INSIDE THE FORBIDDEN OUTSIDE
SONNI’S SIDE OF THE STORY – part 1
“Nana, Nana”, I heard through the door. My grandchildren were banging on the door to the hotel room my husband and I had just checked into. I could hear childish laughter in the hall when I opened the door. My two young grandchildren came running into the room as I opened the door, greeting me with hugs around my waist. Too much time always passes before I get to see my grandchildren again. They grow so fast. I know now how my parents must have felt because I always lived so far from them when my own children were young. I might do a few things different if I had the chance to do it over again. Unfortunately, we never get a do-over and paybacks can be tough when we see the consequences of choices we made. It has been so hard being separated from my family for long periods of time. This time it has been two years. It was a happy time to see my daughter when she came into the hotel room with her current boyfriend coming in behind her.
I had my camera in my hand, wanting to catch that first moment to look back on in later years. As it turned out, I have looked at that picture almost every day for the last couple years because it is on the opening page of the blog, “My Name Is Jamie. My Life In Prison,” I write for Jamie Cummings, the young man I met that night,
The year was 2005. My husband and I made a trip to Texas from Key West, Florida, to spend Thanksgiving week with my daughter and grandchildren in Nacogdoches, a small university town in East Texas. It’s the town I lived in for a few years when I was married to my children’s father. My daughter chose to move to this town as an adult to be around her father’s family. It was a comfort knowing my daughter and grandchildren had family support.
Jamie was a very shy, polite, young black man, a little over six feet tall, with a fair amount of meat on his bones. He clearly wasn’t starving, but he was clearly uncomfortable. No matter how hard I tried to coax him to look up into the camera for a picture, the photo I ended up taking of the four of them had him looking at his feet with a big grin on his face. It’s an endearing photo seeing his embarrassment. He had to be nervous, not knowing what kind of reception he was going to get from the white family of his girlfriend, but this was not the first black significant other of someone in my family. Skin color doesn’t matter to me. It isn’t how I judge someone’s worth. My only concern for Morgan was if she was happy, and it appeared she was. I didn’t know anything about Jamie, but on the surface, at least, everything seemed okay. We had a nice evening sitting in the building of the hotel’s heated indoor pool, talking while the children played in the water. Jamie clearly enjoyed the children and it was obvious they liked him, too.
The following morning my husband and I treated everyone to breakfast. In Texas, children are raised to say yes ma’am, and no sir, every time you ask them a question. I don’t think I have ever been ma’am’d so many times in one day. If a child only answers a question with a yes or no, an adult will ask them, “Yes what?” until they get, “Yes ma’am”. If all children were taught to respect adults there would be less rude kids in schools who think it is okay to be disrespectful and say anything they want to teachers, or anyone else in authority. Children today are lacking the fundamentals of respect we showed adults when I was raised. It’s easy to see how much that has effected how they treat most things in life. Even Jamie ma’am’d me when I asked him a question. I told him it wasn’t necessary but as hard as he tried, he couldn’t stop himself. Since the habit was too ingrained to change, all I could was laugh.
When you least expect it, life throws curveballs that end up affecting your life to the point of sending it down a completely different path. Jamie Cummings was one of those curveballs. He affected my life in ways I could have never imagined at the time. He became an important part of my life because we were there for each other during times of crisis. After after quite a few years passed, I realized he had a story that needed to be told.
Soon after my husband and I returned to Key West, Morgan called me and announced she was pregnant – again. She probably knew during the visit, but didn’t want to tell me and face to face and hear my reaction, for several reasons. One, she hadn’t known him very long, and she was having a hard enough time taking care of the two children she already had while trying sporadically to go to school. She also hard a hard time after her second child was born because she had eclampsia, a complication of pregnancy that can lead to seizures, as well as other symptoms. Morgan did had seizures after the birth and they continued as silent seizures for several years. To get pregnant again would be risky. Another pregnancy would have a high likelihood of more complications. It automatically put her new pregnancy in the high risk category.
The first time she got pregnant, Morgan was only fifteen. In her immaturity she was so completely sure she could raise a child, go to school and work full time, all at the same time. She lost the rest of her youth and any possibility of finding out what she wanted to be. No more dreams. Only a life of raising children without having enough money. I understood how hard that was. I laid all the possible consequences out for her, assuring her I wasn’t going to raise my grandchildren. She needed to be sure this was what she wanted. I knew it would be her education that was going to suffer. I also knew if I made the decision for her, she would resent me later. It’s hard for a young girl to make a decision like that when they are too young to have any wisdom. She had to decide and know whatever she chose, it was going to be a choice she was going to have to live with. I would support whatever decision she made.
