Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dying, Part Four: The Criminal

            “Well, ideally I’d like them to have some oomph, you know?  I don’t want to go out saying something idiotic like, ‘hey, I didn’t get my pudding cup’, or whatever.  You know what I’m saying?”  Scott looked at me intently when he finished.
            “No, I get that part, sure,” I replied.  “But they’re your last words.  Aren’t they supposed to be a product of that defining moment when you realize what matters most to you?  I don’t think you can plan for it.” 
            “Well, yeah, I suppose.  But the Corporal told me not to expect any sort of revelation at the end of it all, so wouldn’t it make more sense to decide now?”  I sighed and slouched back in my chair, my face twisted slightly with apprehension.
            “I don’t think that’s exactly what he meant, Scott.  I think he just meant that, if you’re content with the life you’ve lived so far, don’t go looking for some new realization that will change the way you look at things.”
            “Oh sure, I knew what he meant,” said Scott, coughing a little before continuing.  “But seeing as I’ve never been one to head anywhere without some sense of what’s coming next, I figure I’d better keep living life like that.  The Boy Scout motto is ‘Be Prepared’, you know.”
            “You weren’t a Boy Scout,” I said, my eyes narrowing irritably.
            “Sure,” he replied sardonically.  “But you were.  So why are you the one knockin’ it?” 
            “Guhh,” I grumbled, as though I had just been assigned a particularly grueling task.  “Alright then, what do you want to say?  Something about how you lived your life or something like what you think abo-”
            “Shut up for a minute,” Scott cut in as he picked up the remote.  I looked at him crossly, but he didn’t seem to notice.  He was busy turning the volume up on the hospital television.  A local news station was currently displaying a news story featuring an angry young man dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit.
“…for the 2003 murder of two Virginia State police officers and sentenced to death.  After several failed attempts to appeal his conviction, the date for Wallace’s execution has been set for May 28th of this year.  As of now, there has been no word from the Governor on a stay of execution.  It looks as though the state of Virginia is finally ready to close the book on Frank Wallace.”
            Scott muted the TV and frowned thoughtfully.  “I don’t know about all that,” he said, placing the remote on the table beside him.
            “Don’t know about what?” I asked, watching the image on the screen change to a puff piece about local sheep farmers. 
            “The execution.  Something about it just seems a little excessive,” he answered.  “He’s already in prison, isn’t he?”
            “Well, sure,” I said.  “But he did kill two cops.  The state tends to look down on that sort of thing.”  I smiled morbidly, but when I turned to Scott, he was surprisingly unamused.  He coughed weakly as his expression grew perturbed.
            “I don’t know.  It just seems to me like taking his life really borders on cruel and unusual punishment.  Why should he die?”
            “Well,” I said, clearing my throat to buy time.  “I suppose what he did to those cops was pretty cruel, don’t you think?”
            “Of course,” he replied, struggling to pull himself a little more upright.  I moved to help him, but he shook me off.  “That just kind of proves my point.  If it was cruel of him to do, isn’t it still cruel to do to him?  Murdering someone makes you a bad person, but a bad person is still a person.  He doesn’t lose that until they kill him.”  I shifted uneasily in my chair for a few moments before I could answer. 
            “Are you sure that this isn’t all about something else?” I asked, my voice hesitant for fear of offending him.
            “No, not at all,” he said pointedly.   “That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking objectively about it.  I’d like to think I still have something to contribute to society.  What’s to say this man doesn’t?”
            “Well, sure.  But he had his chance.  At least, more so than you have.  He made a decision with his life and has to face the consequences.  I’m not coming out 100% in favor of the death penalty here, but I think the judge knew what he was doing when he sentenced him.  He’s obviously a dangerous man.”
            “I didn’t say they should let him out on the street,” Scott retorted.  “I’m just saying that plenty of criminals have made lasting contributions to society after they were convicted.  We may just be doing ourselves a disservice by killing this man.  Who knows what he might do in 15 or 20 years?”  I shrugged, not knowing what to say.  Scott nodded and rested his head back against his pillow.
            “I don’t know,” he sighed.  “I don’t think it makes any sense to kill the guy when he’s already in jail.  If you ask me, he has just as much potential to contribute to society as you or I.  But what do I know?  I guess a guy who sits around planning out his last words shouldn’t comment on reasonability.”  We sat in silence for a few moments before a familiar voice startled us from the doorway.
            “Yeah, I wouldn’t think I would be too quick to accuse you of being a reasonable person.”  I jumped out of my seat and turned around to find a gangly looking young man staring back at me.
            “Roger?” Scott craned his head forward in surprise.  “Here you are…in my room.  Not angry…?”  Roger just looked back at him for a few moments, and then took another step into the room.
            “You’re looking well,” I said, looking to Scott for some kind of guidance. 
            “You, um, have any thoughts on the subject?  We were talking about that guy in Virginia who’s about to be executed.”  Scott gave me a barely perceptible shrug of uncertainty. 
             “Yeah, I was outside listening for a few minutes,” he said, walking around to the side of Scott’s bed.
            “That’s a little creepy, Roger” Scott replied, raising an eyebrow and cracking a tentative smile.  Roger’s response was flat and direct.
