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Something Good

By Mike McGough

February, 2017

It was an ugly scene. There was an icy coldness in the air. It was dark and ominously foreboding in every stark detail. Absolutely no one wanted to be there. It was horrible by any and all descriptions, and it was completely impossible to think of time or a set of circumstances that could change any of that. It was just that kind of place. As the appointed time arrived, the warden, the prison chaplain, the man to be executed, his mother, and a guard took what for one of them would be their final walk in this life. At that point the prison chaplain realized that there was indeed a place even darker and more chilling than death row, and that was where they were headed. 

As they walked the warden slowly and methodically read the details of the life of crime the condemned man had lived. For whatever reason the warden felt the need to recount the whys and the wherefores. He spoke in a melancholy tone of childhood deeds that were despicable and fearful. The recollections from this man’s teen years were clearly an indication that he was headed for a solid life of crime. There was not a hint of respect for himself, for his family, for others, for anything for that matter. As a young adult his life got worse. By age twenty-six he committed the ultimate crime, and two different courts determined that he should pay the ultimate price.

He was sentenced to death and after several years on death row, his appeals were all exhausted, and there was no chance for clemency. He had not been a model prisoner, nor had he been a serious problem. His years on death row were spent letting the system churn along at its own pace. He had not befriended anyone, and with the exception of periodic visits from his mother, not a sole seemed to care one way or the other whether he lived or died. After the first year he too stopped caring. He was still alive in a stark physical sense, but there was very little else to indicate that he was living.

The appointed day for his execution had arrived and so to had the hour. He had no request for a last meal, so it was the usual prison bill of fare. He did ask if his mother could be present, so she was. She carried with her all the pain and remorse a mother would feel in such a situation. The guilt and the blame were there as well.

As they took the final walk, the torment on his mother’s face was obvious. Mistakes now too distant and too numerous to recall weighed her down. She asked herself how much of this was her fault? Mistakes, errors, and oversights, were all there in that chilly, dark place and everyone could feel them. For a moment, just a brief one, his face, and particularly his eyes, showed a hint of remorse. This was a new expression for him, one that had never surfaced before. There was an awkward, unsettling silence that utterly filled the hall as they made the final turn that would lead to the room where his sentence would be carried out.

The death row guard was a pleasant man with a kind spirit and a generous heart. Even on the best of days his was a tough job. Days like this were decidedly worse. He sensed the tension and anxiety that enveloped them. He felt the guilt and pain would surely follow this mother to the longest day she lived. He had sensed it before in similar circumstances, but today was different; it was colder and harsher. This mother and her son had nothing; it was all bad.

“You know, I’m going to miss your whistle. You might just be the best whistler I ever met,” the guard said flashing a kind smile toward the prisoner.

During his years on death row, the particular prisoner had learned to whistle and he had learned quite well. There really was not much else to do. The guard had become accustomed to hearing him as had the prisoners in nearby cells. For just an instant the hint of a smile flashed across the prisoner’s face. He turned and looked at his mother, who too briefly smiled.

With a kind word and a pleasant reflection, the guard provided a lot that day. As brief and miniscule as it was, a condemned man was afforded a final shred of dignity, and if nothing else, his mother was given something by which to remember him kindly.

The lesson here is profoundly simple. As difficult as it may be to find at times, there is something good in everyone!