“Are you doing okay?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
I should have said yes. I should have been strong and said yes. Instead I said no and he ended up convincing me that things would be alright, that he was alright, that he felt calm, no matter what the outcome.
I had just finished making a Vietnamese beef stew. It was sitting beside me as I spoke to him. I didn’t touch it.
“It’s so good to hear your voice,” I told him. He laughed gently.
I thought he would have some contact time with his family but I later read that the only time they are allowed to see him is after he has died, in the funeral home. They are allowed to go and touch his body while it is still warm.
He asked what I had been doing that evening. I told him I’d been watching RuPaul’s Drag Race Allstars. We laughed about the whole drag queen scene. He said he once dressed up as a woman to go to a Halloween party when he was about 20. A man had grabbed his bum at the party, thinking he was actually a woman, and he had been horrified. He’d never dressed up as a woman ever again.
The truth is, I’ve never entertained the idea of grieving for Vaughn because I didn’t want it to tear me apart. When I first met Vaughn, about five years ago, I had also met another man on death row, Ruben. Meeting them both devastated me. I couldn’t believe the situation these men faced every day. It was one of those things I couldn’t ignore.
I came back completely different. I intentionally fell out of contact with some friends. I applied to law school. And I resolved to do something about the situation. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the death penalty in America. My mind was totally absorbed.
For about two months after returning, my mind was in a completely different world. A world of unfairness, of bad lawyers and bad trials, of men from poor backgrounds who were killed and faded from the world without a trace. A world of brutal murders and serial killers. Of guilt and of innocence.
And I felt hopeless. I felt crushed and hopeless. My every waking thoughts were of the men I had met and my struggle to understand that they would be dead one day soon.
It was hard. It was really hard.
I suddenly realised I was facing a beast bigger than myself and if it wanted to take these men from me, it could. It just could. I could fight and I could kick and I could scream. And still, it would take them.
That’s a horrible thing to realise. We are lead to believe that we can affect positive change if we speak up. If we use our voices to enable those less fortunate than ourselves, then we can help them.
Realising that the intention to kill carried the might of the state and that my ability to beat it was minuscule was a hard thing to take on board.
I felt sad. I just felt overwhelmed and sad.
Yes, I enrolled in law school and yes, I sold my soul to the bank for a loan for the fees and yes, I studied the most boring land statutes with gusto but my intention could only ever be to help in a very small way. To someone who has always thought big, this was hard.
Then, a few months ago, I got a letter from Vaughn about his execution date. I was worried for him and I was worried for me. I was worried about coming back from visiting him and being crushed. I worried that my hope and faith in the world would be lost.
And so I determined not to be destroyed by it. I determined to go and see him and have a nice time and hopefully cheer him up in his last few weeks of life but not to return a broken woman.
I couldn’t. I just couldn’t let myself be destroyed. It wasn’t an option. Things are nice in my life right now. I mustn’t let this draw me away into a shell and re-realise the devastating truth that a man had been killed and I couldn’t do anything to help him or to stop it.
And so I came home from Texas and I was fine. I barely mentioned that I’d been away or where to or why unless it came up in conversation and I was asked specifically why I went. I managed to keep my thoughts and feelings in a box and keep it shut.
Every so often, waves of panic washed over me when I thought of the approaching date. I waited til they subsided then went on as normal.
And then July 18th came. What a horrible horrible night.
After we spoke for a while on the phone, there was a beeping on the line and mid-conversation, he said, “It’s call waiting. I’ve got to go.”
And I said, stupidly, like a rabbit in the headlights, “O! Ok, bye! I… I wish this wasn’t happening.” And he hung up.
And that was how I said goodbye to him.
At 00:46 that evening, I read that he was dead. I gasped. I knew it was coming but I felt someone had ripped a body part off. Torn my throat out or punched me in the stomach or something. Unexpectedly, there were tears. I thought I’d be too shocked to be upset.
I went upstairs and lay down and stared at the ceiling. I had an early start the next day and I hadn’t the time to sit up and understand it all.
I just knew that I mustn’t be ruined by it. I mustn’t let it overwhelm me. I mustn’t shut down and shut people out.
So I continued on. I kept a level head and I worked and read books about other things.
And I forgot.
I forgot about Vaughn. And about his death. And about the time I spent with him.
And I didn’t feel anything. That scared me. The fact that I didn’t have any emotional response to the situation anymore.
I remember calling Vaughn back after about an hour. I wanted to talk to him again and I was suddenly frantic about what was about to happen.
The lady on the other end said the line was busy.
I called back twenty minutes later and she said that he had made a choice to take no more phone calls.
In his last words, he said “Miriam, I love you,” and I thought, “Who’s Miriam?”