This essay appears in Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison, available now from Belt Publishing.
The morning of November 9, 1993, started out like every other morning over the last forty years. That morning I woke up in an eight-foot-long, five-foot-wide, ten-foot-high prison cell. The cell contains a six-and-a-half by two-and-a-half foot bed, a three by one-and-a-quarter foot desk, a toilet, and a sink. These are the smallest cells in the country. The cruel joke is they are the size of coffins.
Prison has a slow moving, monotonous motion. The bland empty expressions the routine sameness, the empty hunger eyes intensely craving a taste of something undefined and just out of reach, the stumbling gait of listless bodies staggering through the crowded prison corridors has a Hollywood zombie movie quality. These zombies exist on the edge of existence almost motionless until the sudden movement of real life, a visit, an “I love you” over the phone, the telling of an old story, awakens the craving for a taste of real life again.
I have lived in one of these small coffin cells for thirty of the last forty years. The other ten, I’ve lived in what is euphemistically called a “big cell.” What makes it a big cell is an extra three feet of width and a bunk bed. Approximately five of those ten years, I could stretch out in my “big cell” alone. The other three years were the hardest, when I shared my big cell and my miseries with another suffering man. We described it as “living in a bathroom with another grown-ass man.”
I had risen early as usual and completed my morning rituals. These rituals I had slowly incorporated into a daily routine over the prior two years. I started developing these routines after I had finally quit using all mind-altering substances: a herculean task for me to say the very least.
I was intent on building a relationship with my higher power as suggested by the Narcotics Anonymous program and my NA sponsor. A famous NA tenet states, “If you ain’t praying, you ain’t staying.” I wanted desperately to stay. I was past being sick and tired of being sick and tired. These rituals of mine consist of some yoga poses and breathing exercises, half an hour of meditation, and some daily spiritual readings. I needed these rituals that fateful morning, and many mornings after, for change, self-love and respect to remain my continuous goals.
I choose to believe it was the grace of what is holy and divine in the cosmos and beyond that prepared me for the heart wrenching experience on the morning of November 9, 1993. But what do I really know about why the world turns as it does? I can’t claim the mantel of a great theologian or philosopher. I have tried to learn the secrets and songs of my own spirit. But hey, I could be tone deaf. At that point in my life I was just beginning to recognize the right notes to improvise on in my own song. God’s dictates and choices are still way out of my realm of certainty. Maybe it’s like Mom always said: “Robbie, you know God always looks after fools and babies.”
I started getting high at thirteen—why we call it “high” is a mystery to me now—it was eventually the bane of my existence. It kept me acting like a baby, doing whatever I pleased, acting irresponsibly, selfishly believing the world existed for my pleasure alone. When such behavior exploded my life again and again, like a baby and a fool, I expected the world to answer my cries and demands. I would have carried the shame of those behaviors to my grave but Mom’s lessons and NA’s insistence on searching out my higher power had taught me how to forgive myself and others especially if healing and growing are my life goals. So whatever that power is, whatever name we agreed upon or choose on our own to call it, my God, just as Mom said, had truly granted me grace by helping me develop the strength I would need that morning.
Here I was, planted in the six-inch space between the end of the bed and the sink. To navigate that space, I have to lay on my back, curl my legs into my chest, roll my six-foot, two- hundred-pound body, twist my ankles just right while flipping into a standing position between bed and sink. It’s very difficult to stand in so small a space, bending over washing in a fifteen-inch sink sitting out from the wall groin high. It takes some practice not to splash water on the bed, floor, the TV next to the sink, pants, everywhere.
As usual, before I rolled into the wash up spot I had turned on the TV to the morning news. With soap in my eyes, I heard the news broadcaster mention my last name. I peeked at the TV screen trying not to get soap in my eyes and saw film of paramedics, and a mention of author John Edgar Wideman, my oldest brother. Hearing John’s name in the news was not a big surprise anymore in 1993. I had heard the name many times in the media by then. But I thought I heard the newscaster say, “Noted author John Edgar Wideman’s nephew has been found dead. Shot dead in a house on Flowers Avenue in the Hazelwood section of Pittsburgh.” I looked at the screen and saw paramedics carrying a black body bag out of a house. My mind could not digest the information. The announcer spoke again, but my mind was shutting down rejecting the obvious. John’s only brother with a son was me. But my son couldn’t be dead. He was accepted to a college. He was turning his life around, too. He was my son. OH MY GOD! PLEASE! NO! Not my son. Not Omar.
