Reprinted by permission of jane davis (c) 1999 from "Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul" by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Tom Lagana. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder no portion of this publication may be reproduced without, prior written consent. All rights reserved.

The Life...of Death

by jane davis



I first met Larry a few years ago. Knowing the spiritual work I did in prisons, coupled with Larry's zest for things of the spirit, his parents suggested I meet him. Larry and I corresponded and he put me on his visitorís list.

I didn't really know what to expect the day I arrived to see him. What I knew, as I always know, was that a human being was going to come out and meet with me. Like every relationship it would take on its own qualities.

In Texas, all death row visits take place behind glass and wire mesh. Once a man goes to death row, he never again touches or hugs his loved ones. Not even on the day he is killed. Final good-byes are said behind glass, even to one's children and mother.

I sat on one side of the wire-ribboned glass, waiting for Larry to come out and sit on the other side. A young-looking, balding man with bushy eyebrows and intense eyes was led to his chair. He wore the prison whites of Texas and a gentle, beaming smile. My hands automatically went up on the glass, fingers spread wide as if giving an alien hug. His hands met mine on the other side. We smiled and nodded and took a deep breath acknowledging, in some unspoken way, where we were. Death row.

Larry had been sitting on Texas' death row for seventeen years. When he was a teenager, he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic but was refused help from the state because he wasn't violent. One day he killed five people. Instead of receiving help, he was sentenced to death.

Over the years, I came to know Larry as an intelligent, caring, searching human being. Strange words to apply to one who carries the label "mass murderer." But even Larry searches for an answer as to why he really did what he did that fateful night and has spent years trying to meet with the victim's families to apologize and provide a space for them to heal. When I first met him, I had no idea of what he was on death row for. While that is often the first question asked of me -- "What did he do?î -- it is often the last thing I come to know about the people I meet with behind bars.

In August 1999, Larry's time had come. He had his date with death: August 17 at 6 P.M. For Larry, that was all right; he was prepared to die.

Preparing for death is not like getting ready for a dance. It is an integrated challenge of the body, mind, and soul. People living on death row live with death differently than anyone else. Larry prepared for years for this moment; in the final days and hours he combined fasting and prayer and focus.

Larry has often told me, "They can't kill me." It's one of the theosophical beliefs he holds; others have used that quotation to question his sanity. What he means is that his physical body can die but his soul, his spirit, will go on. His belief in the hereafter is one of the gifts he cultivated as a result of his life, these last years, daily revolving around death. Facing death, whether it be as a result of a fatal illness or execution, has a way of strengthening one's life.

The final hour that Larry was allowed to spend with others was spent with those who were spiritually connected with him to help prepare for his moment of departure. While the noise of the prison visiting room echoed around us, we created a place of peace within a harsh, cold, deadly environment. Five of us sat in a semi-circle on one side of the glass as Larry, adorned with wooden prayer beads, faced us. For an hour we meditated together. Virtually no words were spoken except a whispered "I love you"; heads nodded in solemn, gentle bows as we offered final good-byes.

The next time we would see Larry he would be strapped to a gurney with an IV needle in his arm. He would not look at us. His path, Sant Mat ñ a Sikh derivative -- teaches him to be focused on where he is going and not to take any connection to this life with him.

But it was not to be. An hour later, as he was arriving at The Walls unit in downtown Huntsville, he was notified that he had received a stay. He had already sent all of his belongings for bequeathing. I was told that he looked out the window, silently, when told the news. Generally a stay is something to celebrate. In Larry's case it was bittersweet.

Not long after, I received a call from a state-appointed psychologist. He wanted to know if I thought Larry was mentally competent. The competency law in Texas is simply defined: first, does the person understand the imminent nature of what he is facing -- in other words, death -- and second, does he understand why he is being executed?

It was a humbling moment for me. I was being brought face to face with telling the truth. Never did I ever imagine that telling the truth would contribute to the killing of a human being.

I knew Larry had given this man my name and number. I also knew he wanted me to speak the truth as I knew it.

"Did Larry ever speak to you about his burial arrangements?" I was asked.

"Yes," I answered and described what he desired to be done with his remains.

"Did Larry ever talk with you about bequeathing his property?"

"Yes," I replied and shared what Larry wanted done with them his books, his poetry, his writings and his musical instruments.

"Is there anything, in all the time you've met with him, that you could share that might indicate that he is not competent?" I wept quietly, feeling the enormity of the questions and the answers. "I wish I could lie," I whispered.

Larry was executed on January 21, 2000 and declared dead at 6:16 p.m.; seven minutes after the first chemical entered his system. In the week prior to his death, Larry repeated words expressed over the years. ìI did a terrible thing taking the lives of their loved ones. To say ëIím sorryí seems so hollow. I wish I could tell you why things happened as they did, but it is all still very much a mystery to me. I hope they will be able to forgive me.î

Itís often abhorrent for many people to apply the word "human being" to those who have crossed certain human lines. One of the most valuable lessons I continue to learn from Larry -- and others who live in prison and death row -- is not only the depths to which man can fall, but also the spiritual heights to which man can rise, and change, and grow. This applies even to those who have murdered and raped.

Because, really, All I know when I meet a human -- whether inside the walls or out -- is that I know I know nothing about them. I merely yearn to know my "neighbors" -- their good inclinations as well as evil inclinations -- so I can practice applying the gut-wrenching, humbling action of love.

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