I’m going to visit Ron, the incarcerated individual I write to and visit with as part of my work with HIPE (Harvard Interfaith Prison Education), tomorrow. As is our custom, I wrote to him early last week asking if the 31st would work for him and heard back a few days ago that, not only would it work, it would be his birthday and so he would especially love a visit. I hadn’t known his birthday when I worked to schedule the visit but was surprised and thrilled to learn of that happy ‘coincidence.’
Surprised and thrilled at first, at least.
My mind immediately started running around all the possibilities of gifts or tokens we could bring to mark that occasion. I could make cookies! Get balloons! Or a book relating to things we’ve talked about! But then, of course, reality had to set in and I realized that I couldn’t do any of that. When going in to see a prisoner, visitors can’t bring anything with them (except little gift cards for the vending machines allowing you to share a snack during your visit) so I couldn’t bring a gift for him with me. And there are strict regulations around what can be mailed to folks inside the prison - clearly sending him birthday cookies would be out of the question.
I felt the inequality of our situations very keenly then. Like Ron is Harry Potter - getting his uncle’s old socks for his birthday - and I am Dudley - flush with expensive things, surrounded by loved ones and taking all of it completely for granted. Realizing that I can’t help give Ron a good birthday, can’t at least making sure he gets more than Uncle Vernon’s discarded socks, was a bleak reminder of the contrast between our two lives. It made (and still makes) me feel helpless.
Not to say I’m not still so glad we’ll be able to give him a little company on his birthday. That, I think, while it may feel small compared to all the things I can’t do, will be a gift.