June 7, 2015
Sunday, 1:00 p.m.
Letter #386: Party! Party!
Each year that my twin brother’s birthday rolls around, I do something to celebrate, and I tell everyone I come in contact with that it is my twin brother, Michael’s, birthday today. Not only is it a not-so-subtle way to announce the arrival of my own birthday, but it is also a fabulous way to check an individual’s Intelligence Quotient.
My favorite response I’ve received to my birthday announcement: “Oh? Well, tell him I said ‘Happy Birthday!’”
I never tell him. I figure if they aren’t smart enough to gather what I was hinting at, they must be dumb enough to believe I’ll actually pass along a message from them to my not-in-prison twin. And exactly how would that phone call with Michael go, anyway? “Hey, Pastor Michael, your twin here, bringing you very special birthday greeting from BamBam, Pistol, and Looney. Hope your day’s brighter now.”
Another birthday tradition has grown recently and has quickly become a highlight of my year. Since arriving here at La Palma Correctional Center on my birthday four years ago, I’ve made a point to throw a grand party for ten of my closest friends on my birthday. This year is the fourth such birthday bash I have planned, and I made sure to make it better than ever.
My guests are all guys who are meaningful to me in some way, and in the past, have been primarily Christian friends. This year, however, I made my selection of ten guys based not on friendships necessarily (some guys I talk with the most in my pod didn’t make the cut), but on those who have consistently encouraged me and given me the freedom to be me. Thus, several of the guys have never been to church, and a few seldom attend. Just three are deeply religious, a completely different makeup from previous guests lists, but something I wanted as an opportunity to reach out to these guys.
I solidified my invite list months prior to the event and gave handmade invitations with instructions for each man to come prepared to share their answers to two questions: 1) What is the best advice you’ve ever received? and 2) What words do you live by? They were told to bring no gifts, just a bowl, spork, cup, and appetite. All preparations, plans and agenda were top-secret, so everyone was curious and excited. Because I moved across the prison to a new compound in December, just one guy was a previous attendee of two prior parties. The rest had no idea what to expect.
The morning of my birthday, I was awakened at 5:00 a.m. by an officer who sent me to our medical facility with no explanation. Turns out, I was examined by a dentist who took x-rays (yeah, radiation!) and told me I have really great teeth. I noted that he was probably just comparing me with the usual prisoner’s hideous teeth, then had him guess how many years of prison I have left based solely on the amount of teeth I have left. He wasn’t amused, weakly claiming that they try to save as many teeth as possible. Yeah, sure. This place is the Tooth Fairy’s dream.
My favorite birthday tradition of all is that I get to call my sisters on the morning of my birthday. I’m grateful to my brothers who let me visit with their sweet wives for half an hour, my favorite birthday gift. Then, my mom read dozens of greetings I received from so many of you who are my dear friends. Thank you!
I spent the afternoon of June 4th playing the board game Risk with a few guys who didn’t make the big party list, but who are good friends, then sang to Michael around the exact time we were born, 42 years ago. One of my piano students played “Happy Birthday” for me on a keyboard, which was quite inspiring, actually. Then, at 6:00 p.m., the real party began.
As we all assembled in the multi-purpose room, I served my honored guests piles of nachos with fresh bell pepper, onion, and homemade salsa. We each took turns sharing the best advice and words we live by, and I was grateful for each of my friends who took it seriously and made it a very sincere time.
I shared my favorite advice, from The Purpose Driven Life, where Pastor Rick Warren encourages each person “to discover and be who God has uniquely created you to be,” and thanked those gathered for being my friends despite this uniqueness. I live my life in solemn fear of the verse, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and try to fulfill my end of the deal every day. I think there is no excuse to live life half-speed, half-effort, or half-tried. I then prayed, through tears, for the guys, thanking God for each one and asking Him to restore them to their families.
Dessert, as usual, was a crazy assortment of WAY too many sweets topped with heaping spoonfuls of Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread. No one finished all their food, which I deemed a success. Normally, we’ve had enough time to play Pictionary or other parlor games, but we ran short on time, so I went straight for the night’s biggest surprise: a piñata.
Last year’s hot pink soccer ball piñata (we can’t hang or hit anything, so I have kickable piñatas) had to be outdone. So, I commissioned a friend of mine to make a SpongeBob SquarePants piñata and made sure he got all the material and candy stuffing he needed. I didn’t see the thing until it was pulled out of a bag at my party, and to my horror and delight, my friend made the perfect SpongeBob likeness, but no pants. It was basically SpongeBob SquareUnderpants, and it was very kickable. The guys loved it.
By the end of the night, after I’d passed out personalized stationery with stamped envelopes and pens to everyone, I heard several guys commenting that it was the most fun they’d had in six years and that they’d forgotten for a moment where they were. Sometimes you just need an excuse to show someone else how much they matter to you.
I am truly blessed.