The Long Haul

I see this woman occasionally while I wait for the prison guards to wand me down. I visit a man named Tad two to three times a month in a maximum-security prison. It’s every bit as intimidating as you can imagine—walking through the various check points, x-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs until I can see him.

When I started the program, I said I’d stick with the visits until he gets out. He’s got about three years left. It was a pretty big commitment when I signed on, but a deal’s a deal and I will stick it out.

There are others visiting prisoners. many are regulars, and you develop a passing relationship with them. That’s when I got a new perspective on commitment. That’s when I heard about what I call the Long Haul.

The lady in the waiting room either crochets or reads. She is somewhere in her 70s, with a kind face that looks out of place in a cinder block room covered with various warning posters.

I usually have to wait about 30 minutes or so, while the grinding machinery of rehabilitation locates Tad, informs him of a visitor and transports him to the ultra-secure visiting area.

I find out that this lady is not a visitor. She rides along with her husband, about a 45-minute drive each way. She goes along for the company and because many times they will do some shopping in town before heading back to the farm.

A story is better with details but I’m afraid I don’t have many. Some guy, a farmer, got in a heated argument with his neighbor and killed him. The result was life in prison with no parole. The man went in when he was in his 20s and will go out on a gurney. The nice lady’s husband somehow agreed to start visiting him 43 years ago. I myself have seen this husband many times, but have never met him. Prison rules are very strict. I am there to talk to Tad only and even a wave or nod to anyone else, prisoner or visitor, is forbidden. I piece this story together from rare happenstance visits with the lady in the waiting area.

I’m not sure how the husband got involved. She tells me that for about a year, the prisoner did not even say a word. He just sat there staring defiantly off into space while the husband asked questions, made conversation, talked about the weather—all of it ignored.

“But now he talks all the time. He and my husband visit for an hour or more.” I have seen it myself from a distance. Tad and I at one small table, the murderer and the husband at another. The husband looks to be in his 70s too, the prisoner maybe a bit younger. They could be farmers at a café talking about crops and corn prices. Forty-some odd years ago the man and his wife and the murderer were all young; now they are older. Old enough to make me wonder what will happen.

What will happen if the prisoner dies? I bet the farmer will be sad—a quiet grief from a friendship built over time.

And if one of the couple dies? I know how hard it is for widows and widowers to have a sympathetic ear. The world marches on and no one seems to have the heart or time to sit and talk a survivor through grief.

But the prisoner does. I bet if that kind lady dies, the husband will continue to visit, talk about crops and sports and regrets and sorrows and loss. The thought surprised me. The man I always thought was saddled with what I called The Long Haul has a gift that I did not appreciate.

I told my wife Libby about it and said, “It’s funny how God answers commitment with gifts.”

She smiled and said, “Not really. That’s what He does.”