Men facing death in this prison at one time died alone. Darryll Bifano is a prisoner and hospice volunteer who helped change that. In the process, he changed himself.
Some weeks ago, I wrote a post that started off being about science – and thus scared some people off from reading it – but ended up being about death. Everyone has to face it, but few want to, and many spend their lives in denial of it. That post was, “For Those Who Look at the Stars and See Only Stars.” Despite its scientific bent, it drew an unusual audience for These Stone Walls and was shared some 5,000 times on Facebook and other social media. Death touches everyone.
There was a pall over this prison as summer commenced this year. One of our friends, John, age 39, died of pancreatic cancer in the prison medical unit on June 10. It was a long and grueling death that saw him drift from the vibrancy of a healthy man in his thirties to an emaciated frame of his former self. Through it all, his alert mind grasped for meaning and connection.
There was a time when prisoners here died in empty isolation. Several years ago, one of my own roommates, 52-year-old Harvey, developed stomach cancer that slowly consumed his life. When he could no longer live among us, he died alone locked in a cold, bare room with four concrete walls and little human contact.
I pleaded at the time to visit Harvey and help take care of him but overwhelmed prison medical staff responded that there was just no process in place that allows for that. But in the last three years here, this has dramatically changed. A group of men – prisoners all – have come together to form a training protocol for a hospice team. Now in three-hour shifts around the clock, they sit, talk, walk and care for fellow prisoners who are dying.
My first deeply-felt gratitude to this hospice team came when our friend, Anthony Begin, died from cancer. I wrote of that journey in a post that shocked some readers. It was “Pentecost, Priesthood, and Death in the Afternoon.” I wrote about how Anthony was such a caustic personality, that I literally threw him out of my room one day. We did not speak for over a year until Pornchai Moontri told me one day that Anthony is dying.
Pornchai and I took over the care of Anthony, and in the process, he changed. So did we. Anthony was allowed to live in a bunk just outside our cell for his final months. When his condition came to the point of no return, we had to leave him in the medical unit where we would never see him again.
This was my first experience of the immense value of hospice. The newly formed prisoner hospice team was with Anthony around the clock for the final steps of his journey which I documented in “The First of the Four Last Things.” Thanks mostly to the influence of Pornchai Moontri, Anthony experienced a religious conversion and was received into the Catholic faith just before we handed him over to hospice.
I will never forget what happened a week after he died. It turned out that Anthony left this life having committed a second crime against the State of New Hampshire: an unreturned library book. When a prisoner leaves without returning a book, an alert comes across a computer screen at my desk in the prison library. Here is what the computer told me a week after Anthony died:
“Anthony Begin – Released with book #3015: Heaven is for Real.”
A DOWN PAYMENT ON A DEBT
The recent, untimely death of John at age 39 unsettled many prisoners and sent a shockwave throughout this prison. John was a young man in good shape until he began having symptoms of discomfort. Once the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer came, the end loomed shockingly fast. His final weeks were not easy, but he was never alone thanks to the dedication and perseverance of a few good men.
One of these men is Darryll Bifano. If his name sounds a bit familiar, it’s because you have met him before in these pages. Darryll was a pitcher on Pornchai Moontri’s intramural softball team, the Legion of Angels when it won the league pennant for the third year in a row in 2016. At 6’3″ and 270 pounds, Darryll Bifano was an imposing presence both on the team and in my post, “A Legion of Angels Victorious.”
A big guy with a wide wingspan not much got past Darryll on the pitcher’s mound. He proved himself to be a team player who contributed much to our victories. Today, Darryll lives on the pod Pornchai Moontri and I moved to last summer. He was among those who spoke up for us and helped us to get there.
During the long ordeal of Darryll’s ministering to John in hospice, I was much aware of the schedule he had to keep. He has a full-time job working in the prison Recreation Department – the same place where Pornchai works. Darryll also volunteers for multiple other programs offering support to prisoners in need. He is a trained volunteer for a newly formed Peer Support program that assists with monitoring and moral support for prisoners on suicide watch, a critical and important need here.
Darryll’s presence in that endeavor seemed to naturally grow out of his commitment to hospice. Having witnessed the physical and emotional toll that hospice can exact from these men, I sat down with Darryll after the death of John. We spent time processing not only the experience but also the journey that brought Darryll to this point in his life.
We began with the most natural question of all. What brought Darryll Bifano to care for the dying through hospice? I have to let him answer this in his own words:
“I am 47 years old and in the 11th year of a 27-year-to-life sentence for second degree homicide. I grew up in the ideal American family: a loving mother and father, a brother and a sister. I am the oldest. I excelled in school and in multiple sports, graduated from two universities, and followed my passion for music, and traveled that road everywhere and anywhere it would take me.
Through trial and error and experience, I was becoming the man I always wanted to be. I was on a path of my choosing, and as a musician I developed some talent. Then everything changed in a single foggy moment. After a night of drinking and drugs, my best friend and I argued. Then we fought. I threw a single punch that killed my dear friend, Stephen, and, in the aftermath of our drunken state, he died alone.
I work with hospice today because I have a debt to life that I cannot fully pay, but I must try. I cannot bring back my friend, but I can honor him, and be responsible, and give this tragedy meaning.”
Darryll is one of 20 prisoners, each working in 3-hour shifts, who sit with terminally ill prisoners and accompany them to the end of life. After working all day, he often takes a shift that no one else really wants – from 1:00 to 4:00 AM. A quick two hours sleep and then Darryll is up again to get ready for his work at 7:00 AM.
