The coffee shop in the hotel was nearly deserted Saturday morning, as I had hoped it would be. I supposed other conference guests who bothered to get up for breakfast were taking advantage of free doughnuts and coffee served in the atrium.
My seminar the night before, an hour of guided discussion on issues of personal loss, had gone well, I thought, but I still felt drained, and I sought a quiet place to read the morning paper and sip my tea.
Virginia walked in, a tall woman, slender, dignified. I remembered seeing her at the seminar and noting her elegant beauty. Without asking, she ignored empty tables all around, pulled out a chair at my table of sat across from me. The waitress took her order and we exchanged the usual pleasantries: The conference was great; the keynote speaker wonderful, we both enjoyed the delicious banquet.
I’m not sure when it started, but between bites of bagel and sips of tea I noticed tears sliding down her cheeks.
She answered my questioning look with a nod, acknowledging that, yes, she was dealing with loss. She told how in her inner-city neighborhood, news flashed from house to house, like a forest fire.
She told of the afternoon when the news was of another murder, and how she recognized the name of the young victim as one of her son Christopher’s friends, “one of the boys he hung with.” She said her first thought was of Christopher, and how he would handle hearing the news.
When she heard him come home in the middle of the day, run into his room and slam the door, she hurried to comfort him.
“I walked in and was him, sitting on his bed, staring at the floor,” she went on, tears running in a steady stream now. “When I looked at his tennis shoes, I knew.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment.
“His shoes…,” she whispered. “Blood…on his tennis shoes.”
Virginia said she no longer knew her son. He is serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary. “Drugs took him,” she said.
We sat together silently, lost in our own thoughts, for a long time.
The newspaper was still on the table, and I remembered what I was reading when Virginia came in. I’d scanned the front page when the big story, right under the latest ballgame results, was about a kid shot because another kid wanted his expensive athletic shoes. I’d noted the area where the murder had taken place, and after ascertaining that it was in the inner city and not likely anybody important, I’d flipped to the comics.
Between the second and third frames of Dilbert, it hit me that I’d dismissed the murder of some mother’s child as just another case of one punk shooting another. Robberies and murders are so commonplace in our cities today that many of us don’t bother reading more than the first paragraph.
Soon I will go to prison to visit. I go as often as I am able. People ask me why. Don’t I see that the prisoners deserve their fate? Aren’t the victims and their families the ones for whom I should feel compassion?
Yes, the prisoners, most of them, should be right where they are, and yes, the victims and their families are the ones who have suffered most, and who continue to suffer. I rage over the senselessness of their loss and I grieve with them for the hopelessness they express, and none of that in any way exonerates me for my habit of casual indifference.
Somewhere in Virginia’s neighborhood, another mother grieves her loss. Her son is dead. Two women, grieving the loss of their sons, and of course, no comfort to one another.
I can’t get Virginia out of my mind. Her son committed murder. Nobody is saying otherwise. But he is only 20 years old. He is still somebody’s kid.
Published in THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS February 4, 1997