The sickness that separates us

bridgingthegap (1)A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

On a recent Sunday morning I was called down for an unexpected visit. It was my mom, truly the most amazing woman I’ve ever known. We caught up on the most recent happenings and shared some laughs. It had been a good visit.

Then it happened. Some people are able to keep it together when they receive bad news. I am not one of them, and this was not one of those moments. “Son, I’m sick again.”

When people ask me what the worst part of being locked up is, or what my worst fear is, I tell them it is the possibility of losing someone I love. I have thought I might lose someone during my incarceration — but my mom? No way.

In the coming weeks I would learn that my mom has stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very aggressive blood cancer. She would need to start chemotherapy right away. There were going to be a lot of tests, scans and doctor appointments.

But my mom has already battled cancer and won. She’s a fighter; it is impossible to know her and not be encouraged by the things she has overcome and is overcoming. But none of us in the family wanted her to go through all of that again.


Life is simply too short to waste not being surrounded by your loved ones.


I have always called on my mom in my time of need. Now, in her time of need, I am locked up. I can’t drive her to appointments, make her dinner, or just sit with her when things get rough, which they will. It’s a hard pill to swallow, which marks the first pill I wasn’t able to swallow in my life.

I started thinking about all the wasted time, broken promises and special moments I stole away from my mom. It really hit me when I realized her last memories of me might be of visits in a state prison.

I’ve started calling home every day. The content of these conversations can be heavy. Today I called home to find my mom crying, because cancer doesn’t subside or take days off. It constantly attacks and exhausts her.

On good days we share our hopes and fears. I try to make her laugh at my bad jokes, which she does because even now she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings. Sometimes we don’t say anything…we just cry.

I know that through the tears shed and the laughter shared we have become closer than we have been in years. We have a relationship that gets stronger, even as our bodies do not. Everything else we share now is so much more delicately held in place.

Everything now has a heightened sense of urgency and fragility. She came to visit recently, and we had pictures taken in the visiting room. They are no longer just pictures; they have become these Holy Grail memories, memories I just can’t make more of.

The next week, I noticed everyone else got their photos except me. I thought I’d probably get them the next day, but days later they never showed up. Things that used to be simple inconveniences make me feel like flying off the handle now.

It’s hard to explain the feeling, but the thought that I might not have more opportunities to take photos with her made me throw up and left me with a mind-numbing headache. Losing the pictures brought a wave of changing feelings and the sobering realization that I have no control over when the last visit with my mom will be.

The time I do get to spend with my mom is contingent on so many variables. Stakes are highest during Tuesday’s phone calls. In order for my mom to be able to visit, she has to get her blood drawn to find out if she has enough white cells to fight off infections.

She logs onto her medical account to check the test results from her blood work. This usually reveals that her white count is not high enough, which means she can’t come visit because she could get sick from me. She has been able to visit three times in the 18 weeks since she began her treatments.

But my mom has taught me that sometimes life is awful. You get a raw deal or two, but that doesn’t mean you quit or give up. You just keep fighting for the opportunity to share a few more precious moments with the ones you love. Life is simply too short to waste not being surrounded by your loved ones. It’s extremely difficult to be disconnected from family when they need us the most.

I have found support in some of the most unlikely places. Watching my mom lose her hair was extremely difficult. I decided I would stand in solidarity with her, so I shaved my own head. I figured if she can endure massive amounts of chemotherapy, then I can show my support, at least symbolically. I told a couple of the guys about it, and in their own symbolic tribute, guys who have never met my mom started shaving their heads, too.

Today, halfway through our phone call my mom starts crying hysterically. She hurts; it doesn’t stop; every day she struggles to hang on. She doesn’t want to hurt anymore, and I don’t want her to, either. But neither of us is ready to say goodbye to each other yet.


Aaron David Miller is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit