Shaking, sweating and spent, the woman gripped the sides of her hospital bed, bore down and pushed with her last ounce of strength. Her tiny baby, halfway out of her body, slipped out completely, into her doctor’s waiting hands.
“It’s a girl,” her doctor said.
“Oh, a girl!” the woman cried, looking down at her baby, then over at her husband, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Little Michelle,” her husband said, taking his wife’s hand.
“Here she is,” her doctor said, gently laying the baby on her mother’s chest.
“She’s beautiful,” her mother sobbed.
“She sure is,” her father said.
After about a minute, the doctor said, “I need to cut the umbilical cord, Anna.”
“Okay,” the woman said.
“Already?” her husband asked.
“Yes,” the doctor said. “Once we do that, we can get your daughter cleaned up, and you can hold her again.”
A nurse picked up the baby, holding her away from her mother, and the doctor applied a clamp to the umbilical cord. Then she applied another clamp a couple of inches away from the first. Anna looked down as she picked up a scissors.
“Will this hurt?” she asked.
“No,” the doctor said. “Neither you nor the baby will feel a thing.”
The nurse was holding the baby facing Anna. As the doctor got ready to cut the cord, the baby opened her eyes and looked directly into Anna’s eyes, as if she could see her mother.
“Wait,” said Anna, holding up her hand.
The doctor stopped and looked at her.
“Wait, just one more moment,” Anna said.
All the while, the baby continued to look up at her mother. Anna knew her doctor must cut the cord. But she felt a special bond with her newborn daughter, a bond she knew she would never know again, and she wanted it to last just a moment longer.
Anna and Michelle held each other’s gazes. It was as if mother and daughter both knew they must revel in this moment before the tie that had bound them together would be severed.
Michelle would be Anna and James’ only child. Maybe this added to Michelle’s need for connection.
She was close to both her parents, but especially her mother. Anna worked from home before her daughter was born, and she continued working from home throughout her childhood. At home, Anna was always at her daughter’s side. She was there when she learned to crawl and took her first steps. She taught her to play the piano and ride a bike. She put her on the bus on her first day of school.
In school, Michelle made friends easily. She loved to spend time with her classmates and make new friends. Like all kids, she loved to play at recess. But her favorite thing to do was simply talk with one or two friends at a time.
Michelle had 14 first cousins. None of them lived nearby. She saw them at the holidays and wrote them letters through the year. They weren’t used to writing letters, but most of them wrote back to Michelle. She treasured their correspondence, which she kept in a cardboard box under her bed.
In 1994, when Michelle turned 12, email was becoming popular. Her parents had a desktop computer at home, and they let Michelle use it. She got her own email address. She was excited by the idea of being able to connect so easily with her friends and family members.
At the same time, she missed getting their letters. She missed holding them in her hands and seeing their unique handwriting, which seemed so much more personal than an email message.
By the late 1990s, when Michelle was a teenager, social media emerged. She was one of the first to join Six Degrees. Her universe of “friends” expanded dramatically overnight. She also signed up for AOL Instant Messenger, which allowed her to “chat” with anyone in her network in real time. She now had her own computer and was spending hours online every day.
In college, Michelle sent emails to her mother nearly every day. By her senior year, though, she didn’t have to because she and her mother were now “friends” on Facebook.
Michelle made new friends in college, though far fewer than she had in high school or even grade school. Everyone seemed so busy now. Everyone was spending so much time online.
Michelle majored in sociology and went to work after graduation for a non-profit whose mission was to help underprivileged kids in the inner city. However, Michelle spent most of her time not with kids but filling out forms. Frustrated, she left after six months.
While looking for a new job, Michelle found herself spending more and more time on social media sites, especially Facebook. She followed many of her friends from high school and college. They all looked great, and their lives seemed so perfect. She found herself posting fewer updates and photos of her own. She felt bad about not having a job or a boyfriend and not being able to post photos from some exciting city or exotic adventure.
And so she began to hold back in her online communication. She stopped posting regular updates on Facebook, and for the first time since she began doing email, she didn’t feel obliged to respond to nearly every message.
But this made Michelle feel even worse because she began to feel disconnected from people, and for her, this was the worst feeling of all.
One day, while she was preparing a cover letter for her resume, Michelle’s smartphone rang. Funny, she thought. Nobody calls me anymore.
She looked at her phone. “Mom” and her mother’s photo flashed up on the screen. Michelle picked up her phone.
“Hi, Mom,” she said.
Her mother sounded downbeat.
“How are you?” Michelle asked.
“Just okay? Is everything all right?”
“Yes. I was just calling to see if you’d like to come over for dinner tonight.”
“Sure. What time?”
“How about six?”
“Sounds great. Can I bring anything?”
“No, thanks. I was thinking about making chicken pot pie and mashed potatoes.”
“Mmmm. You know that’s still my favorite.”
“I was hoping so. I’ll see you at six then.”
“Sounds good. Oh, will Dad be there?”
“Yes. In fact, he’s home right now.”
“He is? He’s not at work?”
“Uh, no. He decided to take the afternoon off.”
“Oh. Good. See you tonight.”
“I love you, Michelle.”
“Thanks, Mom. I love you too.”
Michelle hung up, wondering why her mother sounded distant and her father, a notorious workaholic, would be taking the afternoon off.
Michelle’s mother and father seemed unusually quiet over dinner.
“Would you like some ice cream?” her mother asked. “I’ve got chocolate chip.”
“Sure,” said Michelle.
Her mother got up, taking their plates with her into the kitchen. Michelle picked up the silverware and followed her.
“Mom,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Her mother placed the plates in the sink, turned around and leaned against the counter. She looked at Michelle and started crying, burying her face in her hands.
“Mom,” Michelle said, stepping over and putting her arms around her. “Are you okay?”
“No. I have breast cancer.”
Anna fought hard to beat the cancer. She had surgery and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. But the cancer, already advanced when her doctor discovered it, spread to her lungs, liver and brain.
She lasted 11 months. Michelle hardly left her side throughout, helping her at home, taking her to her appointments, staying with her in the hospital and tending to her at home.
She was with her at the end.
“Michelle,” her mother whispered, lying in bed, her eyes closed.
“Yes, Mom,” she said, holding her hand.
“I will always be with you,” she whispered.
Michelle was leaning in, a foot from her mother’s face. Michelle waited for her to say something else or draw another breath, but her face remained motionless. Michelle looked down at her chest. It didn’t move. She squeezed her mother’s hand. It was limp and lifeless.
“Oh, Mom,” Michelle moaned. “I will always be with you too.”
Her father, who had been standing behind Michelle, put his hands on her shoulders.
“She loved you so much,” he said, his tears falling on her head.
“Oh, Dad,” Michelle said, turning and wrapping her arms around him.
After her mother’s funeral, Michelle moved in with her father. She could no longer bear living alone or the thought of her father living alone.
She wished she had moved back home sooner, when her mother was ill. She didn’t because she wanted to give her parents their own space. But the three of them had always been close, and now she wondered if she had made the right choice.
One morning that spring, her father at work, Michelle went for a walk. She walked down the sidewalks of her childhood to a park where she had spent countless hours as a girl. Her mother had often taken her there.
She sat on a bench overlooking a pond and watched a flock of Mallards swimming around. She spotted a female, with mottled brown feathers, leading a raft of brown and yellow ducklings. The hen stayed close to the flock, and the ducklings followed close behind wherever she swam.
It made Michelle think of her mother and how, as a girl, she followed her everywhere. She wondered if her mother ever minded that. If she did, she never showed it. She always seemed happy to have Michelle nearby.
Michelle closed her eyes. She could hear her mother saying, “I will always be with you.” She could feel her mother’s presence, as if she were sitting right beside her. She opened her eyes, half expecting to see her. But all she saw were the Mallards.
She watched the ducklings follow their mother out of the water and onto the grassy bank. She missed her mother so very much, and she began to cry.
Michelle went home and decided to bake some cookies for her father. She seldom baked cookies anymore. Growing up, though, she had baked cookies with her mother nearly every Saturday morning. Now she pulled out the cookie sheet, the glass bowl and the rubber spatula they had used.
Michelle’s favorite cookie was chocolate chip with peanut butter mixed in and M&Ms on top. She looked around for M&Ms but couldn’t find any, though she did find a bag of chocolate chips and jar of peanut butter in the pantry.
She had a plate of warm cookies waiting for her father when he got home from work that evening.
“Someone’s been baking,” he said as he walked into the family room from the garage.
“I made cookies,” Michelle said from the kitchen.
Her father said nothing more. She peeked into the family room. He was sitting on the sofa, with his head in his hands.
“Dad, are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, looking up and wiping away his tears. “The smell of cookies reminds me of Mom.”
“Oh, Dad,” she said, walking over and embracing him. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “She loved baking cookies.”
Over dinner, her father told Michelle that, in recent years, her mother had baked several dozen cookies a week.
“Several dozen?” Michelle said.
“Not for me,” he said, smiling. “For the prisoners.”
“Yeah, she baked the cookies on Saturday, then brought them to church on Sunday. She gave them to Mrs. Rigby, who’s charge of our parish prison ministry.”
“I had no idea,” Michelle said. “Did Mom go visit the prisoners herself?”
“No,” her father said. “She didn’t feel comfortable doing that. But she certainly baked them a lot of cookies over the years. Maybe you’d like to get involved.”
“I don’t know,” Michelle said.
