Seventeen Novembers have passed since Eugene Vent turned 18 inside a holding cell in Fairbanks Correctional Center. He was kept in isolation because of the very real and persistent threats of violence from other inmates. Jail records recall how inmates would lean up to the small slat in his door and whisper graphic threats to Vent, alone for 23 hours per day in the cell. Imagine how it must have felt, alone and away from family for the first time in his young life, on a birthday considered the passage into adulthood, in a concrete room with faceless voices that whispered a hundred ways to die.
“You know,” Vent said, “It took me a long time to forgive myself for not being stronger. Like, years and years walking around knowing that if I hadn’t broken under the officer’s pressure, if I hadn’t falsely confessed, how many lives would be different. Better. I was mad at myself for not being more of, like, a man. But over time I realized I was just a kid then. When I think back on that kid so scared, so stupid, so young, man, just so young, in that interrogation room, now I think, I forgive you. I forgive that kid. I forgive myself. It seems so long ago it’s hard to even remember who I was at 17. A lifetime ago. I’ve missed a lot of life. But, you know, if all this time we have done and our story out there, if it stops this from happening to even just one kid like I was, it’s worth it. I will know my life had meaning.”
Life. Fresh cut grass, dinner on the table, babies crying, sisters laughing, grandma’s hand on your face, Christmas morning, scraped knees, pretty girls, mom’s voice, falling asleep on the couch, sick days, boot prints on fresh snow, high-bush cranberries, dead leaves in the fall, melting snow, mud, puddles, bicycle wheels over gravel, running on dusty roads, first kisses, first loves, last chances, thunderstorms, birthday cakes, moose soup on the stove, woodsmoke, fish, summer, fall, spring, winter, life, life, life. Seventeen years of living in color, until one night in the seventeenth year, so scared, so young, it changed. Everything changed.
It makes sense that the first life, the other life, is one so far away that he can hardly remember himself back then. Like a photograph out of focus. A dream slipping away in the space between awake and asleep. For seventeen years there was one life. And for seventeen more there has been the other. The smells, the voices, the people, the faces, the seasons – all gone. Concrete and barbed wire, every day the same as the last, the threat of violence pulsing down constantly like the florescent flickering light in any institution. Yet, somehow, there Eugene has found forgiveness. He has found faith. He has, absent all the tiny pieces that contentment is made of, has found assurance that his life has meaning.
Birthdays are not eulogies for the life that came before them. They are not a time to mourn the past.They are not celebrations of the present alone. Birthdays are markings of the passage of time – acknowledgment that time is moving forward, that we are moving with it, and that time has circled one more year, leading us where it will.
Happy Birthday Eugene, and many happy returns. May the next seventeen years of your life be a joining of the last 35. May you someday know the simple joys of life coupled with the wisdom that suffering gifted you. For all the things that are hard to recall from those first seventeen years we know one remains clear – love. The love was real, the love remains, and we know you feel it there too. We are still holding a candle for you, brother, we always will.