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Doing Time

Major Ed Forster shares another installment of “Others,” stories highlighting actual events that occurred during more than four decades of officership. by Major Ed Forster

The rickety wooden stairs were littered with trash. An array of variously colored clothing hung overhead, drying on lines running contrary to each other. While being aware of obstacles above and beneath, I groped for the door. My knocking was in competition with an untuned washing machine and a crying baby.

The persistence of my knocking brought a thin, distraught woman to the door.

I introduced myself and told her I was the chaplain of the local county jail.

“Come in,” she said with little enthusiasm.

She sat down wearily at the kitchen table and motioned for me to do the same. She picked up her crying toddler from the floor. The noise of the washing machine, and the now screaming child, proved too much for conversation. I asked if we could possibly talk in the living room, where it might be quieter.

She pointed the way and took the child into another room with a pacifier in his mouth. I sat on the couch and waited for her to return. When she joined me, she sat in a chair diagonally across from me, and immediately lit up a cigarette.

Her nervousness showed in everything she did. The woman couldn’t look straight at me, and she fidgeted with objects on the table next to her.

“Your husband says you want a divorce,” I managed to say.

“Wouldn’t you?” she shot back.

I was silent, feeling a little stunned by her reaction, but I waited for her to explain further.

“I’ve worked and slaved at the telephone company for nine years. I’m about to undergo a hysterectomy, and there’s no one to take care of the children.”

My heart filled with compassion for her. My lips began to move as I started to speak, but she began again before I could get the words out.

“This is the third time during those nine years that he’s been in jail. I’ve had enough.”

Her husband was charged with assaulting a woman he hardly knew. He pleaded with me to come and visit his wife to beg for her forgiveness and reconciliation. I was burdened for both of them and for their children. I said a silent prayer, “Dear Jesus, please tell me what to say. Give me words to speak that might bring some comfort to this situation.” 

After a few moments of quiet, I asked, “Do you love your husband?”

At first, she didn’t reply. Then, after several moments, she said. “I did.”

“And now?” I asked.

“I’d like to, but I can’t anymore.”

The phone rang. She went to answer it, as tears trickled down her face, falling silently onto the carpet. Her back straightened when she realized it was her husband on the phone. Apparently, someone at the jail allowed him to make a call.

“No,” I heard her say, “I can’t. You’ve done this to me too many times.”

His voice was so loud I could hear him responding to her, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

“I won’t,” she said. “Well, that’s up to you,” she said, as she slammed down the phone.

“It was him,” she said, as she fell back into the chair she’d been sitting on a few minutes before.

“What did he have to say?”

“He said he’s going to kill himself, but he won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“He’s said that many times before, but he’s never even tried it. He only says it to try and get me to do what he wants.”

“Just in case,” I said, “I’d better go.

After trying to reassure her with, “Hopefully, things will work out,” I prayed with her, during which her crying child beckoned her again.

I retraced my steps past the roaring washing machine, through the maze of overhead laundry and the underfoot litter on the stairs to my car. The jail was supposed to be only 20 minutes away, but the ride seemed longer as each red light increased my anxiety. Then, a one-lane construction project stopped me entirely for several minutes.

As I drove into the parking lot at the jail, I had to swing around an ambulance that was backed up to the door. I parked the car, and it was as I was taking the keys out of the ignition, that it registered. I ran to the back of the ambulance just as the rear door was about to be closed, but I was able to glimpse at the man’s arms. They were covered with blood-soaked bandages.

I should have called the jail instead of driving all the way over there. It might have helped.

The man, her husband, didn’t die. He was later convicted of his crime, and he was sent to prison. He and his wife didn’t reconcile their marriage, but because we’d become aware of her plight, we were able to become involved in helping her and her family in a variety of ways. 

Not all stories have happy endings. This one didn’t. But it helped to remind me to respond quickly in the future when someone threatens suicide, no matter what the circumstances appear to be. It also helped me to further see the desperate plight of many of the families of prisoners, so that I could serve them better in the future.

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