            “You stalk around hospitals asking strangers about death, so…”  Almost immediately, the room grew so stuffy I felt as though I couldn’t breathe.  I could tell by the look on Scott’s face that he felt it too.  His eyes remained fixed on Roger and I could tell his muscles were tensing.  My heart began to pound violently as the stalemate continued.  Finally, after what felt like hours, Roger opened his mouth.
            “I’m not here to kill you or anything,” he said, his vocal tempo remaining unchanged.  Scott and I exhaled in unison and I collapsed back into my chair.
            “You had me nearly crapping my pants for a minute there, Roger,” Scott, croaked.  “I thought you were after my head.”  Roger shrugged grimly.
            “Not much point in it anyway, right?  Might as well just wait it out.”  Roger attempted what looked like a morbid smile that faded at once into a blank expression.  Scott nodded.
            “Right, right,” he said, wringing his hands awkwardly. 
            “So,” I said, trying to take some of the pressure off Scott.  “What do you think about this death penalty case, Roger?”
            “Oh, I don’t know,” he replied with a disinterested yawn.  “It seems like a pretty big step to leave the decision up to someone else, you know?” 
            “What do you mean?” I asked.  Roger shifted his weight a bit idly and looked back at me.
            “Well, I guess maybe I’m speaking too much from personal experience, but I’d like to be in control of my own fate if nothing else.  Even if I was a criminal, I think I would still deserve that much.”
            “Sure, everyone deserves a little mercy,” Scott said, and then added rather poignantly, “plus you can make a life out of any situation if you really try.  Right, Rog?”  Roger glared at him for a moment before his face returned to its previous flaccidity.  Ignoring his ire, Scott continued.
            “I just think you’d have to be pretty conceited to think you have the right to decide who deserves life and who deserves death.  I guess I’m just not that into killing people,” he said, looking over at me.
            “Hey, look, I’m not advocating killing people,” I said, defensively.  “I’m not even 100% for the death penalty.  I’m just saying, wiser men than us decided that Frank Wallace needed to be executed and who am I to say they’re wrong?” 
            “What makes them so much wiser than us?” Scott replied, incredulously.  “I’m not claiming to know more about the law than a judge, but this goes beyond just written law.  This isn’t about whether or not the law says it’s ok to execute someone.  This is about whether or not it is ok for us as human beings to condemn another human being to death.  It’s a big freakin’ step from punishment to execution.  What makes one person more qualified than another to hand down such a severe moral judgment?”
            “Well said,” Roger interjected.  “If nothing else, at least our lives should be in our own hands.”
            “Don’t push it, Rog,” Scott said, sternly.  “I still think trying to kill yourself was a damn stupid thing to do.”  Roger shrugged nonchalantly. 
            “Not that I don’t agree with you on this capital punishment thing, Scott, but I think your passion for the subject is misdirected from something else.”  I gave a shallow nod in agreement and Scott’s face twisted a bit childishly.  He clearly wished to dodge the subject, a sentiment which Roger could detect and which encouraged him to press further.
            “I think you’re really scared about dying and you’re projecting your fear of death onto other situations.  What’s more, I think all this talk about last words, suicides and the death penalty is just a convenient way of looking at death without actually facing your own.”
            “I don’t see anything particularly convenient about any of this,” Scott snorted.  “I’m pretty sure my opinions wouldn’t change if I thought I would live forever.  It’s just what I believe.”
            “He’s not saying they would change,” I said, jumping back into the conversation.  “He just thinks you’re being such a stickler about all this because it distracts you from what is actually coming.  And I think I kind of agree with him.”  I added the last part rather sheepishly as Scott shot me a less than favorable look.
            “You think I’m not conscious of what’s happening to me?  I’ve been thinking about it every minute of every day since I found out.  That’s what this has all been about!” Scott shouted, causing himself the shudder violently and launch into a brief coughing fit.  Roger, however, was undaunted by Scott’s ire.  He pursued the point with the most forceful tone he could muster.
            “But all these other situations: that criminal, me, and whoever else you’ve terrorized.  Those aren’t you.  This is all about you.  Your own personal death.  You need to stop trying to find out what death means to everyone else and start thinking about what your death means to you.  There isn’t a hell of a lot else you can do.”  Roger was slightly out of breath by the time he finished, but he calmed down quickly.  The energy withdrew from his expression as he and Scott locked eyes for what seemed like an eternity.  Sweat was beading across Scott’s brow and I could tell the discussion had taken a lot out of him.  His physical exhaustion, however, was nothing compared to the mental toll of the past few days.  He was weak in every way and I could see it written in his expression.  The zeal for his mission had drained from his heart and left him at the brink of fatal acquiescence.  He exhaled harshly as he leaned back against his pillow.
            “So what then?” he asked, his voice a thin husk of its usual strength.  “Should I just sit here and wither in my mind until my body finally just gives out?”
            “No,” Roger replied, the slightest trace of compassion creeping into his voice.  “I’m not saying don’t talk to anyone else.  I’m just saying this is about you now.  It’s about what see in death and what it means to you.  So don’t stop looking, just make sure you’re looking at yourself and what you need.  That’s just about all I can tell you.”  With that, Roger turned abruptly and walked out of the room as though he was finished with us for good.  In the silence that followed, Scott and I did not look at each other.  Rather, we thought about what Roger had said and what it could possibly mean for what was about to happen to Scott.  I felt strangely as though what he had said was for my benefit as well.  Amid the hum of the hospital hive, I sat and thought about what Scott’s death would mean to me.

End of Part Four