November 9, 2014
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #356: Bitter-Sweet Ending
The day before Halloween, the prison’s librarian died. Mrs. Hartshorne, or “Mrs. H” as we often called her, was a former church secretary and school librarian who began working here at La Palma just two years ago. She replaced a young woman who had been “compromised,” the official term for what happens when inmates and staff get together.
What a refreshing pure change for those of us who often use the library. Because of my curriculum development for the business classes, plus typing up these weekly letters and assorted other projects, I am usually in the Law Library a couple times a week. Though everyone else who uses the computers (four computers shared by the 1,000 inmates on our compound) has an ongoing legal case they are fighting (usually an appeal), I gratefully have favor with staff since I teach so many classes.
Mrs. H was a quiet, sweet lady in her mid-sixties who did her job in a place where not everyone is quiet or sweet. I enjoyed poking my head into her office every so often to tell her about something God had just done in my life or in my family or in the life of a fellow inmate. These were her favorite stories; ones of redemption, of a life that was changing. She would always find something encouraging to say, then thank me for telling her.
I felt sorry for her, under-appreciated in a thankless job, surrounded by society’s rejects. Yet she continued to shine the light of God’s love every day.
I’d created a new system of passes for the business classes that soon was adopted for use in the staff-led classes and the library as well. One day, the library clerk asked me to help them reformat all their passes to my system, so I spent a couple of hours setting them up, so that they wouldn’t have to do nearly as much work creating weekly passes in the future. Of course, Mrs. H was delighted and thanked me. She’d pushed for me to be her library clerk, but the Powers That Be shot down the idea.
Then, suddenly, she was gone. Other staff told me that she’d come to work, and she’d just collapsed in the prison’s parking lot.
I was stunned. It was a weird feeling when someone you see nearly every day, like a worker at the coffee shop or something, is just gone.
The library privileges came to a shuddering halt for nearly a week before a replacement was found. Well, a temporary replacement was found, that is. You can’t replace Mrs. H. And quiet though she was, she was so full of life too. She seemed physically fit and healthy, so her death was all the more shocking. I couldn’t imagine what her family must have been going through.
The chaplain, whom I’ve known now for four years, told me how tough this sudden tragedy was on her family. A husband of over forty years, kids, and grandkids all affected. What a loss.
The day before she died, I was in the Law Library, and had a chance to speak with Mrs. Hartshorne. I told her that, after much deliberation and careful planning, I had finally decided to dress up as a prisoner to celebrate this Halloween. Then, of course, I quickly disavowed any and all involvement in the satanically-themed day.
She loved it. A smile broke out on her face, and she told me she thought I’d make a great prisoner, laughing again at my light-hearted take on my current condition. I was used to making her laugh, and she usually had kind words to say, but that day was a first, because Mrs. H wasn’t done. She looked back up at me with a little grin. “You know what I’ve decided to be?” she asked me. “A librarian.”
I laughed and asked about her costume details, which she responded that it looked something like what she was wearing at that moment. I had to agree that she looked like a real librarian.
I made a card for her family, a family that, for security reasons, could never have dropped by to visit her at work. I knew they didn’t know what I knew. They hadn’t seen her reaching out to encourage and give hope. They hadn’t seen, day after day, the simple ways she enriched our lives. Her family had never seen one face of a life she had blessed here. So, I determined that if they couldn’t see my face, I’d let them see my heart.
I didn’t have much to offer, and I couldn’t possibly hope to dry their tears, but I could let them know that they weren’t the only ones missing that sweet lady.
I expressed my deep sympathy for their loss and my firm belief that God urgently needed her to catalog some scrolls up in Heaven.
I told them about the many times I’d seen Mrs. H speaking words of wisdom and kindness to those she came in contact with, including me.
I told how I always enjoyed telling Mrs. H about successes in the lives of prisoners around me, because she genuinely cared about people.
And I shared the story about my Halloween costume and her response that she planned to be a librarian. Then I wrote, “Well, I guess she got to be an angel instead.”
No, it wasn’t correct theology, but I certainly teared up as I wrote the note and gave it to the chaplain to pass along to the Hartshorne family.
A couple days later, the entire prison came to a halt as a hundred staff members and lots of outside well-wishers came to pay their respects to a lady who set an example of serving the unlovely ones in the world. Someone told me that the chaplain read a card from an inmate as part of his eulogy, including some story about an angel costume and Mrs. H filing scrolls.