I sat in shock for a few minutes, knowing what I had seen and heard. Yet a measure of disbelief, which I am sure was God’s grace, pulled me through without a total breakdown until breakfast was called.
There is a surreal quality to losing beloved family members in prison, which is a difficult psychological negotiation. I cannot affirmatively claim it is less or more difficult than for people in other situations because I have been in prison for the deaths of all of my deceased family members since I have been an adult.
In prison, you cannot go through the process of gathering with relatives and friends to share grief, remembrances and accepting condolences. Sharing a meal, telling the old stories, crying, laughing and sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, emptying out and filling up. Mourning your loss while celebrating the one passed. In prison you just keep going on with your normal routine keeping up a veneer of normalcy thanking friends for their awkward attempts of condolences, claiming to be “awright” while pain and anguish explode inside your heart and mind.
The bell for breakfast rang, and I headed for the chow hall. I ran into a friend who asked had I seen the news and were they referring to someone in my family about the guy who had gotten murdered in Hazelwood. His words began a trembling, shattering emotional acceptance of the truth my rational mind already knew but my heart’s mind was trying to believe away. It was as if I could make it not real if I just went about my usual routine and not think about it, some way it would go away.
I left chow without finishing my meal and ran for the phone.
I called my mother and the moaning exasperation that I knew so well in her voice finally made the tears break as I doubled over with the pain of this terrible impossible truth. My son, my baby boy, had been murdered. Taken away. Gone.
Mom’s cry was so familiar: “Oh Robbie, it’s Omar. They killed him.” It wasn’t the whole phrase that rang in my ears and tore at my heart. It was the “Oh Robbie” part. I had heard it a thousand times in my life. I had caused Mom so much pain. It had become engraved in the lines of her face, the slump of her shoulders and the enduring weight of her burden when she cried “Oh Robbie.” It spoke volumes of love and disappointment. It echoed, “When will you ever learn, my beloved son.” Now the greatest joy I had given her had also turned to pain and anguish. I heard so many things in her voice, but the most overwhelming emotion was responsibility and blame. I heard an old familiar refrain, “Oh Robbie, what have you done?!”
I am beyond certain Mom did not mean it that way. Her cry was for me, not at me. She cried for me losing my son and for her losing her grandson. Yet my aching soul heard her admonishing me about carelessly misplacing what’s precious, and my old tired poet psyche heard, “When you don’t pay proper attention you drop things and you lose stuff.”
Even though I was sure my mother did not feel that way or cast those aspersions upon my hurting soul. I knew I felt it, and she knew me better than I knew myself. She always did. Yet her love was so encompassing. So somewhere in our pain on that cursed day, “When will he ever learn?!” screamed out at us both.
It was time to change, to stop the lip service, to stop the “I knows” and do something to create concrete change, not elaborate rationales. My inner self, my soul, my spirit, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, the Tao, the Shakti, what all religions and spiritual thesis have professed all welled up within me, the names, the concepts, screamed in unison through Mom’s anguish and my hearts tears. “How did you let this happen?!”
Later I would see things more clearly and rationally. But at the time and in the succeeding days something broke, not just my heart. A degree of my overwhelming selfishness and self-centeredness broke. I finally knew I could change, and I would.
Inmates today can attend funerals of their immediate family members if their families are willing to pay county sheriffs to escort them—except Lifers. However, in 1993 Lifers still retained that privilege. Our families could pay to have us come view the body at the funeral home. Neither the family nor the prisoner could know the exact date or time the prisoner would arrive, presumably to prevent any escape attempts.
The next day, I was escorted in chains and shackles to the funeral home to view the body of my son, Omar Lateef Wideman. As the sheriffs turned into the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, my family’s third-generational home, my heart sunk even more. The neighborhood had deteriorated considerably since I’d last seen it in November 1975. The streets were dirtier, the porches were leaning, lawns unkempt, house paint chipped, windows broken and boarded, many houses abandoned. Again, the feeling of responsibility: my conscience pointed its finger and hollered, “How did you let this happen?”
The power of providence, being ever the instructor, awaited me at the funeral home. Just as the sheriff’s car pulled up, my ex- father in-law Gerald West was coming out of the funeral home. I loved Mr. and Mrs. West like they were my own parents. Mr. West saw the car, looked in, and our eyes locked. He knew just what to do. He ran in and got Mrs. West. From there, the word was out. Phone calls made, people saw each other at traffic stops, at the local market. Within minutes, friends and family from all over Homewood almost magically arrived at the funeral home.
