issue 24 Autumn/Winter 04
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No Bars to Love

Jarvis Jay Masters is a Buddhist on death row in a Californian prison. Here he describes how, after the death of his beloved Tibetan teacher, he shared his insights in the prison yard.

Perhaps a week after I heard the news of Rinpoche's death, I was escorted to the visiting booth. I sat there, looking through the window and trying to guess who my visitor could be. Who was taking the time to go through all the complications this prison puts one through in order to visit me? My thoughts drifted among all the people I hadn't seen for a while. And my eyes welled up, as the image of Chagdud Rinpoche came over me. I wished it was him coming to visit me. Then I realised how his physical presence would never again turn that corner and walk up to the glass window, as he had done so many times.

I adore him as both my teacher and my father. I thought of all the obstacles he had overcome to get inside this place to visit me: the hours he had to divert from countless others, hours he could have spent with an auditorium full of people wishing to take refuge within his presence and teachings. In the midst of my sadness, I knew how blessed I was that he had walked inside San Quentin prison to sit in front of me, on the other side of this very glass window. In later years, through all his illnesses, Chagdud rolled his wheelchair into the visiting room. He gave me my whole spiritual path, and I can now reflect not only on his continued teachings but on his care and compassion.

Looking through the glass visiting window, I waited for my visitor to come. Thirty minutes passed, and I began to wonder if they had cancelled, but I stayed on, hopeful. All the inmates' visitors were already there, and I could hear the conversations taking place around me.

My friend Russell and I were the only two people from the Adjustment Center who had been escorted to the visiting room that day. Russell, too, is on death row, and I've been knowing him for about 10 years. He told me he was expecting his baby sister - he wanted me to meet her, but somehow she walked past me without my noticing her, and now she and Russell were already in the booth next to me. I could hear Russell's heavy voice talking into the speaker in the wall. He was telling his sister not to bring their mother to see him. His sister must have hit a nerve, because his voice was loud and serious, almost angry. His outburst caught my attention.

One of my biggest regrets is that I never saw my mother during the first seven years I was here - while she was still alive. Plus, I had just been thinking of Rinpoche and wishing that I could see him again. So I was really thrown for a loop by Russell's remarks to his sister.

Why would he, several years older than me - maybe in his upper 40s - not want his mother to visit him? The more I heard him angrily telling his sister how under no conditions did he 'ever, ever want' his mother to visit, the more I felt the old longing to see my own mother's face.

Russell's voice grew louder and louder: 'Don't you ever bring Mama up here. If you do, we're finished! That's it! I'll never speak to you again! I'd rather be put to death than to let Mama see me like this.' I thought of loved ones who had passed away while I was here, without me seeing them, because either they or I had somehow believed that there would be a right time - a different time - when we would be together without a glass window between us.

No visitor ever came for me that day, and so my mind was completely drawn into the dialogue in the next booth. And the more insistent Russell became, the deeper I fell, tumbling down into my memories and regrets.

With all the tears I'd shed and the deep pain I had felt because of the lost chance to look into the eyes of my mother, I knew I needed to speak to Russell whenever I could. Though we are living on different tiers, and we are on separate yards, I figured I could speak to him through the yard fence.

It was hard to wait for the opportunity to speak with Russell. It took almost a week before I saw him on the exercise yard adjacent to the yard I was on. It had rained all through the night before, and it was a perfect, clear winter morning. Both of us were hanging out near the fence. For hours I held back, trying to find the words to get around the fact that I had eavesdropped on his conversation with his sister. Finally, I just stopped trying to find an excuse for listening, and I called Russell over to the fence. I told him that I had heard him telling his sister never to bring their mother to visit him.

