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On Mercy

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Reconciling a death sentence, from a pediatric cancer ward to death row.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/mercy_TOP.jpg
Illustration for "God’s Providence," from the 1705 English edition of Orbis Sensualium Pictus. Image via The Public Domain Review.

“Nothing can make injustice just but mercy.”
—Robert Frost, A Masque of Mercy

The sight of the children rattles me every time. They sit around a tiny table in a too-small classroom, the walls stacked high with textbooks and technologies they will never use. The frailest ones wear hospital blankets draped over their shoulders. IV trolleys trail and beep behind them. Chest catheters peek out from under their clothes. One of the older girls wears a loose hijab. Her eyes are dark and bruised. Her skin is faintly gray. She lives in this hospital, in a private room down the hall. The healthy-looking children tend to live in nearby apartments, and attend this hospital-school because they are just beginning their treatments and must be hooked to an IV trolley too often to attend a traditional school in the district. They are bright-eyed and rosy-cheeked, dressed in the fresh first-day clothes any healthy child might choose for herself. One girl wears platform sandals and a bright neon wig.

My teaching partner, a ten-year veteran of this placement, spreads supplies on the table—construction paper and markers—and together we all begin to draw, and to chat, to tell jokes and ask silly questions. Soon the children leave their seats and crowd together. They write or scribble or dictate to one another or to us. Torn paper and marker caps are strewn on the table, the chairs, and the floor. The girl in the neon wig asks to sit on my lap and doesn’t wait for me to answer before climbing aboard. I’m uncomfortable with this. I dislike being touched by anyone, most of all strangers, and have not forgotten the prohibition against physical contact with children who are not my own. But the child on my lap leans over the table. Her right hand holds down the paper while she scribbles furiously with her left. I place my hand on her back. A tumor bulges on her shoulder underneath her shirt. Within the year, the cancer in this tumor will spread: into her bones, her blood, her lungs and head. In the end, she’ll be in so much pain that whatever kills her is a mercy.

*

“To have great pain is to have certainty,” philosopher Elaine Scarry writes. “To hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.” Scarry must mean a different kind of pain from the one I witness in the pediatric cancer ward. Here pain is sometimes experienced as fear, or bewilderment, or the ghost of future grief, depending on whether the pain is your own or that of a child who sits on your lap, only briefly; who enters your life, only briefly. What makes pain subject to doubt, Scarry suggests, is the difficulty of expressing it: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.” It is telling, I think, that the word “pain” finds its root in the Latin poena, or “punishment, penalty, retribution.” To bestow pain on another is cruelty. To relieve it is mercy. Even those sentenced to death by execution have a constitutional right to an instantaneous and painless death, though their constitutional rights extend to little else.

“The act of verbally expressing pain,” Scarry continues, “is a necessary prelude to the collective task of diminishing pain.” I have no illusions that teaching dying children to write poetry will cure them, but that’s not to say the task isn’t, in so many small ways, profoundly healing.

*

I meet my teaching partner at the coffee shop to ride together in the elevator to the seventh floor. As she opens the door to the classroom, she tells me that one of her students has died. She has heard just this morning. She turns and walks into the classroom, leaving this news with me in the hall. The boy was never my student; he was too ill to write with us in class long before I arrived.

With the young writers at the hospital, we cut or tear paper into tiny little squares and look up synonyms for all the colors: azure, cobalt, sapphire, olive, emerald, virescent. We arrange the scraps on sheets of white paper. Some collages are made entirely of variations on a single color—arranging them is a tranquil, meditative act—and others burst and explode with patterns that do not cohere. We hang them on the walls with strips of tape.

I’ve never been good at compassion, which might be one reason why I’m here.

Back in the car, I ask my teaching partner about the student who has died. She tells me about the kind of boy he was by recalling the tiny details of his manner with the other children, a metaphor in a poem he wrote one day during the many years she knew him. There is a pause during which I can think of nothing useful to say. We’re sitting at the stoplight waiting for the light-rail to load its passengers.

