Just Mercy-On Justice and Redemtion

I just published the first episode of my new podcast! Listen to Just Mercy on Anchor https://anchor.fm/dara-cathleen/episodes/Just-Mercy-Podcast-eb162l

For a marketing class at the U of M I had to choose a non-fiction book to read and then create a podcast about it. By chance, I chose “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson out of the limited books for sale in our local, rural store because I felt like it had the most compelling introduction out of the books offered. When I started reading the book, I decided to interview Tommy in the podcast because he has experience being featured in the media as well as time imprisoned. This podcast includes an overview of the book, a summary of the main case featured in the book (the story of Walter McMillian who was innocent but sat on death row for six years), how the media affected Walter’s case, and a short interview of Tommy’s perspective of the role media plays and his views on his time imprisoned.

Don’t cry… it’s just a cacti!

Early morning at Usery Mountain in Mesa, Arizona

Race days begin in the dark. The alarm goes off and we don’t hit the snooze button. Instead of burrowing back into the covers, we breathe deep, feeling our ribs expand and our lungs swell with air. We take a minute to wake up our muscles, stretching our limbs (or what’s left of them), before opening our eyes and crawling out of bed. Already laid out clothes are quickly donned, children are bundled up in blankets and buckled in the car, and the pre-programmed GPS begins to guide us to the start line.

The road is clear and it seems like everyone and everything else is sleeping. Our headlights shine upon the red dirt and the cactus on the side of the highway. The warm, fuzzy, fog of sleep wears off fast. Tommy has been training 4+ hours per day for this race. We are both excited the day is here.

I have found that it is in moments of stillness, when you know something big is going to happen soon, that a certain clarity enters the mind. Some of our best conversations happen at this time. He had been very quiet so it startled me when he suddenly turned to me and said, “I always get nervous before a race. It’s the same feeling I had before going out on foot patrol in Afghanistan. I ask myself… did I train hard enough for these moments? Will I be strong enough when I need to be?”

I know the answer to these questions is yes, although he isn’t looking for confirmation from me. I’m looking forward to seeing him after he crosses the finish line. His normally dark brown eyes will look gold. Any tension he has been holding in his body will disappear after using his muscles for so long and then finally relaxing. He will be enjoying a moment of peace after accomplishing something he has been thinking about doing for so long. He has worked hard to experience this natural high. I remind him how good he is going to feel….. afterwards. We laugh and acknowledge that he is going to feel really crappy for a while first. 26.2 miles is a long ways to push yourself in a wheelchair.

Tommy, the first racer to be at the start line

Tommy was previously an IV meth user. There’s no quicker way to get an instant rush. A high that speeds hotly throughout your veins, spreading throughout your whole body. The thing with artificial highs though is that you feel horrible afterwards. Think about our legal “high” from alcohol. A hangover can leave you lethargic, nauseous, achy, and with a splitting headache. It typically takes many hours before you feel well again.

This morning we agree that natural highs are backwards. You must feel horrible first, and then get the reward of a natural high. We visit about how natural highs usually are from things that make our lives better; exercise, competing, graduating from school, getting a new job or promotion, having a child, traveling somewhere new, falling in love. Something that makes us push past our boundaries, past our bodies and minds screaming that whatever we are doing is HARD and it would feel good to stop whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish. Something that encourages us to embrace CHANGE.

We arrive at the start line. Tommy double checks that he has an extra pair of gloves, that his headphones are working, that his freewheel attachment is connected well. His phone rings. It’s a friend from his Marine Corp days that he recently reconnected with. Someone whose advice and example he admires. His eyes light up and he answers the phone, giving me a kiss to send me on my way. Talking to his friend will get him more fired up for the race. Who we decide to let into our circle is a determination of how we will be… and he has some amazing people in his circle now.

I leave and take the kids to go get pancakes smothered in whip cream, fruit, and syrup. It’s rough being support staff. I type Tommy’s bib number into the Mesa Sprouts Marathon racer tracker and watch his progress. He’s making amazing time! I see that he just made it half way completing 13.1 miles in one hour and thirty one minutes! We quickly finish out breakfast and make our way to the finish line joining the huge crowd that is also waiting for their loved ones to cross. I keep tracking his progress and when I know he is getting close I start a Facebook live video… there are so many people that are excited to see how he is doing in the race.

Tommy finished his first half marathon in 3:08:01. This is only three minutes and one second short of qualifying for the Boston Marathon!!! We wade our way through the sea of spectators and participants until we find him. I have already scouted out a patch of green grass for him to jump out of his chair and lay on. He seems exuberant instead of tired but lays on the grass and stretches out. I notice he still has his left glove on and understand why when he gingerly peels the glove off… he had an encounter with a cactus while racing and still had cactus spines coated with dried blood stuck into the flap graft on his left hand. He said that on his fifth mile his hand had met with a cactus on the side of the road. He had stopped and tried to pick out the spines and after realizing that it was taking a while had placed his hand in his armpit and pulled, breaking off the remaining spines. He had put his second set of gloves on and kept going. He didn’t seem overly concerned with his injured hand and laid in the grass with Millo, enjoying an after race popsicle.

