On April 6, an inmate in the Georgia state prison system died. He was 33 years old. His name was Adam.
Adam West, actually. Just like the Batman guy.
I have no idea what his official cause of death will read, such “investigations,” are never quick. I only hope that he did not draw his last breath alone. Over the course of a decade many years ago, for a variety of reasons, Adam lived with my family off and on. And like his mother, his fiancé, and others who cared for him along the way, even in the midst of terrible circumstances and awful life choices, we know that he was far more than his prison number.
When he was little, he once cried because he could not have cookies for breakfast. My mom laughs, still, every time she remembers his tears that morning. He loved Harry Potter and Pokemon (Lord help, how he loved Pokemon!), and he had a quick, sly wit with an equally quick, sly smile to match. When I was in my early twenties, an ice skating rink opened up one winter at the then newly-built Mall of Georgia–I took him skating just before Christmas that year, and to this day, remembering the sight of him flailing across that ice, full throttle, terrified joy on his face, makes me smile.
He grew into a voracious reader, with, once he had been incarcerated, dreams of putting together his own little prison library. The Game of Thrones series he inhaled as quickly as he could get his hands on them, and other fantasy/sci-fi books too. And he loved to write letters–was quite good, actually, at expressing himself pen to paper, the old-fashioned way. He was smart, caring, and loyal, too. And though he never met them, he could tell you the names of my and my sister’s children, and what they were interested in.
If I was born into life ahead of the starting line in terms of advantage–and I was–Adam was born several lengths behind it. He had every socioeconomic, familial, educational and emotional block you can think of in his way, not to mention that sometimes being biracial in the Deep South means not ever really knowing where you belong. And while none of these things excuse him from responsibility for his actions, they do give such actions context. Every single system failed Adam. From the very beginning, he deserved so much more.
Y’all. We live in a world with many, many Adams. Nameless and faceless and entirely forgotten children born into messes beyond what folks like me I can imagine. Such children are the tragic byproduct of a system that values the lives of some of us over others, that places money and power over people time and time again, and that would rather push these Adams into the dark and denied and forgotten corners of our communities so that we don’t have to deal with them face to face.
I promise you, that somewhere in your life there is an Adam. And he needs you to look outside yourself and see him. Really, really see him.
We generally measure our lives in all the wrong ways–by our bank accounts, the size of our homes, or the supposed prestige of our job or our name or our alma mater. And the truth is that none of this matters at all.
But how we treat one another? How we listen to one another? How we acknowledge one another’s humanity? How we see past awful choices and stupid mistakes and into the shining bit of God’s grace that dwells in each of us?
How we choose love over hate?
And how we do all this, again and again and again, even when our hearts are worn and it seems like it doesn’t matter and that nothing will ever change?
These things are everything. And without them, we are nothing.
I am, in great part, the person I am because Adam lived. And this seems the height of cruelty and unfairness. He carried so much pain and sadness, and yet, his life changed mine irrevocably and for the better. And so I know no other way to honor him than to continue to tell his story as I experienced it. To keep teaching it to my daughter, too, so that she, too, can tell it.
Like Brene Brown says, everyone has a story that will break your heart–that might even bring you to your knees. Maybe if we had the courage to really listen to such stories, to really let our hearts be broken open by heartache and tragedy, we’d manage to find a path forward for all of us. This is my hope, anyway, even on days like today when such hope is difficult to summon.
Please rest in peace now, dear Adam. I have no doubt the angels carried you safely home, and into the arms of God, who loved you from the very beginning, far more than any of us ever could.