June 12, 2016
Sunday, 9:30 p.m.
Letter #439: Par Tay
I was transferred to La Palma on my birthday in 2011, a beautiful 30-minute bus ride in handcuffs and leg shackles. Each year after that for four consecutive years I threw a lavish party (by prison standards) for ten of my closest friends. Some guys attended all four years, while others transferred or paroled. At this new facility, I knew I couldn’t have the freedom and privacy of a multi-purpose room to throw the party in, so I’d have to get creative and scale back a bit.
My invite list was made up a month in advance, and I scrambled to get together some meaningful amount of food items and sweets to celebrate. The blessing of a package sent by my parents made everything I hoped to do possible, and it arrived 30 minutes after I was moved to my new dorm. The day of my birthday, I got a visit from my brother, Brian. Though we speak quite often by phone, I hadn’t seen him since being transferred out of state to Florence, Arizona, six years ago. He blessed me more than I thought possible, just spending time with me. Brian has a unique gift of humor, but he also has a sincere love for me that is evident by his loyalty and sacrifice.
Later that evening, I put on a paper party hat my mom had sent me years ago (and unbelievably it came through the mail!), got handfuls of chocolate candies, and gave one to every guy in the dorm. Many were stunned, since they’d just met me or had never met me. They’d look up at the brightly colored party hat on my head, look back at the big smile on my face, and think for a quick second. “Happy Birthday!” they’d blurt out. Feigning surprise, I’d say, “Why, thank you! This is a pleasant surprise … How’d you know it is my birthday?” Usually, they’d point at the less-than-subtle hat. Mind you, in eight years of prison, I’ve NEVER seen another inmate wearing a party hat.
In my original dorm, I had developed several good friendships and planned to invite those men to my party. The unexpected move threw all that out. The only guy who transferred to the new dorm with me was our dorm’s most annoying and obnoxious guy, Justin. He was NOT invited to my party. However, after the move, realizing that God put him into my life for a distinct purpose, I invited Justin to my party. Another guy who came from a different dorm but moved into my new dorm on this other yard with me? Dusty, the guy God had prompted me to pray for while running on the yard. He got an invitation. Because of our rules regulating the size of gatherings to four inmates per table, I didn’t want to create a huge stir, so there ended up being just six of us this year, including Art, the lead elder for our Christian church.
As in previous years, I made tons of food for the guys. We had nachos and burritos, pizza-stuffed tortillas, and dessert tortillas I made by filling tortillas with Nutella and frying them in the microwave, then dusting them in cinnamon. I also gave the guys handfuls of chocolates, then brought out three packs of Oreos. My friends all groaned when I brought out the cookies, since we were all full on the delicious garbage I’d served earlier. However, they had no idea what I had in mind. I began spreading Nutella on the cookies and told each guy that he could eat one then give the next one away to someone else in the dorm.
The difference between this year’s party and those of previous years (besides the obvious lack of a piñata) is that the parties were always private before. This one was in the middle of the table-filled dayroom portion of our dorm, with lots of eyes glued to us. I didn’t feel bad since there are little groups of other inmates who eat together nearly every day, and no one shares or is expected to share with anyone outside their little crew. But that made what we did next all the more special. As the guys went and gave away cookie after cookie, they kept coming back saying how shocked the recipients were. No one seemed to take it for granted, expressing gratefulness to the guys. By the time the cookies ran out, everyone had received one. My friends later commented to me that giving those little treats away, and even the fact that they had to give them away to everyone, even guys they didn’t normally get along with, was one of the most significant things they’d done since coming to prison. Crazy, that such a small gesture could mean so much to both giver and receiver.
We finished the night by playing Pictionary, a real treat since all but one of my friends had ever played it before. Two of the guys picked it up real quick, and the two who were on my team did not. Hey, it’s not all about winning, I tell myself every night as I cry myself to sleep. Even Jesus had a bad one on His team! I tried in vain to console myself with meaningless statistics that never changed the fact that my teammates will never draw correctly or even guess correctly. Well, at least they had fun. After the game was over, the worst two guys at drawing stayed at the table and drew for each other for an hour. I didn’t get the point of it, but they said they were “practicing,” which seemed to be what they’d been doing the entire game, and quite poorly at that.
I love birthdays. They are God’s annual reminders that He created us and placed us into families of His choosing. Away from my family, I am even more aware of the impact they had on my early development, character, and love for God. Now I hope to use my birthdays as a way to bless those who are close to me and reach out to those who need encouragement, most who never got to experience unconditional love, nurturing, or positive discipline the way I got to. And, I hope to make them each forget, if even for a moment, the fact that they are in prison; sometimes all it takes is someone sharing a bit of food and caring about their lives as so many care about me!