The Death of a Friend

From the novel The Perfumed Grave

Thomas Thompson said good-bye to all of us in North Segregation today.
The system of Execution at San Quentin calls for him to be locked-up and constantly watched by two officers twenty-four hours a day for the last five days before heís scheduled to die.

Lately, Iíve been saying this special prayer, "That God would allow all these tormented beings to be freed and somehow find an end to their suffering. In return for that favor, I would gladly be executed in their place."

Itís not that I donít have plenty to live for, beautiful daughters and grand-kids and a million other favors I canít deny. I just know that when my time comes, my focus will be on spaciousness and compassion, which might not be the case for many of the Sentient Beings I see here.

The idea of someone Iíve grown to call a friend dying in ignorance is almost too much for me to think about, and the fact that I know whatís next, after this short life, makes me that much more confident "Iíll be fine."

I do have the unique opportunity to influence my kids, and since they hinge on every word I say and basically value every suggestion I come up with, that motivation alone gives me an even greater mission. Being stranded on Death Row, it's amazing and almost a miracle that my kids still love me at all. I know I shouldn't crave their approval, but it's really hard not to.

Next month I'll be 43 years old and if you looked at my life, you'd think I was 60. At the same time I can't be mad at the way my life has turned out, because all these obstacles I face are really an opportunity for me to grow and even shine. So illusionary, I could call it a dream, parts of which have turned into a nightmare.

Luckily my knowledge of the Dharma has changed my perception so that even my hurts have given rise to victories common folk would never think to experience. Sitting here is just as important as being free to raise my kids, because there are many tormented souls here and as long as there is one tormented being on this level of Samsara, then no one can truly say, "they're free."

Thinking back, I wasnít always fodder for the judicial system. From June of 1973, until July of 1976, I had two years, six months, and twenty-four days of sea duty, finally receiving an Honorable Discharge in 1979. I remember cruising on board the USS San Bernadino AFS-7, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, with a Battle Group powerful enough to destroy the world several times over if the order was given.

What a gas, NAVY: Never Again
Volunteer Yourself.

I think Thomas was in the Army, and I remember him telling me he did some stuff over in Laos, you never can tell around here. I'd say at least seven out of ten guys here in North Segregation are Veterans. Most of them are older than me and claim to have been in combat in Nam. All of them have stories, like me, and we all agree that Uncle Sam could care less if we dropped dead after he finished messing us up. Another thing that's interesting is the fact that none of the guys I asked had ever been in trouble before the military.

At the same time, this isn't about excuses or even reasons, anybody could see that if the system wanted, they could find a reason to let all of us off Death Row, just as they justify placing us here. Also, it's interesting that of the 509 men on the row, I can only think of a few, a hand-full at most, that have cases worse than many of the people walking around on the mainline in California Prisons.

Speaking of which, my friend is scheduled to be executed in about twenty-five hours from now. There's so much lingering doubt in his case, it's amazing that so-called Law Protectors would actually execute this guy. I guess they forgot the few lines in the 8th Amendment that say, "Itís unconstitutional to execute anyone who is factually innocent."

About a year ago, he received a stay of execution, which allowed us to have long conversations about death and dying. I feel those brief talks did us an enormous amount of good. Being a realist I would always come at him with the fact that, regardless to what I think or feel about you, you could be as guilty as sin. Since I wasn't there, and the fact that I've seen much, I simply can't put anything past anyone.

So we were having this conversation and somehow it came back to the question of guilt or innocence, a conversation mind you, that I hate to have with a friend. My reason for this is I could feel a man's innocence, but he could talk me into believing he's guilty, just from him trying to be persuasive. Also, I think that if the system can justify killing any of us here, then they will and really don't care about us being guilty or innocent.

So I was talking to Tom about it, and I suggested to him that, "No matter if you're guilty or innocent, if these people decide to execute you, you should pray for forgiveness for all innocent creatures, even the oneís who hate you. That way, your death will count for something."

That seemed to get his attention, so I continued, saying, "It's simple when you think about it, if youíre guilty (and I don't think you are) then youíll die seeking forgiveness for your sins and all the pain and hatred youíve generated by your actions." Since Tomís a Christian, I went on to say, "By doing that, you stand a very good chance of being allowed into paradise by atoning for your sins. On the other hand, if youíre innocent, then youíre in the unique position of knowing when the end of this life will start. This means you'll be able to even pray for those who are murdering you. You can ask forgiveness for all the innocent creatures that die everyday just so we can live. The Biblical ramifications of that are enormous, even Christ-like."

He agreed with me and I pray he does that when the time comes. Since innocent people die everyday, heís going out with an advantage. All this won't stop me from missing him, but I'll feel different than most of his love one's because he and I have talked about this event myriad times. I believe in my heart that he'll be better off than even the people that take his life, if it comes to that. One thing for sure, he'll damn sure be better off than me, because I'll still be here in hell and he'll be taken up, soaring with the angels, spiritually full and testing out a brand new pair of wings. Sleep with the angels brother, youíre never far from my heart.

