days I had no opinion about the death penalty. I never gave it much thought. It didn’t impact me at all until Fr. John Enright, S.J., called me out of English class on April 25, 1961.
John Enright was a sophomore Religion teacher and spiritual counselor at St. Ignatius. He asked me to be a pall-bearer for the funeral of Alex Robillard who was to be executed the next day. It seems Fr. Enright had written to Robillard while he was awaiting execution, asked him if he wanted to talk to him. He did and there started an intense relationship ending with Fr. Enright hearing his confession and witnessing his execution.
I was nervous and intimidated on the day of the funeral. The five other pall- bearers were classmates and we had a sinking feeling in our stomachs as we rode in the limo behind the hearse. We did not know what to expect.
Because of Fr. Enright’s involvement, the funeral was held at the old Oakland Cathedral. I had never seen it. The outline of its Gothic architecture was barely visible because all the lights in the cavernous church were turned off. It was ominous. Way off in the distance we could make out the altar with the family standing to one side. We slowly processed up toward the altar. No music, the cathedral totally empty except for the family, John Enright, and we six pall-bearers.
Robillard’s mother seemed to be tending to her husband, two sons, and daughter, shielding them in some fashion, perhaps trying to protect them from the coming rituals. As we stopped at the altar rail, she looked directly at me.
She had a fractured look of inconsolable sadness and heartache. Yet, as she looked at me, I could also see her offering me an unmistakable gratefulness. I was stunned. The combination of grief and gratefulness confused me. I felt embarrassed that until that moment I had not made the connection that Alex Robillard had a mother.
Over the years I have thought about Mary Robillard many times, with increasing gratitude for her special gift to me. She has become an inspiration. By holding her pain in the unique fashion that she did, she wordlessly brought me to a deeper consciousness of the transformative power of her suffering.