The first thing Russell said was, 'Yeah, Jarvis, I know you wouldn't let your mother come up here either. Man, it will be a cold day in hell before I let my mother come to this fucked-up place and see me like this.'
'Man, Russell, my mother passed away!' I said.
'Is that right?' said Russell. A sad look crossed his face. 'I'm sorry to hear that, Jarvis.'
'Yeah, Russ,' I continued. 'She died years ago, about the same time we first met. And to this very day I regret it whenever I think of the times she could've visited me. Every time I glance over at her picture on the wall in my cell, I wish I had seen her face in the visiting room. You know?'
'Is that right, Jarvis?' said Russell. 'You would've really wanted your mother coming to this shit-hole? To see you on death row? Being stuck in the visiting lines, talked down to by those sometimes shitty-ass guards, and to see you for an hour at best man? Nah, man, my mother means way too much for me to even think about her coming to this rotten, fucked-up place - a place I got my own self into? Nah, and for what?'
'What do you mean, for what?' I interrupted. 'For what? Because she wants to, Russell! Because she bore you - not the other way around. 'Listen, Russell. There is nothing about this place, about you being here, about the clothes you're forced to wear - not even the fact that your bad-ass is sitting on death row - that can ever remove the son she is holding in her heart. She, too, is facing a death sentence, every time she thinks of where you are. She is waiting, hoping, praying you aren't executed. Every day she lives with the fear of losing you.'
'Man, Jarvis, I hear what you're saying,' said Russell. 'That's real talk, and I'm feeling it all, too. But hey, I've already hurt my mother way too much just by being here. She's an old woman now, in her 80s. And it would break her heart to see me like this. Shit! It's even hard to write to her, you know? Plus, man, you know more than anyone all the things these prison folks put visitors through. It ain't worth it, Jarvis. It just ain't worth it.'
'Russell, man, listen to me. I know it's discouraging. But it's not about protecting your mother. You don't want her to see you in prison, on death row, but this is where she has seen you since you've been here, Russell. You can't shield her from this fact. She knows you're here, dressed in state clothes, Russell. But she also knows how important her time is to both of you Russell.'
'What do you mean,' Russell asked, 'about her time? I always tell my sister to let my mother know all the good chances my attorneys say I have to win my appeal and get out of this place.'
'Oh, is that right?' I said. 'Then what happens if your mother, not you, is the one to die next week? Or next month? What then? What about everything you have in your mind that you've dreamed of saying to her - where would that go then? You see, Russ, it's not about you - you getting out someday - waiting and waiting for that. It's all about not letting time go to waste today, regardless of where we both can imagine ourselves tomorrow. Because there are no promises. I know this now, but I didn't actually realise it, truly, until that day the prison chaplain came up to my cell and stared into my eyes and said, 'I have some bad news - your mother died.'

I began crying in front of Russell.
'And guess what I ended up being asked to do? Guess what took the place of everything I had dreamed of saying to my mother?'
'What? I don't know,' Russell said.
'You guess, Russ,' I said. 'You try to guess.'
'Man, wow, Jarvis,' Russell said sadly. 'I don't know, man. I can't even imagine my mother dying, let alone all the rest of it.'
'Well, I was asked to write something to be read at her memorial,' I said. 'And I'll tell you something. In every word my heart gave, in every sentence, every period I dotted, there were a billion more things in my heart that I wished I could've expressed to my mother in that visiting room. And if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have cared if the only chance to be with my mother was sitting on a piece of ice floating on the Arctic Sea. Because there never is a good time. There is only the time we have now, to make good our intentions.'

Russell and I just stood there, leaning on the fence. For a moment neither of us said anything. We didn't have to. I understood that until this moment, Russell had never let himself think about the fact that he could lose his mother while he was in prison. On death row the closest fear is your own death. This can consume you so much that everyone else seems immortal. It seems as if everyone you love on the outside is guaranteed to outlive you. I can't count the times I imagined myself out of prison and sitting with Rinpoche during one of his retreats.

For a moment, Russell just stared at me as if he had gone some place only he could go.

Then he said: 'Jarvis, man, I don't know what the hell I was trippin' on. All these years when my mother's been begging to visit me I had the nerve to tell her no. Man, I love that woman!'.
Tears welled up in his eyes. 'And man, I've been a real fool, a total jack-ass, you know?'
'No, Russ,' I said. 'There are lots of people - and not all in prison - who go about their daily lives with their mothers living in the next town, or only a phone call away, and the thought of stopping by or calling to share time and company passes. So they carry on with their lives, and don't make the memories that would support them, long after their mothers are gone. But being in prison, even on death row, can never erase all that there is to say and be with - if only you let your mother come to visit you.'
'Yeah, you're right, Jarvis,' he said. 'As soon as I get back to my cell, I'm going to sit down and write Moms a long letter. And maybe, just maybe, by Christmas, she'll be able to come and see me.'
'Well,' I joked, 'you're way too ugly to be a gift to your Mama's eyes, Russ. But for sure, she will be the best Christmas gift you will have gotten in more than 10 years, eh?'

We both laughed. Luckily for me, both Russell and I did get visits on Christmas Day. I even had the chance to see Russell's mother. I noticed her when all the visits had ended - a short, smiling lady, still blowing kisses to Russell on her way out of the visiting room. She blew so many that I got me one or two of them, too. But more than that, I felt her love for Russell. And in that instant I realised the love my teacher Chagdud Rinpoche had felt for me. I watched his loving presence pass through us all.

This article has also appeared in Turning Wheel Magazine