I would know we were getting close when we passed the Burger King. It would be one or two more exits then the winding road for a couple more minutes and then the walls, the wires, the prison.
We would pull up and I’d take a deep breath. Mom and Grandma would be talking, making sure they had all the necessary documents and what not. My brothers and me would just… wait.
My Grandma lived with us for the first 8 years of my life. She made the coziest apartment out of a small ass converted attic that you can barely stand all the way up in and we are a short family! She would talk to me about God. She told me we were Catholic because “they came first.” And when I got, what she must have deemed too excited, for St. Patrick’s Day she taught me that “St. Patrick’s Day is for the Swedes. We are Irish everyday.” She made sure I understood English had “pushed us to the rocks and took all the best land.”
My Uncle also lived with us, sometimes, when he wasn’t locked up. He lived in the basement. He would call it the Bears Den. It was, well, a basement. Damp. Cold as shit. We didn’t even have the ceiling finished. The bed sat on the floor, worn out and musty. My pops kept a bench press and some weights down there just on the other end of the room and there was an old black and white TV. It had to beat a cell though.
We had been waiting for what felt like forever. My mom was getting pissed. I could hear her telling Grandma that they were doing it on purpose, this wasn’t our first time there and they knew who we were.
When they finally did call us they said they couldn’t read the name because the writing was too bad. My Grandma’s hand shook constantly and so her writing was choppy, but it was legible, even I knew that. My Grandma never argued or let it phase her. When they called our name she walked right by them head held high. I finally understood what they mean when the said fuck the police.
The huge mechanical doors were loud and took a long time to open. We all stepped in as it closed a lot faster and less dramatic than it opened. The voice over the loudspeaker asked us to stand still. I remember wondering why we were in a room full of mirrors? Why did we need to see ourselves? When the other door finally opened the burnt orange and deep red chairs of the visiting room stung your eyes. We walked in and searched for my Uncle.
“The roadster, the speedster, from 2426 Pierce St. NE” I smiled and gave him a huge hug. “Hey Bugs!” I’ll always remember those hugs. My Grandma would be crying by the time it was her turn to hug her son. We would spend the couple hours laughing and crying, and remembering. A couple times the guards would come and tell my Mom or Grandma not to touch my Uncle. Fuck. Them.
I had never heard banging like that before. Two police officers looking for my Uncle. I ran downstairs but stopped on the second to last stair and just peeked through the cracked open door. My Dad was at the door and the cops were shinning the flashlight all through the living room.
“The hell you are! I told you he ain’t here!”
If our 100 pound dog hadn’t started growling I’m not sure the police wouldn’t have forced their way in.
The next time my dad answered the door for somebody looking for my Uncle I learned just what it looks like to protect your family.
My Grandma told me she saw the sun dance in Ireland. She kept a plaque in her apartment that if you just glance at it looks like random shapes, but if you look closer and at the negative space you see Jesus’ name. My Grandma told me the Holy Spirit was everywhere you just had to know how to look.
On the day my Grandma transitioned the Sun bowed. She became an ancestor 18 years ago on the Winter Solstice. Thank God I know how to look.
When I checked my phone I see I missed a call and got a voicemail “What’s up Bugs it’s just me. Didn’t want anything just saying hey. Give me a call.” I haven’t had to see my Uncle in a visiting room in well over a decade. He has held my daughter, met my wife and seen the house I hope to make half the home he helped make mine growing up.
He has a partner and his own home. He’ll say it ain’t much but its something.
I learned about life, God, and freedom from my Grandma, Catherine Rose Gallagher and my Uncle, James Collins. I don’t know if the lessons I learned were necessarily what they thought they were teaching, but they were learned nonetheless. Resilience, tenacity, the Creator, loyalty, and family.