I hadn’t even realized that, although we had visited in various combinations at random times, we had not all four been there together for a while. He counted the minutes to events like this with plenty of time to keep track, while I wedged our visits into a frenzy of soccer games, horse shows, and work, so I hadn’t even noticed the gap.
The girls, who were then twelve and eighteen, had not been to the prison in a long time, but I could see flutters of memory every now and then as we signed the book, passed through the metal detector, and were frisked. When we finally made it through the second door inside Unit 2, Cecil was standing inside the visiting room, waiting. I thought his face might split in two, his smile was so wide. He rushed us all in hearty hugs and stood back to admire the girls. His pride in them was so evident I could tell he felt ownership in their raising. And that is true. He set an example, like remembering every one of our birthdays—every time—with personal homemade cards, and his ability to laugh and keep a heart full of joy in the face of a hard existence. He shaped their thinking in ways none of us realized, increased their compassion, and caused them to notice injustice in a way no book or lecture ever could have.
There were several other prisoners visiting at that time, so we sat in a corner where we’d never landed before, where rows of chairs faced each other a few feet apart. Cecil didn’t have time to bother with eating the popcorn or pie; he could not stop looking from one of us to the next and back around and laughing and saying, “I cannot believe this!”
The buttery smell eventually got the best of me; I opened the bag of popcorn, and we started eating. He peppered the girls with questions about school, their summers, and when Anne Grace would leave for college. One of us suggested playing UNO, so Alan grabbed the deck of cards from the nearby bookshelf. UNO is a competitive game that requires you to disregard the feelings of the person sitting next to you, even if you might normally be a more compassionate player. Soon, Cecil was slapping down “Draw 4” cards with relish, and each time someone made a wicked play, he would laugh with his whole body. It really is a game you can’t be nice in, and if you want to win, you must be actively merciless. So, when the girls started griping at each other about certain moves, Cecil would laugh all the more.
As the days toward his execution ticked away, Alan and I were not only wrenching over Cecil’s impending loss of life, but the related fallout: the pain his wife, daughter, and grandchildren, his brother, and our daughters had, too. We wondered how the victims’ families must have been feeling. I sure hoped someone else was tending to them. They must have believed the person responsible for their pain was about to die, and one assumes they were glad for that, even after all these years. As for us, it was way too late to ask for a do-over—if we had known at the beginning what we knew at this point, would we have continued with the friendship? We had put the girls smack in the middle of this bizarre, painful thing. “I remember knowing it was going to be soon,” Anne Grace said of the execution date. “But I didn’t think it would actually happen.”
That family visit turned out to be the last time Anne Grace and Allie saw Cecil, which my husband, Alan, and I suspected at the time but had not said out loud. “I realized I wish I’d gone more. I would’ve talked to him more,” Anne Grace said recently, her sobbing taking her over for a moment. I asked her if she wished she had not been dragged into it at all, not been connected to this eye-opening sadness. I had wondered this for years but feared the answer too much. “No,” she says, struggling through tears. Knowing what she knows has “made it harder,” she said, and has given her a maturity she didn’t really want. This is the kind of pain that can happen when we love someone up close, when we get into their lives and they bring us into theirs, when we show up for one another. The suffering and heartbreak are part of the risk when we reach out to make friends into loved ones, and when we are part of a community. It sure is rotten how that works.
Excerpted from “He Called Me Sister: A True Story of Finding Humanity on Death Row” by Suzanne Craig Robertson (Morehouse Publishing, 2023). Reprinted with permission.