Death of A Family Member
The most disturbing thing one can encounter while in prison is learning of a family member’s death. To know that this family member you once loved and lived with will never be seen by you again. I lost my Aunt Dorothy while in Sheridan during my teenage years. A pang of pain shot through my heart. I could not attend her funeral because she wasn’t my real aunt.
But she and Uncle Joe were more loving than my mother and, most assuredly, my abusive, alcoholic father.
She was a friend of my mother’s when we lived on the corner of 62nd and Dorchester in the Woodlawn neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. This was the original birthplace of the four children born to Wilmer and Francis Thomson. Aunt Dorothy was always there for us, caring for and feeding us, knowing we lived in poverty and abuse. I’ll always remember the cheese and mayonnaise sandwiches she made for us at lunch. As hard as it was, Aunt Dorothy always told us to love our parents since they’re the only ones we’ll ever have.
My older sister Sharon had been left on the doorstep of Lutheran General Services when she was a baby. Six months later, my parents decided they wanted her back. However, she was already in the process of being adopted. A court battle ensued, and my parents won the case. They received an amount that has been quoted as $100,000. Aunt Dorothy told us that she always waited for our lives to improve after they got that money, but it never did. My dad drank it all up. It wasn’t long until my parents got divorced. My dad was constantly beating us up, including my mother, though she was not without responsibility for our miserable existence.
I was in Sheridan in 1962 when my sister Sharon visited me. She told me that she had discovered where our father lived and that he wanted to come and visit me. The last time we saw him was 10 years ago. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him.
I was in the ‘hole’ when I was brought before the captain, the Chaplain, and some other guard. They inquired how long it had been since I had seen my dad. “10 years,” I said. My mother always told me that if I kept getting in trouble, I would end up just like my dad. I was only 8 then and didn’t understand what she meant by it. She later told me I would end up in prison before I turned 21. She proved to be right about that one. I concluded that my dad must have been in prison, though I am not positive about that now. At the time of the inquiry by my three captors, I reasoned in my mind, coupled with what my sister had said, that my dad must be trying to visit me.
They resumed their questioning. “Did your father ever do anything for you? Like, take you on picnics or to ball games?” I told them I couldn’t remember but recalled one ball game. “Is that all?” the captain asked. “That’s all that I remember,” I replied. The captain said, “Well, since your dad didn’t love you and never did anything for you, we don’t think you should feel too bad that he is dead.” I recoiled at the news. In shock, I asked, “Can I go to the funeral?” “No, that’s what we’re trying to say, is that we don’t think….” I refused to hear the rest of what he had to say. I bit my lip hard to not show them any weakness as I made my way back to my cell. As the door clanged shut, I dropped to my bunk and cried. And then I sat up straight, wiped my eyes, and vowed never to again shed another tear, no matter how hard it got or what might happen. I also vowed to never again let anybody get close enough to me to care.
The year was 1976. I received a notice that the Chaplain wanted to see me in his office. I didn’t consider that unusual because I was always hanging around the Chaplain’s office during my free time and invariably trying to organize a concert or bring in special guests or something to do with the worship services. I was on the deacon’s committee, so I was sure it had something to do with the Church program.
I immediately sensed it had nothing to do with the above. Chaplain Behrens asked me to sit down more formally than usual. “Who is Theresa Killian.?” He asked. “She is my sister,” I replied. I explained my parent’s divorce and my mother’s second marriage to John Killian and how I had 5 other siblings of Killians. He told me that Theresa had died at her own hands by hanging herself in the Hazel Crest Jail. Helplessly, I sank back into the chair. I forced myself to ask, “when is the funeral?” ” Saturday,” he replied. I had been in prison long enough to know the routine when a prisoner’s family member died. You had to be approved to go, and you had to not only pay your own way, but if they decided you needed a guard to go with you, you had to pay his way. I had no money. I knew my parents weren’t going to send me any money. I didn’t even know what it was going to take.
The Chaplain inquired and learned that the institution required me to be escorted by a guard of their choosing. I would have to pay for his airfare, lodging and food, and any overtime he accumulated after 8 hours, as well as my traveling expenses. I would be housed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago when I wasn’t at home or with the guard. That seemed immaterial to me because I didn’t have a dime. The Catholic Chaplain joined the Protestant Chaplain in bemoaning that they could do nothing. “Anybody wants to call in a favor from God?”