Tommy and Millo enjoying a popsicle after the race

After the race we spent time visiting vendors and talking to the other athletes. Not once did Tommy mention his run-in with the cactus. When I asked about it he said, “No one cares! Everyone, myself included, just wants to know about the end result.” I disagree with that. Stories matter and when something big happens in someones life I think it is interesting to hear the details, the adversity they faced, or the things that happened to make it easier for them to achieve their goals. I do think it says a lot about his character that he is not the type of man to make excuses EVER or complain about inconveniences in his life. He is the type of person that plays well with the hand he has been dealt, the kind of person that promises himself he will do better next time and learn from his mistakes.

Battle wounds from racing
All smiles after the race

We spent the rest of our time in Arizona enjoying family that lives there, exploring aquariums, going to the science museum, eating good food, and hiking at Papago Park. With his free wheel attachment, he could get a little ways up the trail but not all of the way to Hole in the Wall. The kids were so excited to explore this area and walk all of the way to the top… Tommy knew he wouldn’t let the lack of a wide trail stop him. We went as far as he could in his chair and then he left it on the side of the trail. He crawled up the thin, rocky path that led to the top.

Tommy deciding how far he can go in his chair before getting out and crawling

I often forget that our life is any different because of Tommy’s willingness to do whatever needs to be done, until I meet someone that is surprised by what he is up to. We did meet several people that were surprised to see Tommy climbing up the trail and it reminded me how extraordinary he is. How he doesn’t let anything hold him back from what he wants to do. I am thankful for his example and the outlook it gives me on life, and the outlook it gives the kids on life. Natural highs are worth cultivating. Adventure is waiting. All things are possible.

Tommy at the top of Hole in the Wall Rock at Papago Park, AZ
Enjoying the view from the top!

Taming Kong

Title by Tommy, story by Dara

It had been a night of little sleep when I glanced down at my gas gauge and realized I needed to stop and refuel before heading home. I could feel time piling up on itself, keeping me from my bed. I remember looking in the mirror at the gas station. My eyes were ringed with dark circles and little tufts of blonde hair stuck up around my face at odd angles. Splashing cold water on my face I headed back outside. I was surprised to hear my name being called when I stepped out of the door. I looked over and there was Tommy, sitting in a red Durango beckoning me over to him.

We had grown up together. From the time I moved to Montana at the age of six he had been a part of my life. In school we played together, had classes together, traveled to sporting events together. Weekends and evenings were spent at the same friend’s house watching movies, seeing how big a bonfire could get, how fast a sled could go pulled behind a four wheeler, who could design the best potato gun, and all sorts of other fun things. The wildest ideas were always Tommy’s. He was fearless. Not afraid to do what he wanted. Not afraid of authority. This led to plenty of trouble for him in our youth, but he also got to experience so many things I was too afraid to try.

I hadn’t seen him in years. I had left school a year early to travel in Europe and finish my high school career online. Shortly after returning home I got married, adopted four children, and started working towards my college degree. He graduated high school and joined the Marine Corps taking him to California and then to Afghanistan. Our lives ceased to run parallel to each other.

Tommy in Afghanistan
Graduation at the University of Phoenix Stadium

I had been married for two years when I heard that while on foot patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, my beloved childhood friend had stepped on an IED. I didn’t know whether he would survive or what kind of condition he would be in if he did. I was a tautly strung ball of emotion for days, constantly checking Facebook to see if there were any updates. The rest of our small Montana town an the surrounding communities were also shaken. All the sudden the war was real for us. When Tommy stepped on the IED he lost his left leg up to his hip, his right leg above his knee, and all of the fingers on his left hand. He was going to live, but his life had been irrevocably altered.

Tommy in Bethesda where he went through over 21 surgeries

He spent the next couple of years adjusting to his new state of being. Besides becoming used to getting around in a wheelchair, he had been left-handed and had to get used to using his right hand. He lived in California but would occasionally travel home to Montana. The Tommy I encountered when he was home seemed to be his usual charismatic self in public and his usual cynical self the few times we visited alone. Eventually, he decided it was time to move home permanently.

Tommy at a football game in our home town

I hadn’t seen him often in the years since he had been home. On one occasion he had asked to borrow money, so I met him in the parking lot of my work. We went way back and if he needed a little help… I was there. He seemed… off when I met up with him. His eyes, normally so full of life and mischief, were dark and glassy. Like the fire within him had been put out. He was so serious, never smiling. It felt like I was talking to a stranger.

It turns out that he had been having a love affair with opioids, heroin, and meth.

When I saw him at that gas station, years later, his eyes were still dark and glassy. He smiled a bit more, but it never did reach his eyes. He told me that he had just spent the better part of a year in jail for possession, but was “doing good” now. Upon finding out that I was now divorced, he asked me out for coffee. I said, “Sure, let’s do that,” but he could tell my words were hollow. I wanted nothing to do with that.

