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He was my beloved husband and our friend, always with us in spirit and love. Before his passing, he asked me to request donations be made in his memory to Gina’s Team, www.ginasteam.org or PO Box 36, Scottsdale, AZ 85252.
He considered our work and all the people involved in it to be a true blessing. My blessing was being married to this exceptional man. We had an extraordinary life together. For better and for worse, it was always a gift and I live in gratitude.

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In the last month, many people have died or, as in the case of the Malaysian airline, disappeared without a trace. Millions are suffering, aching, grieving or in pain. Right now  I’m one of those people.

On March 13, the VA found a tumor on my beloved husband David’s brain. The same day they sent him immediately to Barrows in Phoenix, one of the best in the world, where he had brain surgery on March 17. The news: malignant, stage 4 and metastasized to lungs and pancreas or from his lungs to his brain. They weren’t sure. Anyway, it’s spread and “grim” to quote the doctors.

On March 25 he came home and on March 27, the VA assigned him to Hospice of the Valley, our choice. Their initial visit yesterday started the process. There are different opinions of “days, weeks, months” depending on the doctor. Of course I heard the same 12 years ago. when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Only God knows and we live in hope, that most priceless of emotions.

David is in good and peaceful spirits.  He said when he came in the door of our home, he was overcome with joy and peace and it shows in his quiet strength.

He’s always had that quiet strength while I feel as though I’ve been thrown headfirst off several cliffs simultaneously. There are not enough words to tell all of you who have rallied how grateful I am, beginning with our brother and sisters in orange who have been there every step of this unbelievably unexpected journey to help hold me up when my knees felt like buckling. I’m grateful for the strength God gave me. I’m not a marathoner but I do know how to put one foot in front of the other and fight for those I love, like David and those behind bars.

I’m so grateful we are together. Although I continue to live in gratitude,  I’m just a bit wobbly right now. Gina’s Team’s incredible group of volunteers has circled the wagons and rallied to bring food and hugs in equal measure.  David says he isn’t ready to “leave” yet and I’m certainly not. More than anyone on the planet, David KNOWS ME. We have been on an incredible journey for 27 years. We have shared prison and the passion of Gina’s Team and the loss of everything but each other. There is great comfort in not having to explain anything to the person who KNOWS you. Despite my thoughtlessness, my over-the-top passion and determination, all my weaknesses and insecurities too numerous to mention, David loves me. I consider THAT a great gift and miracle.

His biggest, strongest wish is for us to continue our focus and work with Gina’s Team. As a matter of fact, he says it’s the most important thing. Something happened to him in the hospital that confirmed that with great clarity. I’ll write about that later.

We do have a special request to everyone all over the planet. The common question to both of us and to everyone else going through something like this is “How are you doing?” There just isn’t an answer to this. You ask because you care, but there is no answer. Perhaps you could skip the question and say, “I just called to say I love you.” Hey, isn’t that a song?  Laughter, music, and prayers, surely the BEST medicine. We are most most grateful  to ALL of you and for laughter and music and prayers.

We are also grateful if you add to those prayers, all those others in pain and grief, behind bars or in hospitals or homeless under a bush. No one’s pain is unique. When we remember that, it’s truly a blessing.

And while I’m at it, here’s another request. Instead of a card for David, would you consider making a donation to Gina’s Team? It’s easy to go to www.ginasteam.org and push a button. If you donate the cost of a card, it will make a difference in the life of someone behind bars or free and struggling to change their life. Imagine, the cost of a card can make a difference. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Susie Smith is one in millions, a brain-damaged former prostitute, addict who has lived on the streets for years. She is sweet and simple and completely unskilled. Her background is convoluted and full of abuse. Her memory is clouded from beatings. She is one of the masses of women  and girls who  work in the sex trade and have been in and out of prison, always for low-level prostitution. She has no family, no job skills, no place to go and no hope for a future. She is one of the faceless millions that society does not want to think about. She exists in the underworld; under a bush, under a piece of cardboard, under an abusive man who could very easily kill her as use her for sex. 
 
