‘I can accept what happened,’ I told my sister’s killer. ‘Today, in this moment, I can wish you well’
BY TOM HUDGENS, final episode — When you took my sister’s life, I told the killer himself as we sat in a stark room in a Texas prison, there were, amazingly, seven people who considered her a best friend.
John Black,* who is 30 years into a life sentence, had told me about his life, with the honesty I had asked for. Now I was telling him about his victim, who was taken from the world when she was 22 and I was just 9.
My sister, I told him, was a talented artist, proficient in many media: painting, drawing, lithography, photography, jewelry, sculpture. She was a straight-A student in the history of the art program at University of Texas, and the summer after she died her friends mounted a show of her artwork at a gallery in Austin.
I was her “baby,” I told John Black — she gave me my first haircut, made all my early birthday cakes and made beautiful cards for every holiday. I told him how much I always looked forward to visiting her in Austin, how she would sit me on the tall stool of her drafting table with enormous sheets of drawing paper, pens and pencils and watercolors and markers galore.
I told John Black how, when she’d come to tuck me in at night, she’d scratch my back until I’d fall asleep.
My sister had a terrific, zany, silly sense of humor. After she died, I told John Black, we discovered cassette tapes of her singing-we never knew she could sing!
On one, she accompanied herself on guitar, singing “Angel of Montgomery,” but I accidentally taped over it. On another, she and two of her friends sang an old version of “Rivers of Babylon.” The end of that song has a wonderful line:
So let the words of our mouths
And the meditations of our hearts
Be acceptable in thy sight
I told John Black our last memory of my sister. She had been visiting my mother and me, probably the Christmas/New Year’s of 1977/78. She had arrived, as usual, by Greyhound bus, but on that visit my mother gave her our old car, a navy-blue Chevrolet Vega.
This became our last image: My sister driving down our street in the Vega, while my mother and I stand on the curb, waving goodbye. As she drives off, she is waving gracefully out the window. We all keep waving until she turns the corner and is gone.
I asked John Black to describe his cell. He drew a small square on a piece of paper, and used a pen to point out his bed, a bookshelf, Bible, Concordance, other religious books, a calendar, a radio (he listens to a Christian station) and a fan.
He is near a window, he said, so he can see animals outside. I ask him what he misses most about the outside world, the “free world” as inmates call it. He told me that he misses living on his own schedule. Then he says he misses animals-he grew up in a rural area.
He is active in the prison chapel-he was chosen by the chaplain to be a deacon, and he even occasionally gives the sermon. He delivered his first sermon three years ago, the same year I began meditating at Spirit Rock in Marin County, California. The subject: reconciliation.
I asked about opportunities he’s had to help people. He struggled to answer this; the struggle, I believe, was to answer without pride. He then told me about an inmate who had killed many people and was being taunted by another inmate. The first inmate showed John Black a “shank” that he intended to use to kill the guy taunting him. John Black talked him out of it, and got him to hand in the knife.
Finally, I took John Black’s hands in mine. “John,” I said. “I forgive you for your crimes of raping and killing my sister. From what I can see today, you are a good, honest, intelligent, thoughtful man.”
“To me,” I went on, “‘forgiveness’ means I can accept what happened, that you did what you did, and that today, in this moment, I can wish you well, that I feel compassion towards you. And I hope that you can someday forgive yourself.”
“Praise God,” said John Black. “Thank you. Thank you.”
At this point, the meeting was mostly over. Both John Black and I had to fill out one last brief questionnaire. As John Black was leaving the room, I did something that surprised us both: I put my arms around him. Though he held his hips at an angle, he returned the hug wholeheartedly, saying, “Oh, I didn’t know if this would be appropriate, but I hoped it would be.”
I looked down and saw his small leather-bound Bible, given to him 20 years ago.
“That sure looks well-worn,” I said.
“That,” he said, “is my crutch.”
“Aww, no it’s not,” I said, to which he replied: “Oh, yes it is. It definitely is.”
*Some names have been changed to protect family members
Tom Hudgens lives and works in Marin County, CA, and attends retreats at Spirit Rock. This series was adapted from an article Hudgens wrote for Spirit Rock’s newsletter.
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