I met Joker in a poker game at Walton Correctional in 2009. He was fresh out of confinement and new in my dorm. Other than him annoyingly trying to muscle every pot, I don’t remember much about the game. I have no idea whether I won or lost or who else was at the table. What stands out the most about that night is walking past his bunk after lights-out and seeing him on his knees, praying.
I’m not sure why this gave me pause. Ever heard the saying “there are no atheists in a foxhole”? The same can be said for the joint. Prisoners pray. It’s kinda our thing. Prayer is as commonplace as chow hall hotdogs and rec yard stabbings. I guess I just didn’t expect to see it five minutes after a poker game.
I had to ask. “You a Christian or something?”
He shrugged. “I’m praying that my mom stays alive until I come home.”
Joker’s mom is Ernestina. La Jefita. He has her name tattooed on him. Twice. What can I say? The man loves his momma. And anyone who loves their momma is all right in my book.
We became close over the years, me and Joker. Ran a parlay ticket together, ate together, worked out together. I also got to know his family. His brothers and sister, his kids, Ernestina… They live in a little Texas town called Mission near the southern border crossing at Reynosa. Whenever they made their annual trips to Florida to visit Joker, they would stop by my mom’s house with gifts from the region. I still have pictures in my photo album of his little brothers tagging up Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola, Rio Grande Valley style. And when his sister gave birth to her youngest son, she named him Christopher Malcolm, after me. One of the biggest honors of my life. They even call him “Cici” which is what everyone calls me. Except for Ernestina. She calls me “mijo,” short for “mi hijo,” Spanish for “my son.”
In 2015 Joker and I were transferred to different prisons and time did its thing. We still sent cards on special occasions, but by 2018 even that had stopped. I was busy writing books, he was getting close to his release date, his daughter had a baby, his little brothers were growing up. Life was happening.
Then last year I received an ominous message from his sister: Ernestina had to have her leg amputated. Complications from diabetes. It hurt to think about this sweet lady who loved going to dances and playing with her nietos enduring such unimaginable trauma. Unfortunately, things did not improve. Earlier this year, she had a stroke. When I called Mission and got to speak with her, she was crying. Her normal machine gun Español was slowed to an unrecognizable slur. The only words I could make out were in English. “I love you, mijo.” I kept telling her to hang on. That Joker would be home soon. And he would be. April 30 was his release date.
Sadly, Ernestina died on April 15.
Two weeks from the finish line, my good friend who prayed every night for his mother’s health, lost his Jefita.
This Sunday when I’m in visitation celebrating Mother’s Day with my own sweet mom, I will also be honoring the woman who called me Mijo. And my family in south Texas who are spending their first Mother’s Day without her.