“Well, if you like, you could bake a few more dozen cookies tomorrow and bring them to church on Sunday,” her father said.
“Maybe I will.”
“Just leave the dozen you baked today for me,” her father said, smiling.
“Would you like to go with me to deliver these this afternoon?” asked Mrs. Rigby.
She had long, gray hair and kind, blue eyes. She sat behind a card table in the foyer of the church. Clear, plastic bags of cookies were heaped on top of it, and a paper sign marked Prison Ministry hung from the front.
“No one else has signed up this week, and I could use the help,” Mrs. Rigby said.
“What would that entail?” Michelle asked.
“Well, if you like, you can help me give them to the prisoners.”
“How does that work?”
“Well, we usually give cookies to about 20 prisoners every Sunday.”
“Do you talk with them?” Michelle asked.
“Sometimes,” Mrs. Rigby said. “Some of them want to talk. Some of them just want to take the cookies.”
“What do you talk about?”
“Whatever’s on their minds.”
Mrs. Rigby could see a look of uncertainty, maybe even concern, on Michelle’s face.
“It can take a while to get used to it,” she said. “If you come with me today, you don’t have to meet with the prisoners. Or maybe you just want to meet with just one.”
“I think I could meet with one,” Michelle said.
“Good,” Mrs. Rigby said. “Let’s meet here at two o’clock. I’ll be happy to drive.”
“Are they dangerous?” Michelle asked as they drove to the prison.
“We’ve been doing this for more than 10 years, and we’ve never had an issue,” Mrs. Rigby said. “Most of them are just grateful to have someone to talk to. And, of course, they love the cookies.”
A guard led Michelle down a hallway to a door. He opened it.
“You can wait in here, miss,” he said.
“Thank you,” she said.
She stepped inside. The room was small. The walls were white. She detected the faint scent of a cleaning product. A large mirror covered much of one wall. On the other side of the room was another door. In the center were two gray, metal chairs facing each other. Otherwise, the room was empty.
She stepped over to one chair, took hold of the top and slid it slightly away from the other chair. It was aluminum. She sat down, setting her bag of cookies on her lap.
In that moment, she thought of her mother. She wondered why she had never mentioned baking cookies for these prisoners. She wondered why she had never come there to give them the cookies herself. She wondered if her mother had known something that she didn’t, and she felt anxious.
The door across the room opened. A guard stepped in, followed by a man wearing an orange jumpsuit.
“Thirty minutes,” the guard said, closing the door behind him.
A man of medium build stood 10 feet away from her. He had short, dark hair. He was clean-shaven, with no apparent tattoos. She looked for cuffs on his hands or feet but saw none.
“My name is Rick,” he said, stepping toward her and extending his hand.
“Hello, I’m Michelle,” she said, rising to her feet and taking his hand.
His palm and the inside of his fingers were soft.
“May I sit down?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said, motioning to the other chair.
“Thank you, Michelle,” he said.
They sat down, facing each other. Michelle wasn’t sure what to say. Just then, she remembered the reason she was there and the bag of cookies on her lap.
“Here,” she said, handing him the cookies. “These are for you.”
“Thank you,” he said, taking the bag.
He looked down at the bag, checking out the cookies inside.
“Do you mind if I try one?” he asked.
“Not at all,” she smiled. “They’re for you.”
He unzipped the plastic bag, reached in and pulled out a cookie.
“Would you like one?” he asked.
He bit into a cookie.
“Mmmm,” he said. “Delicious. I’ve had these before.”
“No, I don’t think you have,” she said. “I baked them myself, and this is the first time I’ve baked cookies for this program.”
“No,” he said, munching. “I’ve had these cookies before. Chocolate chips, peanut butter and M&Ms. In fact, I’ve requested them—from Mrs. Rigby.”
“Yes, she told me a woman named Anna baked them.”
Michelle’s heart skipped a beat. She swallowed.
“Pardon me?” she said.
“I don’t know her last name, but I’ve been her biggest fan here for the past couple of years,” he said.
“I made those cookies according to a recipe my mother taught me when I was a little girl,” she said.
“Is your mother’s name Anna?”
“Yes. She passed away a couple of months ago.”
“I guess that explains why I haven’t had these cookies in a while.”
He looked at her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That sounds so selfish. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know,” she said. “It’s okay.”
“Do you mind if I have another?” he asked.
“Go right ahead.”
He bit into the second cookie.
“So you’re probably wondering what I’m in for,” he said.
“Yes, I was curious,” she said.
“How long is your sentence?” she asked.
“How much do you have left to serve?”
“Five months, four days and 20 hours,” he said. “Give or take.”
“Congratulations in advance.”
“I hope I make it,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t you make it? Are you in danger?”
“Not from the other prisoners,” he said.
He looked over toward the mirror.
“You know that’s a two-way mirror, don’t you?” he asked.