The city police, who had taken me to the funeral home, obviously felt the positive spirit that had brought us all there without any preplanned or advanced knowledge and let everyone stay despite their rules that disallowed anyone being at the funeral home while I was there. I believe the highest power deemed it so, and so it was. So the two officers removed the handcuffs, leaving me in leg shackles and trusting the moment. The officers stood in the back of the chapel area with my brother John as he assured them there would be no trouble. My sister Letisha, who had also suffered the loss of a child, came and stood next to me at my son’s casket. She held my hand and we cried silent tears. My sister and I have always had an inexplicable spiritual connection. We have always been able to ascertain when we need to get in touch with each other or when either of us are in crisis. It is almost like she can silently call me and I know to get in touch with her. I never feel the crisis or have any sense of doom or gloom. Some instinct just whispers, “Call Sis.” As strange as it seems, this instinct has always existed between us.
So when she came and stood next to me at my son’s open casket, we just held hands and let the tears run down our faces. Everyone else got quiet, knowing the sacredness of the moment and shared it with us in silence.
In that moment of pain, Geraldine, Omar’s mother, came to my mind. I looked back and saw her leaning on the doorframe in the back of the chapel. It seemed the weight of this moment was so heavy she could hardly stand. I looked in her eyes, and for a moment could not see past her pain. Omar was the second son she had lost in less than two years. Her pain was beyond words. Yet she is such a great woman and a favorite of God. She was able to give me a moment. Her eyes let me in and showed me love and connectedness. She had been justifiably angry with me. I had broken her heart and abandoned her and Omar many years ago. Now our son lay dead, and I believed my abandonment played a part. But Geraldine, like my mother, is a great woman and at that moment only reached out to give me love. In retrospect, it only increased my pain and my love for and understanding of them and God’s grace. Geraldine and I fell in love as children and despite life’s twists and turns, the purity and sweetness of that love has always been our blessing.
I believe that all those present that day felt God’s grace and power to deliver us blessed love in that time of pain and anguish. Not knowing what would be next or understanding how we had gotten to this place, we all recognized the completion and blessing of us being together in that infinite moment.
Remember, this was 1993. Gang war activity was roaring to new heights. The War on Drugs was in full swing, and America was building new prisons for young black boys and men captured and suffering under what, twenty years later, noted author and educator Michelle Alexander would aptly name “The New Jim Crow.” Now my son Omar was a third-generation causality. My father, my uncle, myself, my nephew, now my son. All casualties of America’s greatest sin—the self-perpetuating, hatred and ignorance-fed, blaming and finger-pointing racial oppression.
Back in my coffin cell for weeks without end, all I could think about was what could I do. I was a forty-two-year-old black man, an addict in recovery, a criminal, a Lifer with seventeen years already in prison, a new college graduate, a new math professor, a husband to a wonderful woman. But I was caught in a prison system whose nature was designed to treat adults as children.
The theory is: people who did not know how to conduct themselves and abide by the rules of society should be taken from society and reformed to act as responsible adults. If all things were fair or at least even, this would be a noble idea. All things are not fair or even. The line of victims and victimizer is often blurry. So when you oppress then condescend and patronize grown men and women, hostility and anger are usually the outcomes. Or you develop adults who act like the children the system demands.
Tragedy either makes us grow or destroys us. With God’s grace, the death of my son, my worst tragedy, helped me to begin to see my life and live my life as God’s gift. So much of what I was seeing around me was a curse that was affecting myself, my family, my community, my city, my state, my country, my world. I had to change. I had to do my part. The need was urgent and the task was daunting. Yet beyond the enormity of the task, doing nothing was no longer an option. The loss of my son dictated that I improve our world. I must continually find and use that strength. The love I have been so blessed to receive demands I do all I can at each opportunity.
Our greatest lessons come through our greatest tragedy. ■
Faruq (Robert Douglas Wideman) was born on December 29, 1950, to Bettie and Edgar Wideman, the youngest of five children: his siblings are John, Otis, Letisha, and David. He graduated high school in Pittsburgh, and earned an associate’s degree from Allegheny Community College and several additional college credits from the University of Pittsburgh before they closed their prison education program. Mr. Wideman had two sons: Omar and Chance. He was recently released from prison after forty-four years.
Cover image from Life Sentences: Writings from Inside an American Prison. Illustration by Christine Lorenz.
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