This past summer while searching for fresh ideas to use in the juvenile lockup where I lead a group, I flipped through a copy of “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” the kind of title I would normally stay away from, thinking it was faith-based or so overly cheerful that I would be unable to relate to its content and tone. I was surprised to find that among the 1,560 bits of advice and wisdom there are some gems. I would end each group by having each young man read 5 of their choosing in front of the other residents. On the day the program closed due to lack of funding for youth programs, I gave them each a copy with a personal note jotted on the inside cover.
Among the snippets of wisdom, listed somewhere near “Plant a tree the day your child is born,” and “Have friends who own a truck,” this one struck an immediate chord with me: “Make your bucket list and keep it in your wallet.”
Since May of this year, I have been incorporating this exercise with the groups of adult male and female felons I see both in jail and in their halfway house-reentry programs. It’s become the kick-off to a 4-week goal-setting group that I’ve created and of everything I’ve done with them for the past year this has been, by far, the most fascinating.
I’ve had a 22-year old black man just wrapping-up a two-year sentence for drug distribution share that he’s always wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle. I’ve had a 50-year old white woman tell the group that her biggest wish is to fly a kite with her now adult children. A middle-aged Latino man who has lost all contact with his children dreams of bringing them all back together for a family portrait. Perhaps the most agonizing for me was having connected rather strongly with an initially very reticent 25-yr old man from South Boston who just yearned to “be normal,” which to him meant getting married, having children, and eating dinner together every night. The day after he shared this, he had a near fatal heroin overdose in his room and after being hospitalized for three days, was sent back to jail.
As I’m handing out index cards and pencils I tell them that nothing is too small or too big. I use my two most extreme as examples, the first being “Eat a giant turkey leg,” (I always clarify by referring to those huge drumsticks you can get at county fairs and say that I want to walk around eating it like everyone else and not just bring it home and eat it at my dining room table) and the more far-fetched, “Own an apartment in NYC and a house in England.” I give them about 7 minutes to brainstorm without holding back and then I ask them to share, which they almost always do.
To be fair, to level the playing field, I always share mine with them (It’s become a bit weakened and faded by the constant folding and refolding.) I tell them that I keep it with me, as suggested by the way the advice from the book is written, so that I can refer to it and cross things off once I’ve accomplished them. I read it in the exact order as it appears above and until about three months ago, when a young man said that he always wanted to visit his grandmother’s grave, my list ended at “House in England.” Interesting where and how our personal light bulbs are lit. My mother has been dead for almost 28 years and I had never visited her grave.
Soon after adding it, I read my list to a group of men who had just begun the 4-week workshop. I blew through it pretty quickly and a young man said, “Whoa. Wait a minute. How long ago did your mother die?” When I told him he asked, “What are you afraid of?” Every week these people astound me for moments just like this. The rest of the group joined the questioning and urged me to do it. I don’t think they trusted my eagerness to do it probably picking up on the hesitancy in my promise to do so. So, when I made a concrete plan to go to Long Island where she happens to be buried, I promised them that I would go. This past Thursday night at my last group before I left, one of the guys asked how I was feeling and if I was ready. He then made me pinkie-swear that I wouldn’t back out. It was that mutual tugging of our little fingers, that bond that I know as a parent you NEVER break, that guaranteed that I would make it.
I have indeed been afraid and I have been lazy. Afraid of finding an overgrown jumble of thorns and tumbleweed around her grave and afraid of finding an empty headstone. (In the Jewish tradition when someone visits a grave, we leave a rock on the headstone to signify that someone has been there.) I have been to Long Island, less than 15 miles from the cemetery endless amounts of times since she’s died and I’ve always come up with excuses not to go. Shame on me.
My brother and uncle explained what to do once I got to the cemetery–to check in at the front office, tell them who I was there to “visit” and they would give me a map of where to find my mother. During the drive there, my husband at the wheel and my 12-year old daughter in the back, I found myself looking as the miles ticked down on the GPS, my heart racing as we got closer. I pictured myself falling to me knees, crumbling in a mass of sobs and snot, and, on the flip side, not having any reaction at all. I asked my husband and daughter if it would be okay for them to stay in the car while I found her grave and that I would wave them over when I was finished reacting in whatever way I did.
I got out of the car and scanned the headstones, knowing hers would be pretty close to where we were. I slowed down when I spotted her last name, my last name. The first thing I noticed was a weird little sketch under her name (again, I think it’s Jewish tradition to just have the last name on the headstone and the full name on the footstone in front) which looked like an abstract cup of coffee with steam coming off of it. I actually laughed a little because besides in the morning, my mother had a cup of coffee every day at 3:00. I’m sure whoever chose this design didn’t pick up on this.
Seeing her full name, her dates of birth and death, and then her life roles listed, “Mother, Daughter, Sister, Grandmother,” on the footstone did it to me. I bent down to wipe off the puddle of water that had formed from the rain and stared at those words and those dates. I cried quickly, neatly and quietly before calling over my husband and daughter. My husband came up behind me and put his arms around me, asking if I was okay. I was okay. I don’t think I felt any particular sense of closure (I wasn’t really looking for that) but I had made a promise, to myself and a handful of people who have become a strangely wonderful and influential part of my life. I can’t wait to see them this week to tell them that I did it, to hear their cheers and receive their high-fives.
Next up is that pesky 5K. After I do that, I will be rewarding myself with the biggest turkey leg I can find.