Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Best Birthday I Ever Had (Was In Jail)

September 13, 2005, my cell-mate was a bankruptcy attorney who was serving a short federal sentence for bankruptcy fraud. Her sentence was less than six months, so she didn't get sent to a prison, but was to serve out her sentence in a federally contracted detention center, in this case, a county jail.

She had three young children, (including a set of twins) and one of them was a "special needs" child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other issues. Since she was a single mother, she was allowed to break up her sentence over two summers so that her sister could keep her kids while she was locked up and then she could be there to take care of them when school was back in session.

She and I became very close as we got to know one another. Like many who feel the walls of despair closing in on them while confined in a drab environment, she tortured herself with despairing thoughts, including that she was a bad mother (very few who have that fear are ever actually bad mothers) and I did my best to keep her focused on the positive things she had going for her.

She was a beautiful woman, very attractive, kind-hearted, intelligent... she was within a year of my age, and it was hard to imagine how she could end up in this situation. Of course, many people have said the same thing about me. I assure you, it can happen to anyone.

One thing I knew was that she would be fine once she got out. She took over the jail within a few weeks, teaching everyone from accused murderers to crack addicts new card games and making it clear to them that she wasn't going to be bullied. She always had the upper hand, and I was sure she would somehow maintain it throughout the rest of her life. (I should get in touch with her and verify that she has, though there is no doubt in my mind.)

The week before my birthday, she, knowing that I didn't have a steady source of funding with which to purchase items like shampoo and lotion from the commissary, had me make a list of items I wanted for my birthday. I was thrilled!

She was going to be going home in a couple of weeks, so she was planning a farewell party and also ordered about 35 Hostess cupcakes, one for every inmate in our pod. (This never happens. Ever. Nobody does this. Except Shannon.)

So, on my birthday, we were all released from our cells for breakfast. I went about my usual routine of taking my shower afterwards and returned to one of about ten four-person tables where several of us normally played cards until it was time to be locked back down. When I got to my usual spot at the table, I got the surprise of my life. Not only was there a Hostess cupcake waiting there for me, but there was also a birthday card, (you could purchase those from the commissary list to send to loved ones) signed by everyone, and a "candle" she had somehow managed to fashion out of paper. (Keep in mind, inmates have no access to scissors.)

Before I even had a chance to react, the pod of about 35 women who had just been going about their business were suddenly all turned in my direction and the room swelled with the sound of everyone singing "Happy Birthday". That's when I realized that I was experiencing my first-ever surprise birthday party. In jail.

Growing up, I had enjoyed throwing my father a surprise birthday party just a couple of years before he got sick and died. Many surprise parties had been thrown in my family, and I was always enamored with the idea of sneaking around in order to bombard someone with expressions of love and happiness. The fact that someone would go to that kind of trouble  seemed to me to be the ultimate validation of the fact that the person being honored at such a party was deserving of love.

Like many who are in the black sheep role in their family, I struggled with feelings of unworthiness. I never thought anyone would go to that kind of trouble for me unless it was a matter of necessity, but there I was, turning 36 in jail, and experiencing the most amazing (and unexpected) surprise birthday party anyone could ever imagine, in the most unlikely of circumstances.

My brother and I always had nice birthdays growing up. My parents went out of their way to make it special with what little resources they had, and they always succeeded. I cherish those memories, but as birthday surprises go, nothing - not even winning the lottery on my birthday - could ever compare to what Shannon, a friend I had known for only a brief time, did for me. It really is true that it's the thought that counts, and the thought she put in will count for the rest of my life.

So there you have it, horrific, wonderful, and bizarre all rolled into one bittersweet, delicious experience with a paper candle on top. I challenge you to beat that combination in a true story. I just don't think it can be done.