I electrocuted myself when I was a second-grader in Catholic school. I was in the principal’s office for fighting Ryan Balthrop and thought it would be cool to jam a paper clip in an electrical socket while I waited. Something to pass the time. I vaguely remember convulsing against the wall, then being spat across the room, crashing into a nun’s desk like a meteor with my hair standing straight up and every line and seam on my palm burnt to a crisp. When my mom skidded into the Saint Pius parking lot, she was crying harder than I was.
This would become a recurring theme in our lives: me self-destructing and Mom suffering. When I hit 13 and went to juvie for the first time, Momma cried. When I was sentenced to prison at age 18, Momma cried. When I showed up at visitation with black eyes from fighting, or dilated eyes from dope, or sunken eyes from months in solitary confinement, Momma cried. And when I finally came home after ten years, Momma cried.
But just because she cried doesn’t mean she’s weak. My mom is a soldier. The strongest lady I know. Imagine witnessing your only son waste away on crack cocaine, finding him on your porch at 3 a.m. emaciated, dirty, begging for money. Only you don’t see the zombie that the world sees. You see the little boy that you rocked and read bedtime stories to and drove to football practice. Imagine arriving at Sacred Heart Hospital after learning he totaled his car and having the ER surgeon explain that if he performs brain surgery now, your child could be deaf or blind or slow, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be dead within hours. Imagine sitting by his bed in ICU, stroking his stapled head. The face you had so much hope for now vacant. Defeated. Swollen and bruised from police flashlights and boots. The same flesh you once bathed and diapered and swaddled in blankets now ripped to ribbons by police dogs. Imagine sitting in the courtroom, helpless, as a federal judge sentences him to 31 years in prison.
This story could have easily ended right there. But Mom wouldn’t let it go. She forced the issue. She continued believing in me, despite my track record of personal failure. She kept willing me forward when I thought the fight was long over, kept driving to every prison in the state to visit me, kept seeing the best in me, kept calling me on my shit when I was slipping, kept loving me for some cosmic maternal spiritual reason that only mothers and God understand.
Then one day in 2010, I asked her if she would type something for me… This became what is now the first chapter of Consider the Dragonfly. Eight years and four novels later, we’re still going strong and my old life seems like someone else’s nightmare.
I believe the stories I tell are relevant. And obviously, I hope they are entertaining. I do my best to illustrate the human condition with heart, humor, and unobtrusive prose. But the real story may be the process. I write the scenes and chapters longhand from my bunk, then six pages at a time I mail them home to Mom who lovingly types every F-bomb, every fight sequence, every overdose, then sends them back to me for revisions, which are made during 15-minute collect calls, all under the jaundiced eye of one of the nation’s more abusive and intolerant prison systems. This is the story behind the stories, the journey of a crash-dummy son and the mother who refused to give up on him.
Poor Momma. As hard as it’s been on her in real life, it’s been even worse on the page. After Consider the Dragonfly, people wondered if she killed herself. Then after On the Shoulders of Giants, many assumed she was a junkie. Now that Sticks & Stones has been out for a few months, people have been discreetly inquiring about her late-stage Alzheimer’s. She’s likely Kenny from South Park — next book she’ll probably get hit by a truck. There’s a reason for this: memorable fiction is not about what goes right, but what goes wrong. And the most catastrophic thing that could happen in my world is something happening to Mom.
People also confuse me with my characters. I guess this is fair since they’re all convicted felons. If I had to select one that I relate to the most, it would be Izzy from On the Shoulders of Giants. Like him, I feel like writing gives me an identity other than failure, loser, career-criminal. But unlike Izzy, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience some positive return on energy. My novels have been mentioned in Writers Digest magazine, my hometown paper ran an article about me, I even received a personal letter from President Obama… but the crowning achievement of my writing life is that the lady I once habitually let down, humiliated, and made cry is now able to slide these books to other county retirees and fellow master gardeners and say with pride, “My son is a writer. This is his latest novel.”
Happy Mother’s Day.