I’ve never been good at compassion, which might be one reason why I’m here. I teach writing in a pediatric cancer ward because I get paid to do it and because compassion challenges me in ways I don’t always rise to meet. When my friend’s brother fell ill from brain cancer, years ago, I fell out of touch with her. I never knew what to say when she described his deteriorating health, or the conversations they had while she sat at his bedside, or her decision to move back in to her mother’s house. Her pain was not my pain, and I wasn’t eager to take it on. I didn’t mean to be cruel. Probably I told myself that my silence was a form of self-preservation. I was, after all, suffering from pain of my own. When I heard, years later, that my friend’s brother had died, I thought often of writing or calling but didn’t. We haven’t spoken since.

When the light changes I ask my teaching partner, How do you do it? What do you do with the grief? She takes a long time to answer. She takes a breath. Some lives, she says, are very long. Some are very short. And when a person knows they’re going to die and chooses to spend any moment of the remaining time with you, you take it as a gift. Life is a gift.

We ride back to the coffee shop in silence: past men blowing leaves into the street, past people in their cars talking on their hands-free cell phones, past an old woman clutching her grocery trolley while waiting for the bus. I gather my things, say, See you next week, and I reach for the door. Actually, she says, you won’t. She says she meant to tell me earlier, but then she got the news. It’s been ten years of this for her, teaching writing to children who will die. She needs time. She needs space. She needs a break. I hug her once, hard. It’s the only thing I have to give.

*                      *                     *

We tend to associate mercy with alleviating pain and suffering, but also with reducing punishments, and relieving our guilt. During the year I teach writing in the pediatric cancer ward, thirteen men are executed in Texas, the state where I live, one of whom is Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of James Byrd, Jr. On the night of June 7, 1998, Brewer and John William King—both self-identified white supremacists—rode as passengers in a truck driven by Shawn Berry. Sometime after midnight, the three white men encountered Byrd walking home from a party. In the morning, a mutilated human torso was found in the road in front of a historic African-American cemetery.

Police followed a gruesome trail back to the scene of a struggle, where they found Byrd’s wallet, keys, and dentures, as well as a cigarette lighter engraved with the words “Possum” and “KKK,” a wrench engraved with the name “Berry,” empty beer bottles, a pack of cigarettes, and three cigarette butts. That evening, police stopped Berry in his 1982 Ford pickup for a traffic violation. Behind the seat, police discovered a set of tools matching the wrench discovered at the fight scene. At his apartment, which he shared with King and Brewer, they discovered blood-stained clothing and piles of white supremacist propaganda. DNA tests on the three cigarette butts matched Brewer, Berry, and King.

During Brewer’s sentencing, a prosecuting attorney read from one of Brewer’s letters to another jailhouse inmate, introduced as evidence into the proceedings: “Well, I did it. And no longer am I a virgin. It was a rush, and I’m still licking my lips for more.” The prosecution hinges on this: that this was to be the first of many murders he would commit as part of his initiation into a white-supremacist gang affiliated with the KKK offshoot Confederate Knights of America, which he joined in the Beto I Prison Unit in Texas. There he met William King, who was serving an eight-year sentence for a violation of his probation for a burglary he had committed at age seventeen. Over his prison term, King covered his body with racist tattoos, and vowed to kidnap and kill a black man when he got free as part of a “blood tie.” Prosecutors said Brewer murdered James Byrd, Jr., to attract attention and recruits to a racist group he planned to start in Jasper. They argued that people like Brewer, who can kill with no remorse, are the reason for the death penalty.

By all accounts, even in the final moments before the execution, Brewer showed no remorse for his part in the murder of James Byrd, Jr.: “As far as any regrets, no. I have no regrets,” he said during an interview earlier that week. “No, I would do it all over again, to tell you the truth.”

*

In his remorselessness, Brewer is unlike other prisoners on death row, many of whom spend their last breaths expressing sorrow and regret. They affirm their love for their mothers and children; they beg for mercy—not for a stay of execution, mind you, but for forgiveness; not from God, but from the families of their victims.

“I hope you find comfort in my execution,” says Jermarr Arnold, executed by lethal injection in Texas in 2002 for the 1983 murder of a jewelry store clerk.

“I pray that you find closure and strength,” says Timothy Titsworth at his 2006 execution in Texas.

