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Life Inside

While I Wasted Time in Prison, My Mom Died of a Broken Heart

My mom was by my side the first time I went away. The second time was just too much.

With my hands in cuffs and my chin to my chest, my parole officer asked me, “Do you want to call your mom?”

“I can’t—this would kill her,” was all I could say as I sat in the back seat of my P.O.’s car.

I was heading back to prison for violating my parole after committing another robbery. I was incarcerated for eight and a half years before that. I guess I still wasn’t ready for society.

In silence, all I could think about was the time my mom had told me that a broken heart would be her demise. I knew that it would only be a matter of time now before the disappointment I had caused would also make me guilty of murder. My weapon? Heartache.

I also could not fight the thought that I might never again hug my mom as a free man. “On second thought, yeah, let me call her,” I told my P.O.

Mom picked up. “Hello?”

“Mom?” My voice cracked.

“What?” was her worried response.

I sighed. “I’m not going to be home for a long time. At the very least 12 years.”

I know all too well the sound of a broken heart. It’s all that I’d heard through all those years I was in prison before, those years of phone calls and visits. And before that, there were my rebellious teenage years spent skipping school, getting expelled, sneaking out late at night, shoplifting and stealing money. Yet, even in prison, mom had been there for me. She was there to pick up every one of my calls. If I told her I was sick, she’d be there for visitation.

But my latest crime landed me in the federal system, which distanced us more than we both could have known.

Seven years after I told my mom that I was going back to prison, I was called to the chapel. I was in the chow hall, and it was loud, so I didn’t hear my name being called over the intercom. One of my friends told me as I approached the table with a tray of tortilla chips and ground beef.

Now, the very last place you want to be paged to report to in a federal prison is the chapel. That’s because the chaplains are the designated bearers of bad news.

“That means it’s bad, huh?” I asked my friend, trying to push grim thoughts from my mind.

“Nah,” he replied.

But deep down, he knew. “Just take your time and eat your food and then go up there and see.” Something about the words “take your time” didn’t sit right with me. So minutes later, I walked into the chapel. I’d never been in there before so I wandered around in confusion until the chaplain saw me and motioned for me to come to his office.

“Whoa, hold up!” I said. “If this is bad news, I don’t want to hear it.”

He stood there silently for 10 seconds, awkwardly racking his brain for a response. “Well, it’s bad news,” he said.

Angrily, I told him again that I didn’t want to hear it and walked out.

As I left, I started shedding tears. They blended in with the drizzle that was falling when I stepped outside. I couldn’t help thinking about how helpless I was. After all of these years of dehumanization and sensory deprivation, I was drained of hope.

The trip to the chapel brought to mind the time I said goodbye to my father on the phone. We were both in prison, and he was dying in a facility across the country. I hadn’t even met my pops until I was 13 years old, and we had more of a homeboy relationship than a father-son one. We would commit crimes, smoke weed and pick up women together. He lived life as if it was one big party. But when he neared his death, all he could do was moan and cry on our prison-to-prison call.

This time around, I hoped that the misfortune was that one of my grandparents had died. Whoever it was, I thought, my mom was the only person I would allow to deliver bad news to me.

Mom was strong. She wasn’t scared of anybody and persevered always. She also loved to play pranks; her joy was inescapable.

After I entered my unit, I stopped at the first phone available and dialed her number. The phone rang seven times then her voicemail picked up.

While I redialed her number, I convinced myself that she had left her phone in the other room.

I kept calling: Five, six, seven rings. Voicemail. Five, six, seven rings. Voicemail.

Finally, I called my aunt. She asked me if I was ready to hear what was going on.

My breathing grew short and my heart sped. “Yes,” I finally replied.

“Your mom passed,” she told me.

My aunt continued to explain what had happened, but all I could hear was a ringing sound in my ears as if a gun had been shot next to my head. Everything in my body had shut down. I could literally feel part of me die. Thoughts raced through my head: She didn't know how much I loved her. I could have been a better son. I didn’t say goodbye…

I always knew that one day my mom would pass on, as all will. But I guess I pictured it differently. I envisioned being by her side, having given her grandchildren to love and having grown into somebody for her to be proud of. Instead, a selfish act put me into prison and broke my mom’s heart.

On my journey to change, I feel that I have gained awareness and empathy for my victims. But I never considered my own mother a victim of my actions until it was too late.

Daniel McMann, 34, is a writer incarcerated at Federal Correctional Institution-Coleman in Florida. He is serving an eight-year sentence for robbery. McMann teaches fellow prisoners and is developing a nonprofit organization that offers guidance on gang diversion, life skills and youth mentorship.