Dr. James Woods entered the office. He was a psychologist on the prison staff. Dr. Woods was a very congenial and kind man. He was also a stated atheist regarding God and religion, but he liked the chaplains, nevertheless. One look at our faces was all it took for him to notice that something serious was wrong.
[Dr. Woods had a friend who was also a psychologist, and she was blind. She had a very technical book that needed to be transcribed onto tapes. Doctor Woods asked me if I would do it for him, and I most assuredly said I would.]
He also had baled me out of a sticky situation once. Some months before, Mary was coming into the institution that night on August 19, close enough to her birthday on the 20th that I asked someone in the kitchen to make her a cake. Another inmate had made a necklace in the craft shop and gave it to me so I could give her a gift. Mary was well-liked by the men in the prison, and it didn’t take much to get them to respond to the surprise I was planning for her. But how do I get the cake past the guard at the T intersection? I went to the kitchen and had the guys put the cake on a rolling table and a cardboard box over it. The guard stationed at the T would randomly stop guys coming from the kitchen and search them for contraband, i. e. sandwiches, eggs, and any foods that didn’t require cooking that could be consumed later in the night.
On the other hand, I could not conceal this cart and box I was rolling down the hall. I was joined by Dr. Woods as he came from the staff dining room. He waved to the guard as we approached, and the guard waved back, and on I rolled. And the party was enjoyed by all who were in attendance!]
The Chaplains invited Dr. Woods into Niles Behrens’s office, where whatever was discussed was discussed. When the door opened, Chaplain Behrens hurriedly walked by me and said. “We got the money.” I was awestruck. Something inside me told me not to ask any questions at the moment. In the prison maze of circular hallways, Mr. Bill Reed was asked if he wanted to go to Chicago? “Not really,” the slow-talking guard from West Virginia said. But then he rethought it, considering the nature of the trip involved. Mr. Bill Reed was one of the most compassionate guards I had ever met. He purposely kept his expenses to a minimum to not cause me any more financial burden than necessary. Dennis Chesley and Mary Lipscomb of Reba Place Fellowship met us at the airport and drove us to Hazel Crest to my family’s home. There were 9 siblings, the place was crowded, and drama was everywhere. It was said that my sister Mary was to have been married that day. My sister Joanie was escorted by two guards from Geneva girls’ school. She and Theresa were very tight. She had the horrible experience of learning about Theresa’s death on TV. My brother was home alone, but even he had been in the brig then. There was much angst and anguish in the community, not only over her death but what she had done to end up in jail. She had been charged with Attempted Murder in the burning down of a home a block away. The family had banned the news media from our house the day before. During the funeral, our home was burglarized. When my brother learned of this, he said that everything better was returned or someone would pay. The family got everything back, including stuff that hadn’t even been stolen from our house.
I visited the family on Friday and was then taken to the MCC to stay overnight. I lay exhausted in my cell that night. 4 years as a Christian in prison did not prepare me for this. I had no need in prison; there was no drama of this extent in my world inside… I wasn’t even in touch with family members for the past four years except for my brother Michael, who was in the Marines. So I did not see the destruction of my siblings over that time. Are there prayers that go more profound when the need goes deeper?’ Help me not let Theresa’s death be in vain. “this was all I could come up with.
Dr. Woods had given the Chaplains $600. The round-trip cost was $505.00. The Catholic prisoners were part of an organization called St. Vincent DePaul. When I returned, they gave $100 towards my trip, leaving me owing approximately $400. I walked into Dr. Wood’s office shortly after returning to the institution. I told him, “I want you to know that when I get out, I will pay you back the $400.” This kind, gentle atheist turned around and said, “No, I gave you that money because you were in need. I hope you will do the same when you see someone in need.”
Father Jones told Chaplain Niles Behrens, “Ya’ know, sometimes I think He is more of a Christian than we are.”
One of the most enjoyable moments while living in Springfield was to see Dr. Woods walking down the road, inviting him to visit our home and see Ruth and Naomi as babies.
[On a hot sultry night many years later, on July 26, 1996, I got the news of another family tragedy. Judy Belser called to inform me that my nephew David, age 17, had shot himself in the head and had died. The first thought that came to mind was that Theresa, my sister, was 17 when she committed suicide. I wanted to go out to Hazel Crest immediately, but I didn’t want Ruth and Naomi to deal with it emotionally when I wasn’t home, so I didn’t tell them directly. This troubled our family to no end. I don’t think the wounds that resulted from this have been healed for everyone.]