— James Baldwin
Today is supposed to be the last day of my life. Sounds a bit dramatic to say, but it's true. A little over four years ago I received notice from the State that my execution would be carried out on November 16, 2023. I have no idea why this particular date, but it immediately etched itself into my brain, assuming a significance that defied logic; the complete opposite of a birthday, but with a similar pedigree. And now, by the same powers that be, a different and equally arbitrary date has been affixed to my existence: January 13, 2027.
As someone who has died before (more on this later), I'm not sure that I see life through the same lens as most people. I know how unlikely it is that I'm still alive. When I was 18 years old (Oh, to be young again!), I was in a shootout and very nearly lost my life. In fact, I lost consciousness and woke up in a hospital bed with the vague recognition that had an ambulance not been called I would have died.
I'd been shot at close range in both legs, and one of the bullets ripped through my femoral artery. I'd crawled into a filthy, urine-soaked hallway to get out of the line of fire, and there, on the bottom steps, watched my life slowly seep from my body.
You would think that such a monumental event would be met by a blaring of trumpets to herald your arrival on the other side; instead, there was a deafening silence. My breathing slowed, and my mind, possessed now by a heightened sense of awareness, narrowed to exclude everything outside of the present moment. My eyes closed slowly, shutting out the world.
Baldwin's words ring now with a clarity that I didn't have when I was 18 years old, when my eyes opened to the fact that, by some miracle, I was still in possession of my life. It would take a few more years, and a mountain of pain, before I could fully understand the profundity of it all, and, since then, I have tried to live with a greater sense of knowing.
I guess it all boils down to how we view what we choose to see? I mean, not many of us will be given the exact date and time of our deaths, and so a lot of us will live aimlessly, without a sense of purpose, putting off until tomorrow what we should/could do today. Not me.
Experience has taught me that the wall that stands between this and the next existence is very thin indeed, as thin as filigree, and that we stand forever on the precipice, with a limited amount of time to do and be. I know this now with a focus that informs everything within my power. Still, it's good to be reminded.
About whether or not I would be executed, I waited and waited for the news, several anxious weeks and months of worrying, wondering if the same grace that had been granted to so many others would be similarly applied to my case.
Apparently, as fate would have it, the state of Ohio is presently without the three-drug cocktail needed to carry out executions, the result of pharmaceutical companies demanding that their products—pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride—not be used contrary to their intended purpose. Consequently, there have been no state-sanctioned murders in Ohio since 2018.
It's an interesting word, REPRIEVE, which means: to postpone, suspend, escape. Escape? In the (almost) 30 years I've been on death row, it has never occurred to me that I would one day be allowed to escape. Over and over I am reminded that words mean different things to different people. As far as I know, none of us will escape death; whether we die in our sleep or are executed without due process, we must surrender to that last release. In the meantime, some will seek to escape the responsibility of living fully, will postpone their pursuits, and suspend indefinitely the utilization of their agency. Not me.
I was in the visiting room eating a bag of BBQ Ruffles when the warden's secretary accosted me, holding in his outstretched hand a piece of paper meant for my perusal. He'd waited until my visit was over, until the four friends who'd driven over from Chicago were safely in the parking lot. This was official business, straight from the governor's office, requiring my solemn attention.
The letter reads (in pertinent part):
— Mike DeWine, Governor
The secretary hovered over my shoulder as I slowly read what he was already privy to. He was taking note of my reaction. My breathing slowed, and my mind, possessed now by a heightened sense of awareness, narrowed to exclude everything outside of the present moment. Here I was, again, being reminded of the fact that my days on this earth are numbered, and the only thing I could feel was gratitude.
After I was done reading, I slowly folded the piece of paper and tucked it into my shirt pocket. "Thank you," I said, extending my hand. A proud expression floated across the face of my messenger. He had misunderstood me; he assumed I was thanking him. I smiled in recognition. I'm going to make you regret this, I thought to myself.
Lessons on what release from prison really means. Meet a dozen men from Louisiana and Mississippi who served a combined 311 years for crimes they didn't commit.
Four years is a lot of time if you make it count, if you step into every moment with the full weight of your being, which is exactly what I'm going to do. More time means more life, more love, more light, and I intend to live intentionally.
I think about my 18-year-old self quite often, and I'm never without the memory that the sun almost went down on my young life for the last, last time. This would have been tragic simply because it would have precluded the arrival at my maturity. These past few years have been the culmination of everything I've endured and conquered along the way, and, going forward, I will forever mark this day (16 November) as a reminder to stay in pursuit, to keep pushing, and to never, never, never give up!
Albert Camus once said: "Humans are mortal. That may be, but let us die resisting; and if our lot is complete annihilation, let us not behave in such a way that it seems justice!"
I amen his clarity!