Mother’s Day in America often includes flowers, candy, and perhaps dinner out, but in prison it is marked only by memories. For Carlos Perez, it is a day of honor.
“When I had journeyed half of life’s way, I found myself within a dark wood, for I had lost the path that does not stray. Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear: so bitter – death is hardly more severe. But to retell the good discovered there, I’ll also tell the other things I saw.” (Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Canto 1)
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is a small verse with deep pools of meaning by the great American poet, Robert Frost (1874-1963). Virtually everyone in America has heard the poem with its four simple stanzas. I first pondered its mysterious depths when I heard it in grade school, recited as part of a pageant on parents’ night. But on closer look, there is much to be found in that poem’s depths. I found there wisdom about life and death, about purpose, hope, and faith, all told in my 2013 post, “Mother’s Day Promises to Keep, and Miles to Go Before I Sleep.”
Shortly after writing that post, I received a letter from an old friend, now age 80 and retired from a career as instructor of American literature at a prestigious New England academy. He knew Robert Frost well, and wrote that “Frost would delight in your interpretation of ‘Stopping by Woods’ in your great Mother’s Day post.” I never missed a chance to quote that.
I think Robert Frost would have been more enamored with the fact that his famous verse was used to honor Mother’s Day than to highlight his poetic skill. Though highly regarded as a New England poet, Frost was born in San Francisco. When he was eleven years old, his father died, and his mother, a teacher, headed east to raise her children alone with a new beginning. They settled in Lawrence, Massachusetts where, Frost graduated from Lawrence High School, one of two Valedictorians in his class. The other was Elinor White whom he later married.
Robert Frost never graduated from college. He was accepted to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, but left after a few months. His grandfather got him into Harvard, but he dropped out after two years because, as he put it, “Harvard had taken me away from the question of whether I could write or not.”
It was not until his later years that his poetry was published. In his senior years he was honored beyond all living poets of his time. Frost was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times, and was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. In January, 1961, he read for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and died in the same year as Kennedy, in 1963, widely regarded as “America’s Poet,” a life shaped by loss, and by the love and sacrifices of a single Mom.
CARLOS PEREZ CHANNELS ROBERT FROST AND DANTE
Though I doubt he could write Pulitzer-winning poetry if his life depended on it, some of the story conveyed to me by Carlos Perez made me think of the life of Robert Frost. Carlos is a prisoner, one of the thousands of young men in American prisons that I described in my post, “In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men.” Though when Carlos stopped by the woods, it was a lot less like Robert Frost’s snowy day and a lot more like Dante’s “Dark Wood of Error” comprising the first verses of his epic, The Divine Comedy.
And like Dante himself, Carlos is by no means lost. He sat down with me as Mother’s Day approaches, and I let him read a post about another prisoner and his mother that I posted in these pages last year at this time. That post was “Evenor Pineda and the Late Mother’s Day Gift,” and Carlos was much moved by its hope and news of redemption. “I wish I could write something like this for my Mother,” said Carlos. “But I would not know where to begin.” By the next day, he had begun.
I invited Carlos to help me write a post that might become a card for Mother’s Day this year. He thought long and hard about it, then leaped upon the opportunity. So the following segment of this post is to you, Rosa, from your son, Carlos:
“My name is Carlos Perez, and I am a ‘Mama’s Boy.’ The phrase might have negative connotations, especially here where the dark wood of my own error has brought me, but today I have to embrace the term. I am fortunate to say that I had times of loss as a child, but the ‘fortunate’ part is because even those times were made whole by the love and sacrifices of a single Mom who became such when I was six years old.
For reasons too painful to recount through the eyes of a child, my Mom took my sister and me and left our home in Brooklyn, New York when I was six. Our father remained behind. I know today that it took much courage and strength to make that decision and to live with the sacrifices that it would entail, but I did not see much of anything clearly then. I wish I could say that as a child and teenager I fully appreciated my Mom’s love, witness, resilience, and strength of character, but that was not the case.
Young people can be so wrapped up in themselves and their own problems that they don’t see or appreciate what they can end up just taking for granted. I could not see then how my Mom put aside her own struggles to care for my sister and me, to go the heroic and self-sacrificing distance to provide us with a good home, with food and shelter and clothing, and, most importantly, with her willingness to put all else aside to be there for us in our needs both large and small.
When I was growing up, many of the kids I knew were in the same set of circumstances, living – ‘struggling’ is a better word – with a single mother and an absent father, but my mother made being a parent the center of her life’s mission. She filled the void heroically, building by example a sense of self-confidence in me.
Mom sacrificed to make sure I played baseball. She bought me gloves and bats, drove me to games, stayed to watch, and she never complained. She sacrificed to pay all the fees, and when I had a game out of state, she would come home from an eight-hour work day, help me pack my things, and then drive me for hours on end. And she did all of this with a smile, always conveying a sense that there was nothing more important in her field of vision than my field of dreams.
Dear Mami, I don’t have a single memory of you ever putting yourself first. And now look where I am, Mami! Look at the place where my mistakes have brought me! I had near death experiences through my recklessness, and I had bouts with the law in my rebellion, yet you were always there, never judging but always challenging me to live up to my potential. The only reason I never gave up on myself is because you never gave up on me.
You taught me how important it is to have hope, and faith, and you taught me that if I want to be loved then I must learn to be self-less and love others beyond just myself. Most of all, even in all my rebellion, you taught me about God. Now all these things ring out in my heart in this isolation, and I continue to learn from all that you taught me.
Today, I see clearly that you and God never parted ways, and never placed a condition on love or on me. All the gifts you have given to me now sustain me. Even in prison in the wake of my mistakes, you are there for me.
So even though I am here for a time, paying what has come due for my recklessness, I am also doing what needs to be done to employ all that you have given to me and all that you have taught me. I did not sink to the low places of this prison, as some tragically do, but rather I sought the high ground, and found friends there who are good, friends who tell me the truth about myself and don’t mask it in games of their own. That is so rare in this place, but I could only find such friends because you taught me how.
My friends, Gordon and Pornchai, had their own struggles and their own losses – very great losses – and yet I see how they have turned to God with the harsh realities of the past and our present, and like you they come out on top. They reached out to me to pull me out of the vacuum of prison in which so many my age just become lost here, even ruined. Most of all, they told me that I must live my life in honor, not only honor for its own sake, but in honor of the people who have contributed the good in my life. I’m talking about you, Mami. Only you!
I want you to know that I am doing the right things, and I am resolved to do what it takes to recover the person you raised with the values you instilled. I will emerge from these dark woods one day soon. It won’t be long, but for me it seems an eternity. My friends here have taught me how to handle this time, and how not to be handled by it.
I thank you also, Mami, for the life of my dear sister and brother who mean so very much to me. Even though I cannot physically be with them as they honor you this Mother’s Day, I want you to know that you are all very much on my mind and in my heart. I want to thank you, Mami, for giving me strength and love, te amo con todo mi corazon.”
Rosa, if you don’t mind I would like to add a P.S. to what Carlos has written above. He is well along the path that will lead him out of the dark woods he entered, and it is not the friends he found here that he has to thank for that. It is you. For my part, I also thank you for fostering his baseball skills. With spring training underway, Carlos has been drafted for Pornchai Moontri’s Legion of Angels, an intramural baseball team here that you can read about in my post, “At Play in the Field of the Lord.” Carlos is a good person, and he says that it is you and God who made him so. We also hope and pray you both made him a good infield shortstop as well. We really need one! Happy Mother’s Day!
Editor’s Note: Spend some time in honor of the Fourth Commandment this week with the following special Mother’s Day posts on These Stone Walls: