This morning started like every other; my clock said 4:30am, time to get up. I swing my legs over the side of the bed and onto the hard, cold floor. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I trip on my way to the bathroom; like Dick Van Dyke and that damned ottoman. A toy, a shoe, the dog or something that belongs to him always seems to find its way to a spot under foot.
Sebastian stretches lazily and wags his greeting as I enter the kitchen. His big, joyless, dark brown eyes admonishing me for my tardiness. I open the back door and let him out for his morning break. His tail waging him, he runs to his spot, detouring momentarily to chase a bird out of the backyard.
For a large dog he moves very gracefully. Carrying his head high, strutting; his weight distributed evenly on huge paws; his well choreographed gate is a delight to watch.
Sebastian is one hundred twenty-five pounds of Rhodesian Ridgeback that likes to think he is still a puppy. That usually isn’t a problem until he tries to climb into your lap, his thick slobbering tongue, working full speed, cleaning your face like it was a pie pan with a little pie still in it. He turns to me and gives me a look that makes me laugh. I close the door, allowing him his privacy.
I like my coffee strong so I grind fresh beans every morning. A simple luxury, but one that I value. Today I can find no pleasure in it.
I have been to bed, but I wasn’t able to sleep. In spite of that I’m still wide awake. Not being able to sleep shouldn’t surprise me. After all it isn’t everyday that one has the opportunity to watch someone put to death. Yep, this morning I’ll be driving out to the state prison to witness an execution. After a fair and impartial trial by his peers, a man will die today in the electric chair.
The prisoner was convicted of armed robbery. In the commission of this crime he shot a store clerk in the leg. He admitted to the crime and to the accidental shooting of the clerk, (Something the clerk admitted under cross-examination. He had come around the corner as the gun went off.) and he was remorseful, but the Judge decided to end this crime spree, with a single decisive, pitiless edict. He sentenced this man to die. After only one mistake, (there were no prior arrests; no criminal record; he had never been in any trouble before) he was going to die in the electric chair.
The clerk will have a small scar on his leg and a gun was involved, but no one died. Why then was this prisoner going to die? I can understand an eye for an eye but not this. No one needed to die, for you to die. Social engineering the Nazis would have endorsed. No one can blame me for being upset; the prisoner that will die this morning is my son.
It is a long trip to the northern part of the state, so I have to get moving. I let Sebastian back inside as I leave.
He was a good child, bright, smiling and carefree. Never a hint of trouble, good in school; popular, never wanting, or so I thought, for anything. I can’t help but feel that it is my fault. It was my responsibility as his father to raise him up right and I failed.
This morning I’m driving to his execution, fighting back tears and replaying our lives, trying desperately to find a reason; any reason for this to happen. At the feet of the executioner my son shall suffer the death of his body and me, the death of my reason, of my hope and of my soul.
Back when this all started, I felt so helpless. My wife and I visited him and went to the trial every day, and when there was no trial I worked in my shop. I was making him a chair. It wasn’t much but I wanted to give him something special. We, I, wanted him to know that I was thinking of him so when sanity was restored in the world and our lives – we would have a monument to our strength as a family.
This was going to be my best work. I got the wood from Pennsylvania, on the day the jury was seated. I cut the Pennsylvania fir by hand using old tools that I got from an estate sale in the country. I fit the pieces together on the day the trial started, carefully nailing and gluing them into place. I finished building it on the day the jury came back and the sixth and final coat of varnish was applied on the day he was sentenced.
After the hearing, my wife had to drive us home. I couldn’t see – tears clouded my vision. My mind wondered uncontrollably, replaying incidents in my life that I thought, had they been handled differently, could have saved him.
I went into my workshop, and with the same hands that played catch and helped him on with his jacket; with the same hands that applauded his graduation and taught him to fish. With the same hands that fashioned this chair from bits and pieces of wood…smashed it.
I stomped it, shook it and broke it over the corner of my workbench. I broke it like my dreams, I broke it like my life, I broke it like my soul; into splinters so small that the only way that you knew they were there was by the pain they cause when they lodge in your flesh. Then I sat down in the rubble, my hands cut and bleeding, sobbing like a child.
It was about 6 am when I pulled up to the prison gate. I showed my credentials to the guard and he passed me through. The sun threw a long shadow across the doorway, the Shadow of Death, coming to claim another. I watched it creep across the ground and I cursed it. I had fought with everything that I had, lawyers, money and time. The time was almost up, the appeals exhausted and now I was too.
Locking my car, I straightened up and trod upon that shadow, my last, pitiful act of defiance. I entered the doorway and found that it led to a large warehouse. Waiting there were forty or fifty other people. I didn’t know any of them and was surprised that they didn’t seem to know me.
The guards brought him in and strapped him down, his eyes scanning the crowd looking for me. I pressed up to the glass and half raised my hand. He saw the movement and looked at me. Our eyes met. He smiled and my eyes moistened as a hood was pulled down over his head. I became numb. All I saw was that black hood, expanding and contracting with each breath. One, two. I couldn’t help it. Three, four … I counted them. I was standing, with my face pressed grotesquely up against the glass, in horror, awaiting his final breath. Five, six. When his heart stops. Seven, eight. When his life ends.
With the first jolt, he lifted off the seat, the heavy straps straining; I remember his first birthday, that little mouth encircled with icing from his cake. I remember his big, brown, laughing eyes and toothless smile. The second jolt; we were hugging and laughing after we won our only championship together. The third jolt brought the madness. He deserved another chance. Please, we’ll get it right this time. I threw myself up against the large window that kept me from my son. Punching like Ali in his prime against Frazier, the glass shattered, shards raining down on me like God’s tears as hands from everywhere grab me.
My heart pounding, I awake sitting upright in my bed; sweating, shaking, terrified. Sleeping soundly next to me is my wife. She is unaware of the devils that have been tormenting her husband — exorcised — at least for now.
I slide out of bed and go to the nursery. I check to see that he is still breathing. I watch his chest move slowly up and down. He is okay. I sit by his crib and pray to God to spare him and me the nightmare.
“Lord, please. I will do anything.”
Liz rolls over, dismayed to find the cold barren spot where here husband should be. She rises and pads on bare feet down to the kitchen. Sebastian, the cute little puppy with the big feet, whimpers once, wondering if it is time to get up. She quiets him with a scratch behind his ears.
“Curious,” she thought. “He usually goes to the kitchen for a snack when he can’t sleep. I wonder….”
Liz peeks into the nursery where she finds her missing husband asleep in a chair next to their newborn son’s crib. She moves closer and finds her baby’s hand wrapped tightly around one of her husband’s long strong fingers. She pulls the baby’s blanket up over his chest and goes to the closet to get another and places that one across her husband’s shoulders. Placing a kiss lightly on his lips, she smiles and goes back to sleep.