If the state of the world has you in a state of anxiety, if politics and this pandemic find you frazzled, reach out to our elders in solitary confinement.
“Semper Ubi Sub Ubi.” Those Latin words came up in casual conversation recently. I’ll explain why in a moment. I learned that Latin phrase from Miss Ruggiero, my tenth grade public school Latin teacher at age 14 in 1967. I never forgot them. She had been attempting to explain that the sound of words can take on a different meaning than how they appear in print.
“Semper Ubi Sub Ubi” literally means “Always Where Under Where,” which makes no sense of course. If you say it aloud to yourself, however, it becomes a snippet of wisdom passed on by generations of mothers to their reckless adolescent sons.
When the global Covid-19 pandemic descended upon us in early 2020, I wrote a post that tried to bring some perspective to our plight. Its title was, “Holy Week, Coronavirus, Loneliness, Politics, Yikes!” That title now reads like a summary of the last six months as 2020 rolled along heavily burdened by both politics and a pandemic, and the urban riots of “Cancel Culture.”
In that post, I briefly mentioned that I cope with all this stress by reaching out to someone more stressed and vulnerable than myself. I am a prisoner, as you know, and as of this posting I have been so for twenty-five years, ten months, and seven days. All this time has passed unjustly in a state with “Live Free or Die” as its motto and in a country that calls itself the cradle of liberty and justice for all. Living with such contradiction is the most stressful thing I have ever encountered.
Until, that is, I encountered “Mrs. South,” an 87-year-old friend with whom I pass the last thirty minutes of each day. This friend faces our pandemic in solitary confinement in a small Cincinnati apartment hundreds of miles from this prison. Twenty years ago, her husband died from cancer after she cared for him at home every day until the end. They had no children. Five years after his death, she courageously defied our Puritanical social mores when she took in a 62-year-old homeless man suffering from chronic heart disease.
That man was also her parish priest. She had been burdened with chronic depression and the anxiety of being alone when his plight intersected with hers. He had been summarily discarded during the purge of 2002 when (then) Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, (then) Bishop Wilton Gregory, and (then) SNAP Director David Clohessy convinced the panicked U.S. Bishops that accusation is sufficient probable cause for execution. The priest in question, 34 years ordained, was given 24 hours to remove himself from church property.
In 2005, when Dorothy Rabinowitz and The Wall Street Journal published “A Priest’s Story,” a groundbreaking series about my imprisonment, Mrs. South also reached out to me by mail after weeks of trying to discover my address. Over the next fifteen years, we spoke occasionally by telephone. In 2007, before the visiting period here was reduced to 90 minutes, they visited me.
In November of 2019, after providing that priest with a home for fifteen years, my friend found him dead in his room. It was catastrophic and traumatic, and now, at age 87, she is alone again, facing this pandemic without even the consolation of a human voice. So, for the previous months since his death, I call her from my prison cell in the last half hour of my day.
A PREVENTION WORSE THAN THE DISEASE
Be patient, please, for I am getting to the point about my Latin phrase that began this post. Covid-19 has caused over 56,000 deaths among our elders in long-term care facilities. When you add to that number those who lived self-sufficient and alone who became infected with this virus, the death toll is astronomical. An estimated 85-percent of U.S. deaths have been people over the age of 75.
But the picture is more complicated than that. A multitude of studies have shown that isolation and loneliness are detrimental, not only to one’s mental and spiritual well-being, but to physical health as well. Chronic loneliness diminishes the immune system. Depression is linked to weight loss, and, in many elderly, malnutrition. A lack of human companionship and interpersonal communication impairs cognitive functioning, and exacerbates the natural decline that aging brings to mental capacity. Mrs. South never imagined that she would outlive her friend.
Mrs. South faced substantial pressure when she provided a home for that discarded priest who, though twelve years younger, suffered from a debilitating decline in cardiac functioning. Some of her extended family sent her notes inviting her to holiday gatherings, but made it clear that her “friend” was not invited. His bishop once sent her a letter of reprimand for taking him in. However, her saving him from homelessness had the unintended consequence of also saving her from her greatest fear: being alone.
When he suddenly died in her home fifteen years later, she was devastated. It took Mrs. South several days to contact me, and when I finally received her letter I telephoned her immediately. The trauma of what happened and what it meant to her was clear.
It was also clear that she was facing it alone. In the ensuing months, she could no longer keep up her home and had to move to a small rented apartment. Just as she moved in, the global pandemic was unleashed, trapping her in a prison of loneliness and isolation. She sent me a selfie-photo of herself sitting on the small apartment’s balcony. Her weight loss was alarming.