This happened more than eighteen years ago, in 1995. The boy who was the father of her son wasn’t in the picture to help her. She received no help from him or his family through the years. He eventually landed in prison. Morgan and her son raised each other. He turned out to be a good kid with a good head on his shoulders. he’s going into the Marine Corps toward the end of 2016. She has the right to be very proud of him. She did a good job teaching him right from wrong. She depended on him to help pick up the slack when she was tired from working all the time. For many years he was the man of the house and helped raised the little ones. She was a fierce mother. At least Jamie has known through these years that his son, Jamie Jr., who was born after he was incarcerated, has been well cared for and loved.
The year of our visit in 2005, Morgan was struggling to finish school at the local Jr College and was working as a nursing assistant. But that job, in Texas, doesn’t pay well. She hoped to go on to nursing school or business administration in the medical field, but her life pulled her in too many directions and she was unable to complete it. Now she was adding a third child; a baby with someone she had only known for a few months who wouldn’t be able to help financially.
Jamie, too, didn’t have any education or experience to find the kind of work that would support a family. Love does not conquer all. It was a hardship neither of them would be able to easily overcome. On top of that he has epilepsy, which not only makes him unable to get a drivers license, which limits jobs, there were also medical concerns. Neither of them thought of the hardships they would have, bringing another child into their world with no money to care for it. Love does not pay the bills, either. But at least they had love and for a very short period of time they were happy. It didn’t last long.
The only thing I could do was shake my head and keep my fingers crossed. It was not enough. Morgan always had a lot going on in her life. It was about to triple and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. She was in la la babyland and already buying little things for a baby boy. I remember being told about a cute little pair of red Nike infant shoes Jamie had bought for him. Jamie was so happy he was going to be a father. That never changed, but what happened next was tragic.
About thirty days after we returned home I got a frantic phone call from Morgan. Jamie had been arrested, and her car had been impounded. She couldn’t get her car back because the fees were too high. She was frantic and didn’t know what to do. She tried to stay close to Jamie to support him while he was at the jail waiting to go to court, but without a car she couldn’t get the kids to school or make it to her doctor appointments. Since she had a high risk pregnancy, if she waited to long to get another doctor no one would take her because they wouldn’t want to be responsible if anything went wrong. She knew she couldn’t stay there. Family was only going to taxi her around for so long. There was no way she could survive on her own.
Her grandmother wouldn’t let her move in with her. She had already taken in too many family members who couldn’t seem to get their lives together, and Jamie’s family wasn’t an option, so I bought a bus tickets for them to come to Key West to live with my husband and myself. In the back of our house was a small, connected apartment. She would have her own place and have privacy. It was a tiny place with a loft, a refrigerator, microwave and hot plate, a full bathroom and small livingroom. It looked like a dollhouse with a high pointed ceiling. There was a wooden boat ladder that went up to a loft where the two oldest children slept, which overlooked the livingroom. Morgan slept in a narrow day bed in the living room. It wasn’t nearly big enough, but at least this way I was close enough to help her and the kids when they needed it.
No doctor in Key West would take her. I finally found a doctor in Miami, a eight hour round trip drive for every appointment and a planned C-section delivery to make sure her doctor would deliver the baby instead of a stand in at the Key West hospital. Key West wasn’t equipped for emergencies and there were complications with the delivery. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the babies neck three times. He could not have been born naturally. Jamie and Morgan had a son.
Although Morgan promised to wait for Jamie, she was young and didn’t understand what kind of commitment that would mean. For a couple years she wrote to him every day, promising she would wait, until it finally hit her that he was going to be gone until she was more than forty years old. Gradually, she resumed her life. After all, she reasoned, they had only been physically together for a few short months. There wasn’t enough time invested in the relationship for her to wait that many years. She needed to justify to herself why she wasn’t waiting for him. It was understandable. It is hard for anyone to give up the rest of their youth. It was tragic for Jamie, though, because she didn’t know how to tell him. She stopped writing. he wanted to believe she was still waiting for him but it became obvious she wasn’t. He was the one inside a small cubicle with nowhere to go. Her life went on, while his stayed the same. Life couldn’t move on for him. There was only his past and his dreams for the future, and those dreams were evaporating.
Memories of Morgan and imagining what his son was like, even if he couldn’t see him, were the things that kept Jamie going. He wouldn’t be able to help take care of him, or spend those first precious years with him as he learned to crawl, walk and talk, but he could close his eyes and pretend he was there. It was heartbreaking for him to miss this part of his son’s life. There are many people who have had the opportunity to be a parent but run in the other direction, but here was a man who desperately wanted to be a part of his son’s life and couldn’t. But your children are always your children no matter how old they are, and someday Jamie will have the chance to be a father. For right now, though, it has given him the reason to stay strong and keep fighting for his life.It was his reason to stay encouraged. We would make it through this time. Being a father was a way to make up for not having a father. He did not want his son to go through what he went through.
