Before my brother’s incarceration, I held many beliefs that I now grapple with; one is my once vehement view embracing an eye for an eye, the law of retribution. The idea once seemed simple, if you do wrong, you should suffer an equivalent consequence. The problem is I interpreted this guiding principle through the kaleidoscope of my own limited experience, an experience that did not take life’s complexity or the fallibilities of the justice system into account. The variables are endless, for example just pick up Anthony Ray Hinton’s new book, The Sun Does Shine, which discusses how he survived three decades on death row in Alabama for a crime he did not commit. The number of death row inmates who were set free is absolutely staggering. Then of course, you have to consider mental illness and countless other factors when considering retaliation in lieu of a more magnanimous alternative.
Here’s the thing, I never thought I would be standing on line, shoes in hand, waiting to walk through a metal detector at a maximum-security prison to see my little brother. I never thought I would sit across from someone whom I once knew as the kindest, gentlest person and question every conviction I ever held about him and about all my perceptions. I never thought someone I loved would cause others, including myself, such intense pain by committing an inane act, an act still unfathomable to all affected. Here’s another thing, sometimes you cannot make sense of a tragedy no matter how hard you try. That aside, I want to believe that if you are willing to look at your experiences, even the most painful ones, as opportunities to learn then you will grow as a person and you may even be able to help others along the way. I have to constantly remind myself that good can come from a tragedy, that all is not lost. I use what I know, poetry, as a catalyst for thought and discussion, the chance to make people feel less lonely. I believe poetry is a good place to start any conversation.
I don’t want this poem to be about the death penalty, but it is
After our family’s hamster cannibalized three of her newly born babies,
I placed her into isolation, an old tar bucket I found in the garage.
I don’t tell my daughter this when she asks if she can get a pet hamster,
instead I remind her of the fish she fails to feed and the cat litter I clean.
I don’t tell her how I believed in the death penalty when I carried
that tar bucket outside, dug a hole in the snow, dropped the hamster in,
and buried her alive. I don’t tell her how, shortly after that, my parents
called my brother and I to dinner. Remorseless, I scooped a heaping
serving of mashed potatoes on to my plate and didn’t notice my brother
crying. I almost forgot how he left the table, without explanation,
ran outside, dug up the hamster with his bare hands, brought her into
his bedroom and rocked her for hours. I tell my daughter to ask her father
because I know he’ll say no. He doesn’t want to deal with another
caged animal who will eventually be forgotten by everyone except me.
I don’t tell her I believed in an eye for an eye until her Uncle,
that small boy who cradled that hamster, murdered someone we loved.
I remember their tiny pink bodies ripped apart and strewn over the woodchips.
I remember thinking what kind of animal could do something so disturbing?
They never even had the chance to open their eyes. I tell her to stop
begging, but I don’t tell her how our scent on the newborns may have
triggered the massacre, how the hamster may have feared a lack of resources,
or was in shock after giving birth. My daughter cradles this want in her
bones. She asks why not as if there is an answer that will satisfy either of us.
About the Author: Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Falling Forward (sunnyoutside press), Cadillac Men (NYQ Books), Waiting at the Dead End Diner (Bottom Dog Press), Our One-Way Street (NYQ Books) and several chapbooks including Common Wages, a joint project with poet Don Winter. She received her MA from San Francisco State University and currently lives with her family in New York’s Hudson Valley. She is a co-editor of the online publication Trailer Park Quarterly.
Image Credit: “Snow Scene” By Bruce Crane. The Metropolitan Museum of Art