“I just ask that my death bring you peace and solace. If my death brings you that, then I will gladly give it,” says Jeffery Tucker to the widow of his 1988 murder victim. He recites the Lord’s Prayer as the chemicals begin entering his blood stream. He and the victim’s son together say, “Amen.”

Consider, by way of contrast, the last words of Troy Davis, executed in Georgia, and at the same time, on the same day, as James Russell Brewer: “I am innocent,” Davis proclaims. Sentenced to death for the 1989 murder of white police officer Mark MacPhail, Davis never ceases proclaiming his innocence, and the justice system never ceases pronouncing his guilt: four times the governor signs Davis’s death warrant, and four times Davis’s lawyers appeal for clemency. Despite serious doubts about Davis’s guilt, about the rigor of the trial, about the racial biases of the trial judge and jury, and the racist sentencing practices of the state of Georgia; despite recantations by seven of the nine original witnesses; despite no physical evidence linking Davis to the shooting; despite more than 1 million signatures on petitions asking for clemency; despite the protests of former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, fifty-one members of Congress, Amnesty International, the NAACP, and numerous world leaders, the Supreme Court reviews but fails to act on an appeal to stay Davis’s sentence, and allows the execution to proceed.

“I ask my family and friends that you all continue to pray, that you all continue to forgive. Continue to fight this fight,” Davis says, as he is strapped to the gurney, looking straight into the faces of the witnesses. “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on all of your souls.”

*                      *                     *

It is winter when I meet my new teaching partner at the Starbucks counter near the hospital’s entrance and we ride together in the elevator to the classroom on the seventh floor. Only a few of the youngest writers are here today and the classroom teacher lets us know that one of our writers, the teenage girl who sometimes wears a hijab, has been too sick to come to class this week. She hopes someone will come to visit her. As a group, we decide to make snowflakes for her room. It is winter, after all. The writers—one from west Texas, another from the United Arab Emirates, another from Ecuador—have never seen snow, and have never made snowflakes out of paper. It’s hard to work the scissors, which are made to be safe for use by healthy children, not for children who are weak from chemo. We watch YouTube videos of snow falling in a blizzard, of icicles forming on eaves, of a dog hopping joyfully through drifts. We choose the best snowflakes for the sick teenager’s room. We write poems in which we are all snowflakes on a harrowing adventure from the clouds to the ground below. We tromp toward her private room, and pile in around her bed. She leans back on her pillow, smiling, too weak to sit up or cover her head. While my teaching partner and I tape the snowflakes to the windows, the writers take turns reading their poems to the girl, who listens with her eyes closed, grimacing in pain. A nurse comes in to fiddle with her IV trolley, which promises relief but does not deliver it. The children are hungry for their lunch, so we climb off the bed and head quietly toward the door. Stay, she calls after us. My teaching partner leads the children back to the classroom to meet their parents; I stay to read one more poem, Miguel de Unamuno’s “The Snowfall Is So Silent.” “The flakes are skyflowers,” I say:

pale lilies from the clouds,
that wither on earth.
They come down blossoming
but then so quickly
they are gone…

Her eyes loll in their sockets as I read, the morphine at last reaching its mark. Her mouth goes slack. The teenage girl becomes a child, like any other child. She sighs, snores, and falls asleep.

This notion of mercy—the one of compassionate clemency, of divine forgiveness—requires that we believe people deserve to be punished.

People tend to associate mercy with forgiveness—with compassion offered by those in a position to instead impose cruelty. But I associate mercy with a tiny classroom on the second floor of the First Baptist Church in my hometown, with shoes I notice are scuffed, tights I notice are torn, and a dress I notice is smudged as I sit with other scuff-shoed children on the floor while one of the deacons’ wives holds a picture book open on her lap. She is part of one long memory in which we learn about the Flood because it is March and raining, or about the crucifixion because it is Easter, or the trials of Job because it is summer and because there is a terrible drought. We learn about the Garden of Eden when it is fall and our fathers, who art in the fields, are harvesting the crops. Hallowed be thy name. When we, who have until now sat on the floor together, are separated—boys in one room, girls in another—the stories become warnings. Lot’s wife, who disobeyed the angels, is turned into a pillar of salt. Eve disobeys a direct order from God and every woman everywhere for all eternity is punished for it. Pain is what humanity inherits from her curiosity. It is only through God’s mercy that any of us is granted a reprieve.