“I figured it was.”
“Do you know what it’s like to be watched all the time?”
“No,” she said. “No, I don’t.”
“Well, it makes you feel like you’re always under suspicion, like you can’t be trusted. After a while, it takes the life out of you.”
Michelle could see the pain in his face.
“Do you have a family?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I have a wife, Emily, and a daughter, Sophia.”
“They trust you, don’t they?”
“What do you mean?” he said, sounding irritated.
“I mean your wife and your daughter know you well. They know you not as a prisoner, but as a husband and a father.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess they trust me.”
“I’m sure they do, and I’m sure they love you.”
He looked down and didn’t say anything.
“How often do you get to see them?”
“Once a month,” he said.
“And in a little more than five months, you’ll get to see them every day.”
“Yeah,” he said.
His face was expressionless.
“You must be looking forward to that,” she said.
“My daughter’s eight years old,” he said. “I’ve been in prison for most of her life. She’s hardly knows me.”
“You mean this isn’t your first offense?” she asked.
“No. It’s my second. I got 18 months the first time I was convicted of embezzlement. I’ve screwed up my life. I’ve screwed up my family’s life. I wouldn’t blame them if they left me.”
“They’re not going to leave you, Rick.”
“How do you know that? You don’t know anything about me.”
“You’re right,” Michelle said. “But I know your wife has stayed with you all this time and that she and your daughter come to see you whenever they can. They must love you.”
“If you say so,” he said, sounding defeated.
Michelle sat there, unsure what to say.
“Do you write them letters, Rick?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. Nobody writes letters any more. I mean real letters. I used to write letters to my friends and my cousins when I was a girl, and they wrote me back. Do you know I still keep those letters under my bed? There’s something about letter writing. I don’t know—it connects us. When you get a letter from someone, in their own hand, well, you feel a bond, that’s all. It changes you, and you realize you’re not alone, that there’s somebody out there who cares about you.”
There was a knock at the door. It opened. The guard stepped in.
“Time,” he said.
Rick was looking at Michelle. He was on the edge of his seat, leaning in, as if he were hanging on the last thing she had said.
“Let’s go,” said the guard.
Rick and Michelle stood up.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Rick,” she said, extending her hand.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Michelle,” he said. “Thank you for the cookies and the conversation. I’m sorry for your loss.”
When Michelle got home, her father had already left for the airport for a business trip. She poured herself a glass of red wine and heated some leftover pasta and had dinner in the kitchen.
She thought about her conversation with Rick. She thought about what she had told him about writing letters. She thought about the old letters under her bed.
She finished dinner, put her plate in the sink and walked down the hall to her bedroom. She got down on her knees and looked under her bed.
She was expecting to see the cardboard box she had always kept there. Instead, she saw only a flat, opaque, plastic bin. She grabbed it and pulled it out from under the bed.
She snapped open the latches on both ends and pulled off the lid. Inside were all her old letters, arranged in neat stacks. Mom must have done this, she thought.
There was an open space on the left end of the bin. There, resting on the bottom, was an envelope which simply said Michelle. She would have known that handwriting anywhere. It was her mother’s.
She sat down on the floor. She could feel her heart racing. With shaking hands, she reached down and picked up the envelope. She ran her forefinger under the flap, breaking the seal. Inside were two sheets of paper, folded in thirds. She pulled them out, unfolded them and read the handwritten letter.
February 16, 2006
I hope this letter finds you well.
I hope you won’t mind that I transferred your old letters to this plastic bin. Your old cardboard box was starting to fall apart, and I thought this bin would keep your letters safe.
You have been such a joy in my life. I have always felt so close to you. By the time you read this letter, I will have passed on. But not really for I will always be with you.
I am sorry your first job out of school didn’t work out, but I am proud of you for walking away from a job in social work which didn’t allow you to connect with people.
Connecting with people is what life is about, and it has always made you happy. I know you will find new ways to connect with people and, as you do, you will be fulfilled. That is my prayer for you.
Thank you for all you have done for me, especially during my illness. Being with you, not just these past months but all your life, has been the greatest joy I have ever known.
I put this letter here, with all your other letters, because I know how much corresponding with your friends and cousins meant to you when you were a girl. These letters might seem dated now, but the connections you made, the pathways you opened, are timeless and their impact is beyond measure.
I hope you will always connect with others, Michelle. Let people know they are loved. It is your gift and your highest purpose.
I love you.
Michelle sat there, holding her mother’s letter, and wept. She cried a long time.
Then she got up, stepped over to her desk and sat down. She turned on the desk lamp. She slid open the middle drawer and pulled out a sheet of white paper, then plucked a pen out of the coffee mug on the desktop. She placed the paper on the black, leather desk pad and began to write.
May 16, 2006
Do not despair ...