The one prayer uttered by my friend, Chris Yensen, in his entire life was gloriously granted. It’s a sad story, but there’s no real room for sadness here. Only hope!
On a stifling afternoon one day last summer, I left work in the prison library to be greeted by a blast of lifeless hot air as the heavy steel door opened to the outside. Descending down the multiple flights of metal stairs attached to the outside of the building like a fire escape, I could feel the heat rising up to meet me from the asphalt jungle below. I walked toward the building where my cell is located, but was stopped at a guard station, the one not so affectionately called “Check Point Charlie” here. A guard stepped out, looked me over for a moment, then decided that I was possibly up to the task he had in store for me.
He wanted to know if I would “volunteer” to go to the prison medical unit to push a man in his wheelchair across the yard and up a long ramp to what is called the “North Unit.” “No problem,” I said as I turned away wondering what his smirk was all about. When I arrived at the medical unit, I opened the door to see a man in a wheelchair impatiently awaiting his pusher. I immediately understood the guard’s smirk. The man in the chair weighed at least 300 pounds.
“You’re IT?” he asked as he looked behind me seeming to expect a team. “I’m it!” I said confidently as I got behind and put my back into it. I immediately stopped and looked down at his wheelchair brakes to see if they were engaged, but they were not. The resistance to any forward momentum was as plain as day, and it was nothing mechanical. Out into the hot asphalt jungle we went, and all efforts at small talk quickly gave way to my heavy breathing. Moving toward the long, steep, winding set of ramps we had to ascend, I could feel the eyes of the guards at Check Point Charlie on us from a distance.
I pushed harder and moved faster, knowing that I will need to get up some speed to ascend that ramp. Up, up we went, but slowed down exponentially with every few steps. The worn out treads on my sneakers were sliding beneath me as progress slowed to a mere crawl. We made the first turn to take the second half of the ramp not nearly with the momentum with which we began the first. I was huffing and puffing, stretched behind him into almost an incline, my arms fully extended and my shoulders straining. I thought in horror of what would happen if my strength gave out. “Want to borrow my inhaler?” the hefty old guy snorted from his comfy seat.
By the time we made it to the top, I felt as though I had conquered Mount Everest. “I’ll take it from here,” said the guy in the chair without even a “Thank You.” It dawned on me that he didn’t want the men in his unit to see him pushed along like an invalid. I, on the other hand, stood there in the open like a sorry, dripping spectacle. I was drenched in sweat, my heart pounding against my ribcage as I proceeded down the ramp to commence the walk back. The smirks at Check Point Charlie transformed into mere grins as I passed.
But little did I know that there were other furtive eyes upon me that day. From a quiet shaded corner in the asphalt jungle sat Chris Yensen ensconced in his wheelchair, all 280 pounds of him, taking in the scene of my caboose struggling to ascend Mount Doom. I mentioned Chris Yensen in a post last year, “At the Root of Jesse: A Life Beyond Prison.” Yensen – everyone called him “Yensen” – lived in the cell next to me. In that post I described the scene out my cell door that I see from this spot where I type. Yensen parked his wheelchair there, and it became part of his morning ritual to shuffle past my cell, moving an inch at a time. Once enthroned in his wheelchair Yenson would turn to face me so that his chair filled the door of my cell. Then he would proceed to deliver the day’s news and weather.
I never once heard Yensen complain, nor did I ever know what exactly caused him to spend life confined in that chair, a prison in a prison. He could get up and walk, but with great effort, one tiny step at a time, inch by inch, and no one here had the patience for it. Unable to go to the prison dining halls, Yensen’s meals were delivered in a styrofoam container. Each night, he had to shuffle inch by inch out to a guard station to pick up his supper. I once convinced a guard to let me go get it “because it will be breakfast by the time he gets there.”
THE SANDS OF TIME
Later on the day of my huffing and puffing ascent pushing that hefty prisoner, Yensen pulled up to my door in his wheelchair. “Wait til I tell Artie who pushed him home today,” he gloated. Then came the pitch. “I’ve been hoping for someone to push me up to Medical for my meds every morning. Any volunteers?”
It became a part of my daily routine. Each morning at 8:30 I pushed Yensen into a sea of wheelchairs waiting for elevator access to get pain meds at the Medical Unit (strangely located on an upper floor). Then, in the summer months, he wanted me to wait for him to also push him to the Ballfield so he could watch the games. When he gave me a hard time I said, “Okay, Rollerboy, you can push your own hefty behind tomorrow.” The name quickly but unintentionally caught on, and Yensen became “The Rollerboy.” He didn’t seem to mind.
About six years older than me, I knew Yensen for the entire 22 years of my imprisonment. When I arrived here in 1994, I was placed in the maximum security unit for three months for reasons never explained or understood. That meant 23 hours a day locked into solitary confinement, and one hour a day alone in an outside cage. Yensen lived on that tier of cells then, and had a privileged position as tier worker. Back then, prisoners in maximum security could not receive books so I was starving for anything besides four walls to occupy my mind.
One day, after I was there a month on the verge of madness, Yensen shuffled by my cell door, and without a word he threw a paperback book through the tray slot. I lunged to save it from landing in the toilet. I cannot put into words how much of an act of Divine Mercy that was. I cannot express the desperation of an imprisoned mind pleading to focus externally upon anything besides itself.