This notion of mercy—the one of compassionate clemency, of divine forgiveness—requires that we believe people deserve to be punished. The deacons’ wives, with their loose navy dresses, taught me and all the other girls that we deserved whatever pain was unique to our experience as punishment for the sins we’d committed, or those we hadn’t committed yet but might commit later, or any sins committed by others on our behalf. It didn’t really matter how pious a life we led because we could expect pain, that great equalizer, to arrive at any moment to punish us for the sin of being born.

*                      *                     *

“Tonight the state of Georgia legally lynched an innocent man,” one of Troy Davis’s defense attorneys tells the media. Hundreds of protestors have gathered outside the prison, quieted by the pronouncement of Davis’s death, chanting and singing as they face an army of sheriff’s deputies, state police, and baton-wielding prison guards in full riot gear: We shall overcome someday. Only members of the slain officer’s family, resolute in their certainty of Davis’s guilt, express relief about his death, having consistently fought his efforts for clemency. They leave the chamber with smiles on their faces. Anneliese MacPhail, mother of the victim, tells an interviewer outside her home that, yes, Davis’s execution has brought her relief: “Twenty-two years we’ve been going through this, and he is gone now.” To her, Davis’s execution is a victory.

But six months later, MacPhail admits that some of her hatred for Davis might have been fueled by resentment that his story—the story of racial injustice in the justice system—became the prevailing narrative of the case: “It was always poor Troy Davis,” MacPhail says. “There was never anything about Mark, his wife, and the babies he left behind.” Ultimately, Davis’s execution doesn’t fill the hole left by her son’s murder, and now MacPhail is blamed for the execution of an innocent man. She receives hate mail from Davis’s supporters, who also continue to call her house. “I didn’t sentence him to die,” MacPhail says. “He was found guilty and that was the state—not me.”

*

“The contention that violence is inevitable is one of the great unexamined assumptions of society,” writes Bible scholar Walter Wink, who argues that every myth of creation requires a story of destruction, and this cosmology—in which violence is redemptive—legitimates systems of domination and oppression. Consider the words of Justice Potter Stewart, writing the majority opinion in Gregg v. Georgia, the 1976 Supreme Court case that re-legalized the death penalty: “Capital punishment is an expression of society’s moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct. This function may be unappealing to many, but it is essential in an ordered society.” Gary Gilmore was the first death row inmate to be executed after this decision—in Utah, by firing squad. Three years later John Spenkelink would be executed in Florida, by electrocution. He often signed his letters, “Capital punishment means those without capital get the punishment.”

Spenkelink’s words point to a disturbing truth about the administration of capital punishment in the United States. Time and again, studies show that an overwhelming majority of defendants charged with capital crimes cannot afford their own attorneys to represent them. As a result, they are much more likely to be represented by public defenders, and to be convicted of the crimes with which they are charged. Clear evidence shows that the harshest sentences are often reserved for the poor and for people of color, who are less likely to be offered probation, more likely to be sentenced to prison, more likely to be sentenced to longer prison terms, and more likely to serve a greater portion of their original sentence. In murder cases, they are more likely to be sentenced to death.

In 1987 Warren McCleskey, an African-American convicted of murdering a white police officer in Georgia, appealed his death sentence in the Supreme Court, arguing that his sentence should be nullified because his race and the race of his victim had played an unconstitutionally significant role. He based these claims on what has become known as the “Baldus study”—a comparative review of over 2,000 murder cases in Georgia—which concluded that the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim. Despite this evidence of racial bias in the administration of justice, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for McClesky, arguing that “apparent disparities in sentencing are an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” Before McCleskey was executed by electrocution he told the room of witnesses: “I pray that one day this country, supposedly a civilized society, will abolish barbaric acts such as the death penalty.”

Soon after, states across the nation would abandon electrocution in favor of lethal injection as the preferred method for maintaining an “ordered society,” as it was at that time considered the most humane of all the variously gruesome ways we execute our condemned, and if not humane at least the most painless. Painless because it relies on a combination of three drugs: an anesthetic that sends the prisoner into a deep coma; a paralytic, which prevents the prisoner from involuntary movement; and lastly, a dose of potassium chloride sufficient enough to stop the prisoner’s heart.

This manner of dying—a heart attack in one’s sleep—is what the historian Suetonius might call a “good death,” describing how the emperor Augustus died quickly and without suffering—in the Greek, “euthanasia,” from eu, “good,” and thanatos, “death.” The word first appears, in this “good death” sense, in the writings of Francis Bacon, who described medically induced death as “a kindly and pleasant sleep.” Bacon argued that a doctor’s role was “not only to restore health, but to mitigate pain and dolours; and not only when such mitigation may conduce to recovery, but when it may serve to make a fair and easy passage.”

He meant pain in the physical sense: chronic pain, acute pain, physical pain—pain that “destroys language,” but for which we do, in fact, have words. We have hundreds of pain words—words like burning, searing, penetrating, radiating, punishing, suffocating—words that doctors use to classify and alleviate pain, and, whenever possible, offer mercy.

*

“I’m ready to be released. Release me,” says Kenneth Allen McDuff at his execution in Texas in 1998.

“I feel my whole body burning,” says Michael Lee Wilson, one of the first death row inmates to be executed by lethal injection after the drug company Hospira refused to continue manufacturing sodium thiopental, a barbiturate and anesthetic, because it was being used for lethal injections. Prisons, so desperate to execute their condemned, have turned to other anesthetics: to pentobarbital, and then, after European manufacturers refused to sell pentobarbital to the US for executions, to midazolam; to drugs manufactured under lax regulations, to drugs imported from overseas, to drugs bought with petty cash by prison officials and smuggled into the country illegally.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

“Man,” says Clayton Lockett in 2014, in Oklahoma, as he writhes in agony on the gurney. The IV has been placed incorrectly; his vein has ruptured; the midazolam has entered his tissue rather than his bloodstream; he is pronounced unconscious; he is injected with vecuronium bromide to paralyze his body and potassium chloride to stop his heart; and yet he wakes up, raises his head, and tries to rise from the gurney. A pool of fluid bulges under his skin. He twitches and convulses and tries to speak, but cannot. He dies of cardiac arrest ten minutes after the warden halts the execution.

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted,” says Larry Donnell Davis, executed in Texas in 2008. He is quoting from the Beatitudes, the eight blessings in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. The sermon, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, continues:

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

*                      *                     *

Today I learn that the girl who wears a bright neon wig has had surgery to remove the tumor from her back. When I knock on the door to her room, the nurses are trying to move her in the bed and she cries out in pain. No words: only a single, involuntary wail. She is skeletal, bald, sobbing while they lift her on a white sheet and move her only slightly. I don’t understand why they are moving her at all. I ask if I should come back later. No no no, her father says. Please don’t go. I say, I’ll just go get a book and come right back. When I return, minutes later, the girl is a little more comfortable. She realizes I’m in the room this time and smiles. She is so happy to see me. I ask if she’d like me to read her a book. Let’s read it together, she says. As we’re reading, her older brother and younger sister come into the room and climb onto the bed with us. I’m hamming it up as best I can. It’s a silly book, and the kids laugh, even the very sick girl. We write the most ridiculous story we can think of, in which we fill the top floor of the hospital with water in order to give everyone on the lower floors a shower. An elephant comes into the room and he tries to talk to us but elephants don’t speak English and it’s all very frustrating, especially for the elephant, who has something important to say. The children’s mother comes into the room with their grandmother and grandfather. When they ask who I am, the mother calls me a tutor but the error couldn’t matter less.

*

We hear reports of the children’s health mostly through rumor. The classroom teacher tells us that the teenage girl who sometimes wears a hijab has checked out of the hospital, which seems like good news. But the following week I see her being wheeled through the hospital by her mother and another woman. The girl slouches in the wheelchair, her body folded over onto itself, her eyes looking at nothing in particular. She doesn’t recognize me. She doesn’t even see me. And then we hear that she has been admitted to the ICU. And then, that she has stopped eating. Nauseated by the chemo, the teachers say. She is thirteen or fourteen years old. They say, It is only a matter of time.

