Category Archives: family

How John Lee Became a Brother to My Daughters

John and Katy

John Lee and Katy

I have three daughters: an Australian blood daughter who lives in Florida, and two adopted Korean daughters who live in Chapel Hill. They are all grown now, but the two Koreans are the youngest.

When John Lee came into my life, my younger Korean daughter Katy was antagonistic because she couldn’t understand why I would take up with someone who did something so hateful as to shoot two people, which John Lee must have done because he was on Death Row.

But after a month or so, when I had talked more about his case, and how he had been framed for something he didn’t do, she began to take an interest.

“After a while,” she told me later, “I thought, well, everybody says don’t judge a book by its cover. Read a couple of pages first and then decide whether you like it or not. So I decided, okay, fine, I’ll go with Mom and talk with him.

“That’s when I found out John Lee and I are similar. We like the same kind of music. We have the same kind of humor. We both like drawing, we can do it easily. And when he starts explaining something to me I know what he’s talking about. He doesn’t have to explain in depth. I can get it.

“He can say, ‘You know what I mean?’ And I say, ‘Yes, I know what you mean.’ If he says slang words I know what he’s talking about because when I was in Maryland at high school I had black friends so I learned slang words.

“When I got to know him more, I found that I could talk to him about anything wanted. I had that sort of brotherly connection. Even though he wasn’t a physical brother outside the prison, I could talk to him and write to him about any problem I had.

“He never judges me, but he wants me to learn, to always do better for myself. I say, ‘I can do this,’ and he says, ‘You can also do that.’ “He always wants me to make goals for myself and accomplish them because he knows I can do it and wants me to know that too. He always gives me good advice about stuff and I can count on him to do that.

“I’m not a very patient person, I know that. He said I had to learn to be patient, and I know that too. And I’ve learned to be a lot more patient because of him. He’s made me look at myself, how I am as a person.

“He’s always telling me slow down, take a step back and reflect on what you’ve done, what you’ve said. Don’t always be so on the go with things because that can be a bad thing. You need to just relax, be calm––he’s always about being calm––and look at the things you’ve accomplished. He helped build my confidence.”

John Lee’s Reunion with His Birth Mother

John Lee, 12 years old

John Lee, 12 years old

 

 

When I met John in 2006, he had not seen his birth mother in sixteen years, so I arranged to bring her down from Hurlock, Maryland, to visit him for his birthday. The experience was so powerful that the only way I could express it was in this poem, which became part of the collection An Innocent in the House of the Dead:

 

Witness

I brought your mother down from Maryland.
I intended to surprise you,
but in the way of close-held secrets, it leaked out.
Or else I told you.
Maybe out of curiosity to see what you would say.
Are you trying to give me a heart attack?
Or to give you something wonderful to think about.
Yes, wonderful, despite the sixteen years.

Or to test you, maybe, to determine
if you tell the truth
when you say you have forgiven her for all
the beatings, for throwing you away,
when you say you’ve always loved her,
wanted nothing as a child but to go back to her.
I do not know. Intentions are so slippery.
Like ice squeezed in the hand, they skid away,

they melt, take on another shape.
Intentions, when you come right down to it,
are not much good for anything,
which is why trials go awry,
why men are locked up when they shouldn’t be,
or not locked up when they should.
So my intentions do not matter.
All that matters is I did it. And she came.

I thought you both would jump
clear through the bars and glass.
No touching. Touching not allowed.
Not even after sixteen years. Not even for a mother.
I wanted you to be alone. I offered,
and was glad when both of you refused.
Glad to be a witness to this amazing joy,
this grief pent up so long.

A visitation booth is tiny.
Like a phone booth, like a shoe box,
like a bathroom in a dollhouse.
But joy and grief are big, enormous,
and they filled it, made the walls bulge
and begin to crack,
like an explosion in a cave, or mine shaft,
or railroad tunnel underground,

or like the high priests’ rams’ horns
blown outside the walls of Jericho,
or a story told across the years
compressed into a poem, or a song.
There was that intensity.
It backed me up against the door and I slid down it,
sat there with my arms around my knees—
high heels, stockings, and my best gray suit.

I wanted to be small, to disappear.
Intruder. Voyeur. Secret agent.
But you said, No, get up, sit next to her,
sit right there on that stool.
And she kept saying, Baby, oh, my baby,
my sweet Johnny Lee.
The boy locked in the frame before her.
Ageless. Beautiful. Child out of her womb.