July 13, 1998:

If Thomas Thompson is to be believed, then in less than 8 hours, he'll be murdered by the State of California for a crime he did not commit. He, along with his crime partner are the two people alive who know truth. A truth, that will probably die with him if his execution is carried out. I assume that since his so-called crime partner took a deal, he won't be coming forward with any new information, so the buck stops with Tom. Since Thomas Thompson and possibly the person who actually did the crime are the only one's that know the truth, I choose to simply love him for the beautiful brother he has been to me ever since I drove up to San Quentin in 1995. Also at this point in the day I still choose to think of him as he "is," instead of a "was." It keeps me believing that no matter how it turns out he'll be blessed.

Living in this place I call, "The Perfumed Grave," puts me in the unusual position of being one of the very few people who has a friend that is about to be murdered. It's odd when you think about it, usually the survivors of victims of violent crimes find out about the incident after it happens, which is more than likely followed by shock, anger, grief, and finally resolve. But here in the Grave, I've spent literally years, laughing, eating, working out, and basically living with people, who statistically speaking, will die in prison. That means in this case, I've actually went through all those steps with Tom before the event even takes place.

This morning was a very special time for me. Since Tom has been locked-up, I knew he would have to walk by to take his last shower. Iím in cell 15, and being condemned, for his last five days he's been in cell 1. So I knew he would have to pass by. With that in mind, I stayed up all night, meditating, lounging, and waiting for him to come by

Sogyal Rinpoche wrote The Tibetan Book of Death and Dying, which somehow confirmed much of what I already felt and believed about the process of life and death. Since Tom is a devout Christian, I never forced my understandings on him, instead, I ould just put thoughts on the table for him to look at and then go over them with him in general conversation. The beautiful thing about our relationship was his stay of execution which last about a year. After his close call he seemed much more interested in my understanding of life, death, and what I feel is the best way o perceive one's own death. Using Jesus as an example, I was able to impress the "Practice of Dying," which is chapter fourteen in the book.

This wonderful teaching mainly deals with letting go of attachments like hatred and anger, while replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and forgiveness. My favorite saying to him was, "Pray for the world brother. You see how tore-up it is, and we need it to be safe for my granddaughter and newborn grandson."

Anyway, this morning when he walked by, I looked in his eyes and saw that everything I suggested to him worked and the focus of positive light that illuminated from him literally singed my being to the core. Looking he said, "I love you brother," standing bent over because of the handcuffs he must wear in order to come out of his cell. I swear it was like he was carrying a heavy burden on his back, maybe even an invisible cross. His demeanor caught me so off-guard I couldn't make words come from my mouth. I was so overcome with joy and pain all I could do was make a fist and put it to my heart. For several minutes after he'd gone, all I could do was stand at the bars with tears rolling down my cheeks.

The strange thing is these weren't tears of sadness, they were those of joy. I knew in my heart that after this morning, Thomas Thompson would be better off than humanly possible. In fact, I could sum it up by saying, "I looked into his eyes and saw the face of God."

September 20, 1998:

It's taken me a couple months to re-visit the death of my friend. It was especially powerful for me to have been able to go through the process with him, because death is something we all face.

 The night of the execution, I did a practice in Buddhism called Phowa, along with many other practitioners. His execution was scheduled for midnight, and so from 11:00PM until 1:00AM. I played this beautiful tape called "Two Mantras," and recited the mantras being sung by the artist in an almost angelic tone. Focusing on the light I remembered in Tom's eye, I chanted the verse on page 215 of the book which states, "Through your blessing, grace, and guidance, through the power of light that streams from you: May all your negative karma, destructive emotions, obscurations, and blockages be purified and removed, may you know yourself forgiven for all harm you may have thought and done, may I accomplish this profound practice of Phowa for you Tom, may you die a good and peaceful death, and through the triumph of your death, may you be able to benefit all other beings, living and dead."

The interesting thing about that night, and it will always stick in my mind was; many times during that practice, I could see rays of light and feel them flowing all through this giant building, which was probably built over a hundred years ago. I always felt this place haunted, but after the night of Tom's death, I'm sure of it.

I came to the conclusion that, not only was Tom blessed that night, but many other tormented beings found their way out the Bardos because of Tom's sacrifice.

Since then, I've come to just kinda' go with the flow of my life. My daughters and grandkids are still struggling with making ends meet, like many people in the free world today, and Iím still trying to be there for them from here, which is a hat trick in itself. All mygood friends are still amazing, as usual, and life goes on. Football season started and my favorite team signed this new place kicker. I can't help but smile because when they mention his name, everyone on this side of the country whoís watching the same game that day hears it. I'm sure no one sees the correlation, so I just smile to myself and reflect.

You see, the new place kicker for the San Francisco 49ers is named "Thomas Thompson."

Glen Cornwell
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, California 94974

Copyright 1998

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