When the girl in the neon wig comes back to class, she does not feel like writing the story everyone else is writing. She doesn’t feel well, and swivels in her chair with her head on the table while the rest of us are writing. Suddenly she bolts upright—an idea! She retrieves a piece of white paper from the pile at the center. She writes: “Thank you, Mom, for taking care of me, for cooking good food for me, for hugging and kissing me. Thank you for your love.” It’s the last line that sends me to the window to collect myself, where I remember this child is not my child. Her mother’s grief is not my grief.

My teaching partner and I don’t ask the children to write about their pain. Unlike the doctors and nurses who visit them every weekday to check their catheters, to poke and prod them with frightening-looking instruments, or to inject them with toxic chemicals that make them suffer in order to make them well, we don’t treat what ails their bodies. Asking children to write about cancer and pain does nothing to alleviate them, so instead we write about islands of our own invention, the imaginary landscapes of our brains, or the future economies of child rocket transportation. We pull board games from the shelves and throw out the rules. We become way too excited and make far too much noise. Official-looking adults in scrubs keep opening the door to investigate our commotion. We clap and cheer. In our games, everyone wins.

At lunchtime, the mothers and fathers come to pick up their children, they speak to us with tears in their eyes. They thank us very sincerely for the poems and stories: artifacts of a life that has not yet extinguished. I do not want their teary thank-yous. The children are right here, smiling and waving good-bye.

*                      *                     *

I think there are different kinds of mercy: big Mercy and little mercy. Big Mercy is so big because it is made out of suffering and ultimatums, out of saviors and omnipotence, and out of stories that have only one way of ending, which are brutal and where almost nobody wins. It’s big Mercy that annihilates the many to redeem the few: a whole world purified by fire, rinsed by flood, and made perfect and shiny and new. Big Mercy decides who lives and dies and how. It cleaves humanity in two: the few chosen to be powerful, the many they render powerless. Big Mercy teaches us the first lesson of righteousness: that other people are not as human as we are. No one deserves to receive big Mercy and no one deserves to offer it either.

But maybe there’s another kind of mercy—mercy so little that it costs almost nothing. So little most of us never notice it. The kind that arrives as a child sitting briefly on your lap, as a poem, a letter, a loving hand on your hand, a piece of paper cut with tiny scissors, held by strips of tape to a wall or window. Little mercy teaches a lesson, too: that everyone is human, just as we are. There’s no one—no one—who doesn’t deserve that kind of mercy.

It’s mercy, a little one, that I want for the girl in the bright neon wig, who is now not expected to live, who checks out of this hospital and is moved to another hospital in a faraway state, where she will undergo an experimental treatment that requires her to be in quarantine for thirty days. I’m furious with her parents for choosing this, when the odds of saving her are so slim, though I know it’s unjust of me to judge them for making a choice I could not. This child is not my child. Every day her mother posts pictures of the girl on Facebook: without her wig, wearing only a hospital gown, lying in a hospital bed. In these pictures, which I visit often, she is completely alone, perfectly preserved behind a window, staying exactly the same: bald, pale, skeletal. Her younger brother has outgrown her. In one photo she’s pressing a hand to the glass of the quarantine room; outside, her younger sisters stand together—their blond ponytails, their t-shirts and leggings and mismatched socks, their hands on the glass—pressing back.

*                      *                     *

On James Russell Brewer’s last day, he speaks to his friends and family by phone in a booth no bigger than a water heater closet, separated from the people he loves by a pane of glass, by armed guards, by a sentence that is coming to an end. For his last meal he has asked for two chicken-fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra with a side of ketchup, a pound of Texas barbecue (meat unspecified), three fajitas, a Pizza Hut Meat Lover’s pizza, a pint of Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts. He eats none of it, claiming he has lost his appetite.

