Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jail Visiting Rooms

There are places most of us will never see or visit, but rather our perceptions of said places are formed by their depictions in film, television, or news clips. Those places include the county morgue, a hospital emergency room, a police interrogation room, or the visiting area of the county jail. We've all seen movies which shows the angry wife, the urgent lawyer, the partner in crime, or the frightened child walking into the jail visiting room, sitting down on the cold stainless-steel stool and picking up the phone. We've been the fly on the wall as the red jumpsuit-clad criminal enters the cold hallway on the other side of the glass, picks up his own phone receiver and the conversation begins. No matter how many times I saw that visiting room scenario played out on the big or small screen, nothing prepared me for the flood of emotions that overwhelmed me the first time it was me picking up the phone to talk to my frightened 20 year old son on the other side of that glass.

As the months wore on my weekly visits to the county jail to visit my son got easier. We often laughed, talked easily, and we shared mundane details about our daily routines. He told me about the latest book he was reading and I told him about whatever triumphs and frustrations my day at work had brought (I teach drama to elementary age kids). The weekly visits to my son, however, soon became about more than him and me. I began to watch and learn from the other visitors whose loved ones were on the other side of the glass.

I saw moms and dads hold one another's hands as they encouraged their barely 18-year old sons. I watched as young mothers held their toddlers up to the window so they could see their daddy and so young men could say "I love you" to their confused sons. I was choked with emotion when a handsome young man on the wrong side of the glass was unable to hold back the tears when his small daughter said, "I miss you Daddy" into the mouth of the black receiver. I saw a middle-aged woman, dressed in a green inmate jumpsuit put her hand on the glass and her 20-something year old daughter pressed her hand into the glass and said, "I'm here for you Mom." I have listened to the soft muffled cries of a hurting mother as she stands in the visiting room, unable to move until her son disappears from sight and the heavy door slams shut behind him. In that cold, sterile visiting room we are all the same - mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, and friends. In that place we are all equal, despite our differences - different nationalities, religions, economic stations, and education experiences. We represent broken homes, intact families, dark secrets, happy lives, successes and failures. In that room we are all doing the same things at the same time with the same heart. We are connecting, hoping, sharing, forgetting, encouraging....loving.

I may not ever speak a word to one single person with whom I share that visiting room for 30 minutes every week, but each mom, wife, sister, son, daughter, father, brother, and friend who stands on the "right" side of the glass touches my heart. For 30 minutes a week we are all equal.