Yesterday Susie was released from prison without parole or probation or a place to go. I picked her up  and fed her pancakes at iHop. He stomach wasn’t used to such food and she threw it up.  I managed to get an intake interview with Dignity House, a safe haven for former prostitutes. They denied her for being low functioning and hearing negative voices that tell her she is worthless and horrible. They think she needs more supervision than they can provide. We’ve been looking for a place for her and others like her for some time without success. There just aren’t enough beds, too many restrictions, and no budgets. After all, people should be able to pull themselves up by their own boot straps, right? 
 
Finally someone suggested we try the 72 hour emergency commitment offered by Recovery Innovations to see about her mental stability. We took her there and she was finally admitted for an evaluation. They were incredibly caring and we are hopeful she will get the help and resources she needs.  The entire process from prison to final admission took 10 hours and we were very lucky. 

 
If it weren’t for security issues, I would like to take her to the legislature, sit her on the floor of the house and ask them to find her boot straps so she can pull herself up by them. 
 
Where is the place for the Susie Smiths of the world? Where is the religious community to help these faceless, helpless and forgotten women and girls, the sweet, simple, damaged, scarred, addicted ones that no one wants to look at or think about? They are Legion in our community, our country and our world. They need prayers but prayers aren’t enough. THEY NEED HELP. The question to ask yourself and our world: Are we our sister’s keeper?

25 Years

My husband David and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. I’d been married before (a lot) and no one said it would ever last. But I made a promise that no matter what, we would work things out. No more divorce. Little did we know what was in store and how much would have to be worked out, including a seven year prison separation.  So this anniversary really meant something. 

That seven years was very hard, very, very hard. The day we learned that we would  once again be free together is one we will never forget. As I was waiting to hear if David would be granted his parole, I wrote this and we agreed it was time to share it. With particular thanks to Carolyn, Dianne, Eleanore and Will, Renee, Katie and Brandon from the Justice Project who made that journey for us.

“The weather has changed. I’m sitting between 1600 and 1645 West Jefferson in a courtyard next to a rock garden made by inmates. The sign says “Inmate Break Area.” Appropriate since I’m an ex-inmate. I’ve seen the girls in orange at a distance and I’m hoping to speak to them, to hear how things are and to give them hope. 

The breeze wraps around me, feeling heavenly. It’s not a summer blast furnace breeze. It’s a real fall is in the air breeze. It’s only going to be 99º today. After months of 112 º, that is a cool front. 

Why am I here? It’s David’s parole board. Everyone we care about has made the early morning trek for us. Will and Eleanore, Diane and Carolyn are here, and now Renee has joined the group. I’m deeply moved. They are all so busy, yet they’ve come to speak for David. Add Katie Puzauska and Brandon Keim to the mix. They represent the Justice Project. Never has David had such support. Only he is not here. He is in Tucson and will be on the phone. They won’t be able to see his eyes or his heart. 

And I’m not there. I’m outside in the courtyard. They don’t want to see me. They don’t want to hear how I’m doing. They seek to separate us now. They link us with the crime and want to keep us apart in the interest of public safety. In their eyes, we could reoffend.  

Maybe in their eyes, but never in ours. The thought of losing my freedom terrifies me. Every tiny treat and glorious luxury is heavenly. The freedom to eat what I want, sleep in a real bed, see the world without fences are all huge blessings. 

While I sit here with the breeze in my hair and the sun on my face, I think of my husband. He, too, feels the breeze and the sun, but the barbed wire taints it in a subtle way that’s indescribable to someone who’s never lived inside. 

Today he will sit in his COIII’s office with a phone glued to his ear while he listens to the parole board as they slowly peel his skin away. They will do their best to create an atmosphere of negativity and failure. 

Recently I heard from an inmate at Perryville who’d just been to the board. She said she realized now why I always came back from the board devastated and it took me several days to get over the trauma of the appearance. She said if everything the parole board said was true, she was a monster and didn’t deserve to live. That is exactly how it was for me. No matter what good you’ve done; no matter how useful; it does not matter. There is great cruelty in that. It removes all hope and puts an enormous barrier in front of you. Only the super strong can find the energy to try to surmount it. The average person just doesn’t have the strength. 

