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“How to you plead to the charges set against you by the state of New York, regarding the night of June 24, 2006?” the judge asked, peering solemnly down from his high bench.
The man stared at the young woman sitting in the front row of the court room, who was weeping silently.
“Guilty, your honor,” the man said, his eyes never leaving the woman.
“Very well. I hereby sentence you to 35 years in state prison, for one count of DUI and one count of manslaughter. Court adjourned,” the judge boomed, slamming down his gavel against the wooden block.
The few people who were present for the hearing gathered their possessions and left the courtroom within minutes. The accused man was escorted out of the courtroom by a large policeman, but before he was fully through the exit, he handed the policeman a slip of paper and pointed to the crying woman who had remained in her seat. The policeman looked doubtfully at the man, then read the paper, and after a moment’s hesitation, made his way to the seated woman. The man, now unsupervised, stood frozen, anxiously watching for the woman’s expression. When she received the paper she looked first to the policeman, then to the man who stood in the doorway. She let her eyes fall slowly to the slip of paper, and after studying it for several moments, brought her gaze back the man. Tears were still falling steadily down her cheek, and she peered at the man, unsure of how to react. Slowly, she nodded her head, letting her long hair fall into her eyes. The policeman watched all of this without speaking, and then made his way back over to the man who had remained standing in the corner, patiently waiting. The man and the policeman exited wholly this time, and it was the woman’s turn to stare at him as he left. She looked once more at the slip of paper and reread it slowly, catching every word. Mrs. Hitchcock, it began, I realize the great agony I have caused you. Please come to Folsom State Prison when you feel you can face me. I have something to give you that George wanted you to have. The handwriting was shaky, as if the writer had been trembling horribly. Mrs. Hitchcock’s face was riddled with confusion. What could have George given to that man before he died? she almost spoke aloud. Her grief, temporarily replaced by her curiosity, led her to open her pocket calendar to see when she could visit the man.
It was two months before Mrs. Hitchcock summoned up the courage to endure the man’s presence. She had put off the trip continually, but as time wore on, she realized that she needed the closure of whatever it was the man had to give her. Her husband had been long buried by now, his body deep within the earth. The daily ritual of crying she had come to accept had now been replaced by the silent numbness that seemed to have decayed her heart. She still went to work every day, and carried on the best she could, her life now seeming like an endless routine. But a gnawing thought had kept her from fully returning to her normal life: What does that man know that I don’t? This single thought alone was the only thing driving her to the prison, giving her the ability to endure what she knew was going to be one of the most difficult meetings in her life. The mere presence of this man in the courtroom had filled her with such hatred, with such grief, that it had taken her almost three days to stop crying. The idea of being with him one-on-one was menacing.
When she entered the prison, she was patted down intrudingly from head to toe to check for any unwanted accessories. She was forced to leave her purse in the damp-smelling front office, and was escorted by an angry-looking guardsman to the visitor’s room. The walk to the visitor’s room alone was all the encouragement she needed to pay off all of her due parking tickets. The prison smelled horribly of strong cleaning solution, and graphic thoughts entered the woman’s head of what on earth the disinfectant could be cover up. Once inside the visitor’s room, it took her several minutes to find the man she was looking for. Eventually she saw him at the far end of the room, and noticed that they were separated by a long piece of clear glass. She walked over to the end of the room, in what could have been described as the longest walk in her life. When she finally took her place in the chair that sat in front of the glass, she stared at the man whom she now barely recognized. The man looked extremely unwell. His skin had become eerily pale and his eyes had sunken into his head. His bones were visible through his orange jumpsuit and his hair was matted and uncared for. He looked like a sitting ghost. They stared at each other for a moment, and then each picked up the phone that lay beside them on the wall.
“I’m glad you came,” he said, his voice shaking.
“Yes”, she answered, unable to tear her eyes away from the phantom that sat before her. “I’m sorry I took so long,” was all she could think to say.
“Nonsense,” he said, smiling weakly. “Now, I’m sure you’re anxious to get out of here, so let me get to it.”
She simply stared at the man, unsure of what to say.
“I made the biggest mistake of my life that night. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about what I did to him…or to you, because of my carelessness. I just wanted you to know, that from the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry for the anguish I’ve put you through.” His eyes fell to the floor.
She looked baffled, tears welling up in her eyes.
“I just needed to say that to you, while I had the chance,” he trailed off.
She looked at him, now physically unable to speak. She realized with intrigue that he was crying. Not blatantly, but two single tears were falling down his sunken cheek bones. He reached into his pocket and drew out a worn piece of paper, folded several times and crumpled in several places. The edges were taped shut.
“George wrote this before…before he passed. He told me to give it to you. I’m sorry it’s coming so late. I didn’t read it,” he added quickly, not out of guilt she realized, but sincerity.
He slipped the piece of paper underneath the small crease in the glass wall, unnoticed by the guardsman. She took the piece of paper and looked at it. She turned it over in her hands, appreciating every feel of it. When flipped over on the front, in neat handwriting it read, LILY.
Grief, curiosity, and fear swept over her like a tidal wave. Without concern, she carefully opened the paper right then and there, no longer able to wait. A dark brown oval lay in the top left corner, and her heart sank as she realized that it was a bloody thumbprint. Her eyes fell to the middle of the paper, where a tiny message lay.
“My dearest Lily. By the time you read this I will no longer be with you. I will not make it, I know this, but do not fear for me Lily, because I know I am in God’s hands. Know that I love you, and I will always love you. My darling, if I had one thing left to tell you, it is this. Live your life with love and understanding. Forgiveness is the greatest gift we can give. I love you more than life itself. I will always be with you. Always and forever, George.
Lily stared at the note and cried for several minutes, her tears flowing endlessly. After some time, she became aware that she was still inside the visitor’s room in the prison. She looked at the man who sat across from her, and all at once understood that it was not the condition of the prison that was deteriorating him, but guilt. She peered at him, and he stared back, a look of sorrow spread deep within his face. And at that moment, she knew what she needed to do. She put her ear to the phone and he did the same. After a moment of silence, she mustered the strength to speak.
“I hated you,” she began. His eyes fell to the floor, but he kept the phone where it was. “You took away from me one of my greatest joys in the entire world,” she continued.
“I know,” he choked. She looked at him, trying to understand what the past two months had been like.
“But you were there with him. You stayed with him when you could have run away. That is the greatest bravery anyone could ask for. And I know you’re sorry, more sincerely than I could have ever hoped for. You are a great man,” she said, as he rose up his head to look at her. “And I want you to know, with all of my being, I forgive you. You are an honest person, who made a mistake. You have suffered enough.”
He stared at her, astounded. A new face had swept over him, and Lily understood that it was relief; utter and most perfect relief.
“Time’s up,” the guardsman growled, grabbing the man by the back of the jumpsuit.
Lily opened here mouth to say something, but the man shook his head.
“Thank you,” he said, his eyes welling up with tears. She looked desperately at him, not quite sure what to do next.
“I’ll be back to visit you!” she called as he was hauled out of the room, out of sight.
Smiling, she made her way back to the front office, and tried to remember the name of the emotion she was feeling right now. It came to her as she got into her car. It was satisfaction.