I have seen this schedule take its toll on Darryll, but like the few prisoners who stand out dramatically here, he seems driven by service, and the sure knowledge that mercy was shown to others is the path to peace within himself:
“I remember, as a child, the experience of my grandfather dying of cancer in his home. This drove home for me the importance of not dying alone.
“In hospice, you’re sitting with this guy and he is dying, and it’s treated as taboo – no one else really wants to talk about it. It’s the final stage of life.
“In prison, I often hear people say, ‘I came in alone and I’ll go out alone.’ It’s their excuse for disengagement with the world around them, but I no longer believe in this. For a life that has meaning, no one can make it alone in this world.”
IS GOD DEAD?
In the last week of John’s life, Darryll spent about eight shifts with him, mostly in the pre-dawn hours which often seemed the toughest for John. Darryll described this time as “the ideal of what hospice is supposed to be.” He walked with John from resentment and denial to acceptance. They talked of John’s life, his family, nieces, and nephews. Darryll sat and wrote letters to them dictated by John. Along the way, Darryll was witness to a transition from torment to peace.
I am not certain that Darryll phrased this as such in his own mind, but his presence to John fulfilled a basic tenet of Viktor Frankl’s famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Darryll was helping John to give meaning to suffering, perhaps the greatest gift one human being can impart to another in the face of death.
For much of his life, John had reportedly described himself first as an atheist, and then, in more recent years, an agnostic. In its simplest form, agnosticism is to render the question of God moot because, for the agnostic, it is impossible to know Him or whether He even exists so there is no point trying.
As I sit here typing this post, the last book John read in this life has just landed on my desk to be checked back into the library. It’s a collection of essays by the Nineteenth Century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
I cannot imagine what prompted John to request this book, but the reality was that in his dying state he was unable to read at all. He handed the book to his hospice volunteers. Caring for him in their 3-hour shifts, he tasked them to read aloud portions of Also Sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spake Zarathustra) Nietzsche’s treatise about the death of God.
Nietzsche developed the essay between 1883 and 1885 to explain his theory of the Übermensche (meaning superman or overman). Stating that “God is dead,” Nietzsche rejected Christian beliefs and traditional values as the source of our “collective slave morality.” Instead, Nietzsche believed in the power of superman: a person of extraordinary imagination and will who can break the destructive grip of traditional Christian values.
Only a superman, Nietzsche theorized, can institute a “master morality” to save society from the slavery of Christianity. This became the foundation for Adolf Hitler’s concept of a Master Race. It was also the foundation of the effort to dissolve Christian influence in Western Civilization that I recently described in these pages in “Fathers Day in the Land of Nod.”
This was the last book John requested of me, and it was perhaps the very last book I might have sent him in the week of his death had I been given a choice. But alas, such choices are not mine to make. Nor are they Darryll Bifano’s who dutifully read aloud Nietzsche’s words to John.
I remember once writing in these pages about the resurgence of Nietzsche’s “God is Dead” movement in the 1960s. The bumper stickers were everywhere in that radical, “question everything” age of my adolescence in 1968: “GOD IS DEAD! Signed, Nietzsche.” Then one day I saw one that presented a sobering thought: “NIETZSCHE IS DEAD! Signed, God.”
Even Nietzsche, an atheist, in the end, came to regret the impact of his own atheistic thought. He wrote that the destruction of the belief in God in the 20th Century was the greatest cataclysm humanity has ever faced: “What were we doing when we unchained this Earth from its Sun? ” he asked. “Are we not now straying as though through an infinite nothing?”
But while Darryll was reading to John, he also took questions, and these were perhaps more revealing of what was taking place in the heart and soul of a man facing death while his mind struggled with its apparent emptiness. John stopped Darryll in his reading and asked, “Do you think there is a heaven? Do you think I could go there?”
Perhaps John wasn’t buying the emptiness of Nietzsche’s ode to the dying. Perhaps Darryll wasn’t buying it either, and this post is actually more about him. He is not a man who should forever be defined by his one big mistake. He is a good man, a talented and dedicated asset to the race we call “human.”
Darryll’s footprints here leave this a better place. God knows, prison very much needs natural leaders like Darryll Bifano who draw others along a path to righteousness having long since parted ways with his own personal road to ruin.
Last summer in my post, “The Days of Our Lives,” I wrote about a concert that Darryll helped organize among the musicians here. It was worthy of Carnegie Hall, and its most unforgettable moment was Darryll’s brilliant performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Darryll didn’t offer me his answers to John’s last questions: “Do you think there is a heaven? Do you think I could go there?” “I grew up a Catholic,” Darryll told me, “and like so many of the wannabe rebels of my time, I left my faith back there.”
“Is the door to it closed or cracked?” I asked. “Well…” he pondered with a distant gaze, “I always really do enjoy talking to you, G.”
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post on social media and with your friends and contacts. Humanizing prisoners who have earned the right to restorative justice is a true Corporal Work of Mercy the grace of which is also shared by you when you share these stories. You may also like these amazing accounts of metanoia from These Stone Walls:
- At Play in the Field of the Lord
- If Loved Ones Fall Away from Faith, Let Them See You Believe
- A Harvest Moon Before Christ the King
- Cry Freedom! A Prisoner Unlocks Doors from the Inside