The beat up paperback was Sidney Sheldon’s The Sands of Time, and the last four pages were missing. That didn’t matter. Over the next month, I read the book at least eight times. Years later I took a job in the prison library. On my first day there I checked out The Sands of Time just to read the last four pages.
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL
Yensen was subsequently moved somewhere else in the prison system and so was I. For the next fifteen years I did not see him again until he and his wheelchair showed up one day in the place where I live. Confined to that chair, Yensen seldom got outside beyond the small, crowded, caged-in asphalt yard from which he spied me pushing that prisoner up the ramp that day. So when he asked me to take him to the Ballfield to watch a game, it was like the gift of sudden freedom for him.
There was just one problem. After years in that chair without exercise, Yensen had grown to about 280 pounds, and, from here to the entrance of the Ballfield is all uphill. Then, once through the Ballfield door, there is a final steep incline to get him up onto the field from where he could sit and watch the games.
Yensen was a little rough around the edges. “You’re pretty strong – for an old priest” he said as I pushed him up that last hill one morning. His daily insult was delivered to the delight of Chen Kewei who understood just enough English to understand that. I would leave Yensen just behind the fence near home plate while I walked a few miles along the track. He loved to sit back there and shout insults to the umpires. After the games, Chris always found someone else to take him back. The way back was all downhill so he saw no point in asking me.
In the winter months there was no Ballfield to contend with, but there were other Herculean tasks. Pushing his wheelchair through a half-foot of snow was always an ordeal, and Wednesday mornings were the worst. On Wednesday, prisoners where I live go to the Commissary to purchase their weekly supplies of food, hygiene items, and postage stamps. Yensen said he had no one to write to so he never needed stamps – which left him with more money for food. The evidence for that was right there in that chair as I strained to push it through the snow on winter mornings.
After I wrote “At the Root of Jesse: A Life Beyond Prison,” I let Yensen read a printed copy. He was immensely moved that I mentioned him in a published article. Yensen knew Anthony Begin as well. In this life, they couldn’t stand each other, but only because they were a lot alike. They were both rough around the edges in the very same way. So I also let Yensen read my post, “Pentecost, Priesthood and Death in the Afternoon,” and he thought better of Anthony after that. He thought better of himself as well. “This explains why you push me,” he said after reading it.
From the sidelines, Yensen witnessed Anthony’s conversion and transformation, and Pornchai Moontri’s as well. He knew the latter was for real when he witnessed the way Pornchai took care of Anthony – every single dismal day – from the time he learned of his cancer until the time of his death. And during that time, there was a transformation within Yensen as well.
I brought Yensen a copy of another post to read, “The First of the Four Last Things” about Anthony Begin’s acceptance of death. I’m not certain that you all caught it, but exactly a week after Anthony died, I received a message on a computer in the prison library. I mentioned it briefly in a comment on a subsequent post, A Midsummer Knight’s Dream of Freedom.
Prisoners who leave here, including those who die here, are officially designated, “Gone/Released” in the prison computer system. If they are “Gone/Released” with an unreturned library book, the database generates a notice with their status and the title of the book so we can try to retrieve it. The notice is printed and placed on my desk. A week to the day after Anthony died, this printed notice appeared on my desk:
ANTHONY BEGIN – GONE/RELEASED – HEAVEN IS FOR REAL
When I showed the printed sheet to Chris Yensen, he stared at it for a moment and then began to cry. I did too, but not as much as Yensen did.
THE PRAYER OF THE ROLLERBOY
A few months ago, early on a Saturday morning, I waited in line to use one of the three prisoner telephones where I can place pre-paid calls to the outside world. I was calling Father George David Byers at his parish in Andrews, NC to see if the next week’s TSW post showed up so as to get it digitally prepared to send to our publisher. When it was my turn, I started to dial the number, but then I saw Yensen slowly rolling toward me looking distressed. I hung up the phone and sat down. Without speaking, Yensen rolled up to me, then bent down to lift the leg of his pants.
I was shocked. His leg from his ankle to his knee was deep red and horribly swollen. I told him that I have to take him to Medical to have it looked at, but he did not want to go. He did not want to go because he knew he would not be coming back.
Chris rolled closer, and spoke to me outside the earshot of anyone else. “If you have any pull at all,” he said, “please don’t let them keep me. I don’t want to die a little at a time.” By “pull” he did not mean with the prison medical people, for I have none. He meant with God. The anguish in his face was awful to behold, and it was what I last beheld of him. It is my final memory of Chris Yensen.
Later that Saturday Yensen was taken to Concord Hospital, and on the following Monday morning he lost his leg. He never regained consciousness, and later on that same day, he died. All at once and not, as he so deeply dreaded, a little at a time.
No one out there came to claim him. He is buried in a common prison grave. No one here speaks of him any longer, except me. I miss the daily workouts, the insults, the raucous laughter. I miss having never made good on my threat to one day push his chair to the top of the ramp, and then just let go.
I never knew what evil deed sent The Rollerboy to life in prison. What would be the point of knowing? He spent almost a half century in prison for a crime that occurred when he was a reckless young man. I wonder if he could even remember it. Only God can read his heart and judge his soul. His justice is eternal. So, thank God, is His mercy.
Do not feel sad about this story, for the one prayer my friend Chris Yensen ever uttered in his lifetime was gloriously answered. It was the Prayer of The Rollerboy, and now he is Gone/Released.