Around 6 p.m., Brewer is taken to the execution chamber: a tiny room with turquoise walls, made tinier by its emptiness. The only thing inside the room is the gurney, to which he is quickly strapped by thick leather belts buckled across his arms, legs, and torso. Two windows look into the chamber from opposite sides of the room: one for the family of James Byrd, Jr., and the other for his own family, where his father, mother, and brother, and two unnamed friends look on. He offers a little smile to them.

After the execution, one of James Byrd’s sisters addresses the media, saying: “It didn’t bring me any sense of peace or relief.” Another sister stands behind her, nodding, looking down. “It’s just a matter of saying that this one chapter in the book was now closed, and we can move on.” Noticeably absent from the crowd gathered outside the prison is the victim’s only son, Ross Byrd, who opposes the execution, telling interviewers that Brewer’s death is simply another expression of the hate shown toward his father on that June night in 1998: “Like Gandhi said, an eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind.” He wishes the state would have shown his father’s killer mercy.

*                      *                     *

The girl who no longer wears a neon wig has one last wish: to go to Disneyland. The experimental treatments have failed; the cancer has spread: to her bones, her blood, her head. In the photographs of her final days, she looks peaceful: a wide smile spreading across the pale mask of her face as Disney princesses kneel and smile beside her. She reclines in a three-wheel stroller, her head propped up on pillows, her hands resting on blankets tucked around her lap. Her family crowds around her: always a hand placed on her arm, her leg, her cheek. I don’t know anything about her final moments—whether there was a gasp, or a sigh, or the last gift of an injection—only that they come during the third night. Her mother writes: “our girl has found peace.”

“Life becomes death,” writes Paul Auster in The Invention of Solitude, “and it is as if this death has owned this life all along.”

In the comfort of my own home, I cook dinner for my healthy children. I sing to them as they drift off to sleep. I plan lessons to teach in the pediatric cancer ward: little poems and drawings for the families to keep after their children are gone.

Wounds change shape, change forms. Pain appears as a gash, then a cut, then a scab, then a scar.

“Poetry has its uses for despair,” writes the poet Christian Wiman of his own battle with cancer. “It can carve a shape in which a pain can seem to be; it can give one’s loss a form and dimension so that it might be loss and not simply a hopeless haunting.”

My husband says time heals all wounds. I nod my head. But deep down I know this isn’t really true. The wounds change shape, change forms. Pain appears as a gash, then a cut, then a scab, then a scar—all near-synonyms extending on and on along the signifying chain.

*

On the last day of school, only one child comes. She is nervous and tall—in that angular way of all adolescent girls—and keeps touching the thin cloud of her hair. My teaching partner has brought cookies and lemonade and has printed the booklets we’ve made, plenty for every writer we’ve worked with at the hospital, every teacher in the classroom, and lots and lots of extras. So many children are absent today—they are too ill, or too tired, or they have gone home to spend their remaining days in the company of those they love. We take turns reading aloud. I read a poem written by the girl who used to wear a neon wig: “I remember the shape of the mountains,” she begins:

The color, which was mostly green
(like Christmas trees) and gray
(like pencil lead). And the water, so
beautiful, even though it was too cold
for swimming. My whole family was there.
They would never leave me.

The tall girl reads her own page in the booklet, though reading her own writing makes her even more nervous. Her mother comes to pick her up: early, as usual. We all shake hands; I tell the girl to take care of herself, to take an extra cookie or two or, okay, three. My partner and I turn off the lights and ride the elevator to the bottom floor, then walk out of the hospital into the street. We won’t be back next year. The sun beats down on us, arriving as a little mercy.

G

Lacy M. Johnson is a Houston-based artist, curator, professor, activist, and is author of The Other Side: A Memoir (Tin House, 2014), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. She was recently named a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She is also author of Trespasses: A Memoir (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and is co-creator of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She worked as a cashier at WalMart, sold steaks door to door, and puppeteered with a traveling children’s museum before earning a PhD from the University of Houston’s creative writing program. She teaches interdisciplinary art at the University of Houston.

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2 comments for On Mercy

  1. Comment by Sue on October 8, 2015 at 8:24 am

    So moving. Thank you.

  2. Comment by Kathryn on October 12, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    i wish everyone could read this essay. i think it is one of the most beautiful and true essays i’ve ever read.
    thank you.

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