Since I’ve been free, I’ve encountered amazing barriers. Honestly, it hurts. With tears flowing, I’ve wanted desperately to get in the fetal position. (I call it going fetal.) But I don’t.  I know it is a waste of time. I gather my strength, take a huge deep breath and put one foot in front of the other. Like all of life, it’s a choice but sometimes it takes all my strength to make it. There are places I can’t work or live. There is insurance I can’t get. Daily I’m surprised with new restrictions.  

It makes me wonder about those without that strength. I met so many at Perryville who’s had hope and strength beaten out of them. Their eyes were hollow and their hearts were crushed. They had such dreadful lives. I’ve listened to their stories and as the tears slid down their faces, mine would join theirs in shared grief. 

They’ve made some bad choices, but, you know, it’s hard to make good choices when someone is beating you senseless and telling you you’re a worthless piece of shit. When you’re ten years old or even younger, choice seems like a foreign word from another language and another world. 

I am so blessed. I have optimism in my DNA. I have an inner strength and hope and faith from God. When things are the darkest, the tiniest light comes from God. Sometimes it’s only a pin prick of a beam, but it’s enough to keep me going. 

Today is a day I will hang on to the light. I long for David’s release. I see us walking hand in hand through the park, cooking meals together, cleaning and gardening. I long to walk down the aisles of Fry’s together, shopping and planning our meals. Drudgery for some, luxury for us. 

The parole board will make a choice. They will release him or not. I am ever hopeful that my visions will come true sooner than later but if it doesn’t, I will not lose hope or faith. I may want to go fetal, but I won’t. I will never give up. 

I know who we are. I know what we’ve done and not done. I know what we will do and will not do. It’s all about choices and I know we will make the right ones. 

As I sit in this soft fall breeze, I think of David and I think of the women I’ve left behind. I write for me and I write for them. Make the right choices and never, never, never give up. It’s good advice for everyone…inside or out. 

PS. Just as I finished that last sentence, Dianne and Carolyn came running around the corner, arms in the air, beaming, screaming. “He made it. It was unanimous!!” As they threw their arms around me, my knees buckled and we sobbed together in joy. He made it. My husband is coming home.”

Wedding in Acapulco

Wedding in Acapulco

Phoenix, AZ

Children's message

Children’s message

The United Universalist Church in Surprise is a very warm and open congregation with a strong social conscious. They just spent the month of January focused on the prison issue including the cost and conditions of prison. After they read my book , The Slumber Party From Hell, they honored me by inviting me to speak recently. Besides the sermon, I gave the message to the children. Now that’s a real challenge. How to talk to children about prison?  Sesame Street has the answer.  http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration

You may not know one in twenty eight children has a parent in prison so I felt this message was important. This is what I said:

“Any one here like Sesame Street? Recently Sesame Street got a new character to go with Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Elmo. That’s pretty exciting for Sesame Street. 

And it’s a pretty interesting character. His name is Alex. He has an orange face,  green nose and  really fantastic blue hair. He also feels sad and lonely and he doesn’t like to talk about why. 

Alex on Sesame Street

Alex on Sesame Street

Why is Alex sad and lonely? He’s sad because the other muppets want to do something with their dads and he can’t. His Dad isn’t there. When his friends ask where he is, he said he doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to talk about it because his dad is in prison. 

Then one of the human friends says she understands because when she was little, her father was in prison too. That really surprised him. He was relieved to hear someone else had the same experience. It made him feel less strange and alone.

Prison can be pretty scary to children. Do you think you might know someone who has a parent in prison? I’m asking because 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is a lot. So it’s possible there are some kids in your class who may feel sad because they have a mom or dad in prison. That’s hard. It’s a huge challenge for a kid. 

When you have a challenge and feel sad, you might feel like you’re all alone and no one understands. That’s hard too.  

So what can you do? Can you do anything? Yes, you can. You can be sympathetic. It’s a pretty big word but I’m  sure you understand it. If you see someone feeling sad and lonely, you can be sympathetic. You can understand. You can be nice to them. Don’t tease them. Don’t be mean. Be nice. 

At Gina’s Team, we have an important message, so important we put it on a bracelet. 

Been there. Done that. Now how can I help?  Helping others is really an important message and that’s what Jesus was talking about in the reading today  (Matt 25: 34-40). I’m going to give each of you a bracelet to remind you that YOU can help. Not just about the prison thing but about anything. YOU can help by being kind to people who are sad and feel lonely.

I promise, it won’t only make them feel better; it will make you feel better too.”

Remember that startling statistic?  One in 28 children has a parent in prison. That is so huge that Sesame Street felt it was important to  add Alex to this characters. However, it’s still controversial so Alex is not on the actual show; he is on the website at the link I’ve provided above. On that site, there are games and stories for children,  for the parent who is free and for care-givers like grandparents. Perhaps you are one of those parents or children. If so, you aren’t on an easy journey.  I personally know many of the women who are serving time. They miss their children dreadfully. If you are amongst that group of children or care-givers, I urge you to visit the website where I hope you will find some support  there.

Two deaths

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 10.31.14 AMLast week two young men died, two kind, considerate, intelligent, attractive, talented,   generous young men, both under 40. One wanted to; one didn’t. One had pancreatic cancer. He was a Veteran who told me cancer was definitely more scary than bullets whizzing by his head. He wanted desperately to live and fought the cancer to the end.

The other was a healthy young man who had lost faith in the world. I think he was suffering from a chemical depression but he wouldn’t see the doctor. Instead, he found a rope and hanged himself.

As a cancer survivor, I value each second of life, no matter how challenging. I talked for long hours to the second young man about how much he had to give and how precious life is. He couldn’t seem hear me or any of his other friends. His heart and his faith were broken.

LIFE is…what? Mysterious, maddening, infuriating, sad AND joyous, loving, gloriously beautiful. I’ve been trying to process these two deaths, wrapping my head around the senselessness. It took me back to 2003 when Gina died. If you’ve read my book, you know I was the one who was supposed to die. I was humiliated and disgraced. I thought my life was over and I wanted it to be. I wanted to die. I was 57 and done. Instead Gina, beautiful, darling YOUNG Gina died. And I was so mad at God. It just didn’t make sense. And now, once again, these two deaths don’t make sense. But I’m not mad anymore. I’m just profoundly sad over the loss of these two friends.

As a member of the human race, YOU are ALIVE. Treasure each breath, every challenge, every joy. Find your passion and purpose and live it to the fullest. Life is a blessing and we are the blessed. I live in gratitude.

Screen Shot 2013-05-15 at 8.03.25 AMToday, Angelina Jolie made public her decision to have a double preventive mastectomy and some people have dared criticize her. Good grief. Only someone who has been faced with that decision can possibly know the emotion involved. We’re all attached to our breasts. It’s part of nature, isn’t it. But if you have to decide between life or breasts, what’s the choice? Let’s see: do I choose my breasts or do I choose LIFE? Breasts or LIFE? LIFE or Breasts?

Two years ago I, too, faced that decision.  I’d already had one mastectomy. My oncologist and I decided it would be a good idea to remove the other one and have reconstruction. Having cancer on one breast was hard enough, especially under very harsh conditions in jail and prison. They call it “poison, slash, burn.” I’ve been poisoned, slashed, poisoned again, and burned (chemo, mastectomy, more chemo, and radiation). It’s a very hard journey for anyone, even someone who has the best doctors and all the comforts money can buy. Just the idea of doing it again is frightening.  Personally, it was not a hard decision. Between LIFE or a breast, I choose LIFE. I’m sure Angelina Jolie felt the same. If you feel compelled to make a judgment, wait until it’s your turn to make that same choice. I pray you never have to face that.

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