Read Read Read Some More!
“It is easy to forgive the innocent. It is the guilty who test our morality. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
— Sister Helen Prejean
September’s book, “We’ll Fly Away” by Bryan Bliss (WFA), has special significance to me. This month our Words That Sustain Me book club is coming together with the Texas Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty’s book club to read this book I had the honor to choose. WFA is a great book that tells a story about friendship, loyalty, betrayal, tragedy and crippling family dysfunction.
In 2019, WFA come into my life on its own. A friend heard about it online and because the story is about two friends and death row in North Carolina, they sent it to me. When I picked this book up to read i was hooked from the first page, proceeding to read these 407 pages in one setting. I simply could not put it down. I read all night long finally finishing the next morning. It is rare that I read a book that can put into words so much of my life experience living in solitary confinement on Texas death row. WFA did and its heartbreaking story has stayed with me ever since. When I was asked if had any suggestions for a book both book clubs could read, I knew WFA was the book.
What if you were guilty of a terrible act and you were sentenced to death for it, but did not regret your deed? What scenario might make you feel that way? How would you deal with it? How might you think you could overcome feeling that way?
WFA tells a story through letters written by Luke, a senior in highschool when it all happened and now on death row in North Carolina writing to his friend Toby. And the surrounding story is told in between the letters.
I picked this book because I lived through so many experiences the main charge goes through. Not just on death row, but in life in general. Luke and Toby’s friendship reminded me of my friendships with my childhood friends. Like Luke, I protected my friends from school yard bullies and understand Luke’s feelings for his friend on a personal level.
Toby is physically abused by his father who beats him black and blue. That part of the story cut me deep. I grew up with cousin’s whose step dad was the same kind of abuser. I remember the marks and bruises that my younger cousin would show me, the desolate look on his face and I would burn in anger. We were kids and my cousin’s step dad was a grown man so I could not stop him. I could not beat him like he beat my little cousin but I wanted to. I’ve experienced the helpless feeling of wishing you could stop a bully from hurting someone you love, but were too small to do it.
I can identity with the familial dysfunction that Luke and Toby live through and was deeply touched by their story because of it. Of course there is the obvious connection of me being on Texas death row and Luke being on North Carolina death row. These aspects of the story in WFA are what resonated with me as a human being and are reasons why I connected with this book the way I did. In a lot of ways, I felt like WFA was telling my story.
In the first letter Luke writes to Toby dated November 15, he says that he stopped talking to everyone a long time ago. And what’s the point in trying to live when everyone on death row has a ticking clock hanging around their neck? I think everyone who is sent to death row is numbed by the trauma they’ve gone through and wearing this numbness and armor to survive. The reality in Texas is that 95% of all prisoners on death row will be executed. The ticking clock hanging around everybody’s neck is real in this state. This fact will either make you super strong and able to endure anything, or it will break you. Thank God it helped me find the strength of soul that I had within me.
And with this strength of soul, taught me how to live each day as if it were my last. For Luke, the walls are closing in on him, the situation is driving him to his limit and he’s barely hanging on.
In another letter to Toby dated November 14, Luke tells us his friend Eddie’s story and then makes the comment that everybody here has the same story, just the details change. That line hit me hard. When I got to Texas death row in 1999, I immediately come to the same conclusion everybody here has the same story just the details change. Everyone is poor, dealing with addiction, most are minority and most had incompetent legal representation at trial. To which I said, “how can this be? Are they setting us up?” Turns out they are.
Luke also says that after he was sentenced to death, his first appeal attorney showed up and was there every week after. I suffered through NINE attorneys who were indifferent to my plight and didn’t bother to fight for my life. Then I got Gretchen who is my hero, and who will be the attorney that sees me out of this place.
In another letter dated December 25, Luke talks about spending a month in solitary confinement and how the experience breaks him. I’ve lived in solitary confinement for twenty five years, a quarter of a century. How much more broken am I than Luke or his friend Eddie? Sometimes I wonder. In the end I know this – a solitary confinement cell is the fire and forge that a soul is put through and it will mold you, shape you, and refine you until your true mettle is brought forth. Or it will break you completely.
Luke also writes there’s no dignity lying on that table, being executed with a needle. I used to see it that way until I realized we all have a choice on how we live our life and how we meet the end. Because every human being will experience death. Dying is part of living, and we all get to choose how we meet it.
In Luke’s letter dated January 23, he says that it’s hard to explain what it’s like to live with an axe over your head, to be sentenced to death. That reality is what every death row prisoner must come to terms with and decide one of two things: will you allow your circumstance to reduce you to being a dead man walking? Or will you accept the fact that you live under a death sentence and embrace it living each day like it’s your last?
Twenty years ago, an old head on Texas death row named David Powell shared a quote with me as we discussed life in this place. David said F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. ”
That sums up life on death row. You know your goose is cooked, yet you’re determined to make it otherwise. In this letter, Sister is also quoted regarding, “opportunities for joy.” She’s 100% correct – thank God! But when you first get here you have to make yourself forget the life you had in the free world to survive. You sacrifice part of your sanity to keep your wits about you. Ultimately, you will decide whether you’ll embrace victim hood, or get on with living your life to the fullest. This is when you find out how much strength of soul that you have.
In the January 25th letter, Luke writes about how guys will isolate you once they hear you have an execution date treating you as if you were infected. As if interacting with you will cause them to “catch” an execution date too. Before the faith based program was started on A-pod on Texas death row, guys would refuse to go to A-section day room for recreation where deathwatch at. That’s where brothers with active execution dates are housed. That is for real! Thank God it’s no longer like that and now we activity reach out and embrace the brothers who are dealing with an execution date Reminding them that they are not alone.
Luke also talks about his friend Eddie who has been given an execution date and after he’s murdered there will be a hole in the world. That line was a gut punch for me. It brought to mind so many friends, so many brothers who’ve been executed. I especially thought of Big G, Gary Raynard Green, because when he was pushed out of existence, there was a huge hole in the world. I miss my brother.
In his letter dated January 27, the number one thing that Sister has learned from ministering to men on death row will is that everyone has worth. Nobody is defined by their worst moments. And every single person is capable of shocking transformation I think that’s the ultimate message that WFA conveys. Nobody on death row is the what they’ve done on the worst day of their life. And every person in this place can transform them self if they try. I am living proof of this.
There are so many golden nuggets in the letters Luke wrote to Toby. Like In the January 28th letter, when Eddie tells Luke that what he had on the recreation yard that day was enough. The basketball, the game, being good at it, that was enough and nobody was taking that away from him. Everything had been taken from him, but Eddie still had that.
For me, what Eddie speaks about is finding a way to salvage what is left of your life. Being sent to death row wrecks your life completely and the majority of people are never leaving this place alive. But if you’re able to change your life for the better and continually live your life as the best version of yourself, being kind, compassionate and humble that’s enough. If you manage to salvage that much from the shambles of your previous life before death row, then you’ve done a good.
I see so much of myself in Luke’s story. I understand what he’s grappling with and because I’ve been wrestling with the same issues in my life I connected with WFA on a deeply personal level. Though it I wanted to try and put into words what my life has been like for the past quarter of a century.
WFA is a great book and I’ve enjoyed sharing it with both book clubs. I hope that it hooked you from the beginning like it did me and kept you up all night tearing through the pages racing to find out why Luke is where he’s at. I also hope you were deeply moved by this book and its story stays with you always remembering that none of us are the worst thing we’ve ever done.
WFA is another great book worthy of being part of the collection of books read by both our Words That Sustain Me and TCADP book clubs!