After my first conversation with her following the sudden death of “Father Ken,” it was clear to me that she neither could nor should face this alone. She broke down in tears while describing that it took her three days to reach me. So I told her that I would call each night at 9:30 PM. The thought of her alone in the prison of that apartment during this pandemic haunted me.
Because of the introduction of GTL tablets in this prison two years ago, I am able to make telephone calls directly from inside my cell. So I suppose you could say that I have a cell phone, something that three years ago would have earned me a stint in the hole. I can only place outgoing calls until 10:00 PM so I decided to give Mrs. South the last half hour of my day.
The importance of this was clear from the start. She would often tell me that mine was the only human voice she heard that day. Inevitably, many calls resulted in her tears as she grieved. She described each day alone waiting for my call as the plight of a fellow prisoner.
Because her apartment complex was limited to senior housing, its residents were required during the shutdown to remain in their apartments and not interact in the hallways. She was discouraged from leaving for any reason except the use of a common laundry room. Because Mrs. South was” the new kid on the block,” and the fact that she rarely saw her neighbors, she was unaware that some of them had a schedule for use of the laundry room. Her first venture to it resulted in a post-it note on her door: “The Laundry Room is for Everyone. Please Don’t Hog It.”
THE PRISON LAUNDRY CHRONICLES
When a person’s inner resources are already depleted, such things become magnified to the point of painful obsession. Mrs. South was in tears as she told me that night about the anonymous note on her door. I encouraged her not to dwell on it, but I also knew that was impossible. For the next two long sleepless nights the note loomed ever larger and more sinister. Then on the third day, a new twist in the story occurred.
Hundreds of miles from Cincinnati, in the cell block where I live, is a five-gallon bucket where prisoners wash laundry. I had two T-shirts soaking in it when I forgot about it while typing a post. When I went back to start the “rinse cycle” someone had taped a note to the bucket: “This laundry bucket is for everyone’s use. Please don’t hog it.” I could not wait to tell Mrs. South that I have joined her on the public registry of misdemeanor laundry hogging. There was a long pause when I told her the story, and then she burst into a hearty laugh, the first I had heard from her in months. Then she asked me why we use a bucket for laundry.
Prisoners here have clothing that falls into only one of two categories: greens and whites. “Greens” refer to our outer uniform, dark green slacks and a matching long-sleeve shirt. We are allowed three sets of each with names and numbers imprinted on them. On laundry day, we throw them into a large bin where they are taken for washing in the prison laundry.
“Whites” are another matter altogether. Every 12 months, we can turn in three pairs of boxer shorts and T-shirts to obtain replacements. They are of very poor quality and often mis-labled. So those who can do so purchase their own “inner” clothing from a catalog company, Union Supply, that markets to prisoners. We can also purchase three towels and three pair of socks. To wash all of these items, we must stuff them into a laundry net bag) tie it with an old sock with our name and location, and then throw it into a huge bin with 300 other laundry bags. The entire load is then put into huge washing machines.
Because the white laundry is washed while still balled up in the net bags, it sometimes comes back damp, and smelling worse than it did when it went in. Sometimes, if it contains newly purchased “higher end” T-Shirts and underwear, It does not come back at all. Who steals underwear? Anyway, it isn’t really snobbish of me, but I have a natural aversion to putting on a T-shirt that smells like a wet dog. So both Pornchai Moontri and I put only our socks and towels into the net bags. It is amazing that the cosmic mystery of missing socks is a phenomenon even in prison, and even when a net bag with no holes is tied in a very tight knot.
We wash our own underwear and T-Shirts by hand in a five-gallon bucket. I never really liked the idea of my underwear tumbling around with the underwear of 299 other prisoners, some of whom send theirs to the laundry not quite as often as they should. Our electric dryer is a shoe string extended In front of a fan.
When I conveyed all of this to Mrs. South, it was met with alternating rounds of shock and laughter. I told her that this all reminds me of the Latin exercise in misunderstanding language that Miss Ruggiero taught me at age 14, fifty-three years ago: “Semper Ubi Sub Ubi,” “Always Where Under Where.” Mrs. South laughed long and hard, and said, “I sure hope you will write about this.”
And so I did.
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Editor’s Note: Next week, These Stone Walls will host a most important post from our good friend, Pornchai Maximilian Moontri.
Please share the above post. You may also like these related posts about our friends’ lives while coping behind these stone walls:
- Divine Mercy in a Global Pandemic
- A Feast for the Dog Days of Summer
- Finding Your Peace in Suffering and Sorrow
- A Documentary Interview with Father Gordon MacRae