As I write these paragraphs, a friend of mine is treading through his last twenty-four hours of life on this earth. Tomorrow morning he will be executed, after thirty years in solitary confinement in one of our state prison complexes. I have never met him. But somehow, perhaps ten years ago, he got hold of my name and began to write to me. Since then, we have corresponded regularly. His name is Robert. His letters are written with a ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper. Here are some excerpts from these letters. I will leave his punctuation and spelling intact.
“Hi, Tom I pray you all are in good spirits. . . . They gave me a date for my execution of 2-29-12. . . . My Faith, trust is in our Lord Jesus Christ. What His will is, that is what will happen. . .. another inmate [also named Robert] is to go on 3-8-12 I have known him for many years & he is also a Catholic. Please add him to your prayer list. You are all in my prayers. . . . Your Friend, Brother In our Lord Jesus Christ.” Or again: “I have some very nice officers watching over me. I follow what the rules say.... I’m just taking it easy, watching TV some, playing cards, praying. His will be done! . . . you are in my prayers.”
Then this, two weeks before his execution: “The Lord is helping me to get through each day peacefully.... His love is real and true as is His word is true. Joshua had many trials to go through and the Lord was there with him as He was with Moses.... Yes He loves each of us totally, completely. Yes, even the ones who have gone astray (do evil, think evil). He is right there ready to forgive them, except them into His Family. They need only to confess, repent, of their sins, accept Him as their Lord, Saviour. They will be part of His family .... You are wright. He is our rock, stronghold, our salvation. We do need to pour out our hearts to Him, love Him with all our heart.... New cell #3G17 (death watch cell).”
And ten days before his execution (tomorrow as of this writing), we find this: “Thank you for the scripture Ps 91. . . . I give Him thanks for all He has done, will be doing for me.... There are two of us on death watch now. Robert is a good-hearted man ... he knows the Lord to.”
At this point, I set aside my manuscript for the night. It is now the morning of Robert’s execution. He is now dead. Or, if not, his last minutes are ticking away. Requiem aeternum dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.
How did it go, this last night? Was he wakeful in his death-watch cell? Did he have company—a kind guard? Family? Robert had no family. A counselor? I have often wondered what state-certified counselors say to someone like Robert. Tell him that it’s fine to express all of his feelings? That it’s OK? That it’s a simple and painless procedure? Tell him to say anything he feels like saying?
Once when I was working in the emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital, I overheard a staff counselor tell the young mother of a small girl who had just died on the treatment table, “You can say anything you want.” Good God, I thought. Is this the best we can do? I sat down on the floor next to the woman and we said the Our Father, she in Spanish, I in Latin by way of harmony.
And how does one get from one’s cell to the place of execution? A little procession? Along concrete corridors with rattling keys, shuttling locks, and clanking doors? One assumes a priest must be there. And how do one’s own thoughts run? A total blank? Terror? Calling on God? Perhaps even finding solace in recalling “I am he that liveth and was dead?” Does one climb onto a gurney for the lethal injection? Or sit down in the chair? Does anyone say a prayer? Is he asked for a final word? The most critical moment in one’s life, next to one’s birth, lurches along caparisoned with inanities.
The death of another Christian has juxtaposed itself in my mind in connection with Robert’s death. Last year, Archduke Otto, heir to the Habsburg thrones and to the erstwhile Holy Roman Empire, died. But for the seismic political changes over the last century, he would have been emperor.
The requiem mass was held in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, celebrated by the primate of Austria, Christoph Cardinal SchÖnborn. All possible crowned, ex-crowned, or putatively crowned heads of continental Europe were present. The pageantry was titanic. Cardinals in heavy gold-filigreed black copes and gold miters; bishops in violet cassocks and zuchettos, lace surplices, and miters; priests in black fiddleback chasubles; great clouds of incense; choirboys singing Michael Haydn’s Requiem; noblemen from all the noble families of the Habsburg Empire in white tie and black mourning dress, most with blue ribbons and medallions; and great files of attending men in knickerbockers, white hose, and sumptuously plumed felt alpine hats.
Robert and Otto. The murderer and the archduke. Nobody and Somebody. Worlds—centuries—galaxies apart. The one, ignominiously and anonymously huddled off the human scene; the other, sent to his rest with catafalque, gold pall, glass hearse drawn by black-plumed horses, and a procession of prelates, princes, and the public. Both men were Catholic, and there any similarity would seem to end. But when the body of a royal Habsburg is taken from the cathedral for burial, the solemn procession makes its way to the Habsburg tomb. An official knocks loudly on the sepulchral doors with a staff.
“Who desires entry?” says a voice from inside the doors.
“Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma . . . Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria . . . Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia . . . [the pedigree goes on].”
“We do not know him.”
A second knocking.
“Who desires entry?”
“Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union and quondam President of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of many universities . . . [again the august list].
“We do not know him.”
A third knocking.
“Who desires entry?
“Otto, a mortal and sinful man.”
“Then let him come in.”
Both men in penitential weeds. Both pleading the paschal mystery as their only warrant for entry into the presence of the Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, and thence into the kingdom of the king of all kings, where irony ascends to mystery, and mystery to adoration.
Thomas Howard is a retired English teacher.