He was sent far away from everyone, to the other side of Texas, so it was almost impossible for anyone to visit. He thought of Morgan as his wife and that was how she was listed on his paperwork so she would be able to call the prison if she needed to. It would take two days each way to drive across the state with three children. He was alone. He only had one visit during these first few years he was incarcerated. Megan came with the kids, and brought his mother with her. He didn’t see anyone again for another six years.
Jamie rarely heard from his family. It was like being dropped into hell for eternity, because seventeen years feels like an eternity. He was young – only twenty two. It was almost as though he had died. It ground him down. He had already been gone for four years before this, in juvenile detention, so he guessed they really didn’t know him anymore, so why bother writing to him. He was prone to depression and it made it worse. Jamie always gave them excuses. He thought it was probably because he gave his mother a hard time when he growing up. Hogwash. When you love someone, you make time for them.
Jamie believed Morgan intended to wait for him to get out. He knew she loved him, but if he didn’t make parole someday, their son would be ready to graduate highschool by the time he got out. He might make parole someday, but it wasn’t when you are black, poor and locked up in a Texas state prison.
At the time, I owned a retail store at the Westin Hotel that catered to the cruiseships that docked several times a week. I was able to give Morgan a job before and after the birth. Being able to have her and the kids near me for a year and a half is time I will always cherish. Little Jamie was a beautiful baby and it was nice having a new baby in the house. Morgan brought him to work with her, and many times I was trying to change diapers and make a bottle while working the cash register. It was chaotic.
I fixed up a little supply area near the register with carpet and a gate when Jamie got big enough to crawl around. When the cruiseships unloaded we had wall to wall customers. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I so enjoyed having them there. The baby was quite a hit with the customers. Having my daughter live close so I could see her every day was something I never thought I’d have again. This was before the economy crashed, along with my health. To make matters worse, the BP oil spill happened in the Gulf, and the tourist trade took a big hit. Cruise prices were lowered down to the price of a motel room and no one had any money to spend. But right now it was only 2007 and we had no idea what was coming in the near future.
Morgan wrote to Jamie regularly. While he was still in jail he was able to call, but each collect call was $25 for fifteen minutes so I had to restrict how often he could call. The price to make a phone call was been a huge problem in the jails and prisons. It was a burden for many families who couldn’t afford to pay that kind of money. It’s important for inmates to be able to stay in contact with family. The jail phone services were raping the families to get every last dime they could. Recently, because families have been fighting back, the phone charges have been lowered, but it could be a temporary change. The fight isn’t over.
I didn’t have much communication with him at that time, beyond asking him how he was doing when he called. I felt bad he was in there. It sounded like he got a raw deal. Megan was trying to get money together to help get him an attorney. His brother said he knew someone who would take a deposit and they could pay it off. She sent him a fair amount of money but the attorney didn’t materialize and she didn’t get her money back. Jamie did seem like a good person when we met. I wasn’t sure exactly what happened that put him in there. I didn’t think I was getting the whole story, but most kids don’t tell their parents everything. I know I didn’t. I went with my gut which told me he got a raw deal and I still believe that now.
Morgan kept me informed about how he was doing. After he was sentenced he was moved to a prison in West Texas. He was now no longer able to make calls. After Jamie was moved it was difficult for both of them. Even though Morgan couldn’t see him when she was in Key West, when he was moved to West Texas it was though he had moved to another country. After the baby was born I knew it wouldn’t take long for Morgan to want to go out with friends and party. We were in Key West, after all. For some time she tried to continue writing to him on a regular basis. I thought it might be possible she would want to continue the relationship when he got out. I knew she cared for him, but it proved to be too long to wait. She didn’t want to be alone.
They stayed with us in Key West until little Jamie turned one year old. After that she wanted to go back to Texas. It was devastating to see her drive off with the kids. But now She would be close to her father’s family and also Jamie’s family, and they would enjoy being able to see Jamie’s son. The little apartment was too small with three children and she would never be able to make enough money to live here on her own. The cost of living is too high in Key West if you don’t have a decent income.
I want to thank everyone who has been following this blog and those who have been reading the chapters of the book as I write and rewrite, finding my way. I’m very determined to do this, and do it right. Every time you share something on your own SM, you help me tremendously. Every new address on the mailing list gives me more credibility for publishing. I hope you continue to give me pushes in the right direction.
http://facebook.com/jamielifeinprison . . .Blog posts and news about injustice in the world
Sonni’s Pinterest boards
A Message From Someone Who Cares (forward)
I Love You Always, Daddy
A Roof Over My Head, Three Squares a Day and Free Medical
Sometimes They’ll Give You Candy
There Is No Place Like Home – part one
There Is No Place Like Home – part two
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