our sister's tattoo

aaminah lost her best friend, ex-husband, son's father, and compaƱero. in memory of him and in love for aaminah we are fundraising for her to get a tattoo in honor of his life. so that she can hold him close to her heart, always.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

who Eric was and what he means to me

It is so difficult to know where to start, how to distill into a few paragraphs what someone really means to you. Mai'a asked me to write something for this fundraiser about who Eric was and what he means to me. You have to know what he means to me to understand why i would want to put a tattoo with his name on me.
The short story is that Eric and my brother were friends all thru school and then leaders in a local gang together before my brother brought him home for Christmas dinner one year. i had brought someone home for dinner too, a friend who had asked me to move across the country with him, but that day changed everyone's lives. In our time together i found him to be self-sacrificing, generous, kind and thoughtful in every way. Despite his thug history, there was so much more to him and i feel blessed to have known and been loved by the real person he was behind that facade. After being told i wouldn't be able to have children and surviving together thru a miscarriage of twins, several bouts of homelessness, starvation, and generally unpleasant circumstances, i got pregnant again. Due to his drug habits and lack of access to treatment programs, however, Eric was with me only about a month or so of that pregnancy before he was sent to prison.
Our son is 13 1/2 and never met his father. Eric was finally due to be paroled this June. We didn't tell our son about it because we've learned from past experience that parole is never guaranteed and always at risk right up until the last possible moment. We had learned that and so much more about the prison industrial complex. We'd learned a lot the hard way.
In his nearly 14 years in prison, Eric was an activist for prisoner rights. As both a Muslim and traditional NDN he found that the most basic of spiritual/religious rights that are guaranteed by the federal government were constantly infringed upon by the State of Michigan, including the right to access to holy books and the right to gather to pray. As a diabetic, he learned that basic medical care is not a right that the state ensures prisoners have; not only was he not able to maintain a proper diet but his insulin was also withheld on a regular basis due to his inability to pay for it. The living conditions in some of the prisons were so shameful that after storms the prisoners waded thru ankle-deep water or knee-deep backed up sewage. The preferred method to deal with mental health issues was high dosages of Thorazine, and it wasn't until they began preparing him for release that he went thru a proper psychological evaluation and began to be treated for bi-polar disorder.
It's true that while Eric has been in prison i re-married more than once. i was looking for someone to father my son and looking for some sort of happiness in this world, not knowing if Eric would ever get parole. On one occassion when he had been granted parole, he was attacked by a fellow prisoner while guards looked on and only jumped in to stop the assault when he finally threw one punch in return. A copy of the official report was sent to me at that time and the guards had no shame about admitting that they had paid the other prisoner to attack him and watched him be beaten to the ground before he threw a single punch in self defense and they broke the fight up. They had no shame admitting they had done this "to see what would happen" and what happened was that he lost his parole and was thrown in solitary confinement. Over his 14 year stay in prison Eric sustained numerous broken bones and injuries, done primarily by guards with no explanation or proof ever offered of why they felt the need to use such force on him for simple things like failing to get up from his prayers on command or for requesting an alternative to the pork thrown on his plate at meal time.
The most recent issue came up when i found a local residential treatment program that agreed to accept him after his parole. i was counseled that he would need to talk to his case manager and parole officer to let them know he was requesting to go into the program, which is funded by grants that are designed to assist prisoners in re-entering their communities. The program includes a safe place for them to live, substance abuse and psychological counseling, employability skills, and general re-introduction assistance as the world has changed greatly in 14 years. Apparently, these are things that the state is required to offer to prisoners, and the state is also required to assist them in finding appropriate housing for their parole to be possible. When Eric raised the program as his preference, and having no other possibility for living arrangements, he was told that he "wouldn't qualify" for those services because he "already had some classes" while still in prison that were poorly designed to meet those needs. The circumstances around Eric's death three months before his release can only be described as the fault of the prison system.
For me to try to explain how important Eric is to me would be impossible. He was my best friend, my ex-husband, my son's father, my compaƱero. Maintaining communication and getting to know each other again in preparation for his coming home led me to realize that although we had both grown and changed a lot over the years, we still held shared beliefs, ideals, and dreams. i realized that we would probably eventually end up together again but i didn't want him to have assumptions so i didn't tell him that. i didn't tell him just how happy i was about him coming home and i didn't tell him how much i love him. i regret that now.
The tattoo design that i chose is a dreamcatcher with a feather - signifying our shared Blackfeet/Blood heritage - surrounded by his name, which is in turn surrounded by the transliteration of the Arabic for "To Allah we belong and to Allah we return", which is what we Muslims say in times of hardship, especially death. It's the sort of tattoo that he would have loved, and it's something that i will never be ashamed to wear in his honor and his memory. In this way, i wish to hold him close to me, and close to my heart, always.

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