One of Tommy’s booking photos

A few months went by and I got a message from Tommy. He was in the treatment center at Fort Harrison and wanted to catch up. He isn’t a fan of typing so we video called. I was so happy to see that the Tommy I remembered from childhood was still there! His eyes were full of life! He was joking and laughing and helping me take life’s everyday moments with joy and humor. I had missed my friend. We enjoyed talking to each other so much that soon it was an everyday occurrence. I looked forward to hearing from him and finding out his insights on our days and the world in general between his sessions and the workouts he had started. Talking to him became my solace from life’s trials.

Video chatting from a treatment center

I got to see him in person in the beginning of February 2019. What had been video calls very easily fell in to real life interaction and I enjoyed my time with him. Then one day… he didn’t answer my call right away like he usually did. Hours and hours later I got a phone call from him, “I’m sorry but I relapsed. I don’t expect to hear from you anymore. Thank you for everything.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever loved an IV Meth user, but if you haven’t, use your imagination. Weight melts off them because they don’t eat, their already muddy thinking gets worse due to not sleeping for days on end, and NOTHING is more important than staying high. He had already lost his house, his vehicle, and the people he loved. They had tried to help him for so long that they couldn’t bare it anymore and didn’t want to be around him when he was using.

He had been so transparent with me about everything. My answer to him was, “You better keep calling and checking in with me. I care about you.”

There were off days that month where he would not use meth. He would stop by my house to visit and tell me he wasn’t hungry, and I would cook for him anyways. He would tell me he wasn’t tired but would relax enough to catch a few hours of sleep. His life felt exhausting to me just watching from the outskirts.

The snow was deep that year and it was so cold. Negative numbers. During one visit I found he had developed frost bite on the flap graft on his left hand where his fingers had been from crawling places outside where his wheelchair wouldn’t go. He had been given the nickname King Kong from the way he crawled when he got around without his wheelchair. Every time he stopped by he seemed more fed up with the life he was living, but he was so used to it, that it seemed he had forgotten there was any other way to live. That day, I treated his hand the best I could, wrapped it up, and he was out the door again.

Sober visits in between using

One day all contact stopped. I left message after message. Voicemail after voicemail. Days passed. Nothing. Finally, I called and left a final voicemail, “If you don’t call me back I will come looking for you!” It worked. A few minutes later he was on the phone and I was headed his way to pick him up. During times like that I cajoled him into moments of himself. Often it was like visiting with two different people.

In February I had driven him to his probation appointment in Missoula, where he tested positive for meth and they had taken him to Missoula County Jail. I drove an hour home wondering what would happened next, but soon got a call that if I signed for his bail he could be released that day. I turned around and drove back to Missoula, signed his bail, and picked him up.

He didn’t stop using. My name was on the line since I signed his bail, and at the end of February, knowing he would go back to jail, he went to check in with his probation officer. They did send him back to jail. There he detoxed from meth in an isolation cell. He tells me that is where he looked into the mirror above his sink at his reflection and decided that he was done. He had grown too comfortable being incarcerated. It was easy. He wanted to experience a different side of life again. He called me twice a day from jail. Two fifteen-minute calls. I missed him but took comfort knowing he was safe and out of the elements. During one of our phone calls he expressed how much of an impact it had on him that I did not want to break contact with him when he started using again. That I still wanted to be around him and had faith that he would act in my best interest during any interaction we had. He promised me that meth would never come before me. I didn’t know if I could believe him and I think he didn’t know if he could believe himself, but I could hear the want for it in his voice.

Towards the beginning of March I got a phone call from Tommy’s lawyer. He could be released from jail if he had a place to go, and stay released if he followed all stipulations. Tommy’s honesty about his situation, and the fact that he went to great lengths to keep his drug life away from my life helped me make the decision to offer for him to stay with me. Knowing he had repeatedly tried to block me from his life while on meth led me to believe that he would continue to do the right thing where I was involved.

So, on March 7th he got out of jail…..and he moved in. His body was still detoxing from meth and we were figuring out the best way to move around my small, not super wheelchair accessible home. Soon our life fell into a comfortable rhythm of work, volunteering, and evenings and weekends together. Then, Tommy started working out again. He would wheel down the road a few miles, do burpees, and crawl at home.

After taking a fall out of the wheelchair before he had the FreeWheel attachment, he finished his run.

During a session of Veteran’s Treatment Court he was a part of, the participants were encouraged to attend the Veteran’s Suicide Awareness and Prevention run in April. The Veteran’s Court Judge would be running the half marathon (which is 13.1 miles). Tommy decided to run the half marathon too, while I opted for the 5k (3.1 miles).

I finished the 5k and was proud of myself for running the whole time. I have never been much of an athlete. I started walking the track backwards to find Tommy. When I found him he offloaded some of the clothes he had been wearing and took a drink break. He said, “My body wants me to give up… good thing I never listen to it!” He flashed a grin at me, gave me a quick kiss and was on his way. By April our friendship had turned into something more.

Tommy competing in the Veteran’s Suicide Awareness Half Marathon

When he finally crossed the finish line he threw himself out of his chair and onto the grass, gulping deep lungfuls of air. He had beat the Veteran’s Court Judge and was very happy about it! Pushing himself so hard, wanting to give up and then continuing anyway had given him a different kind of high. A natural form of catharsis that he had been craving. He was addicted.

Tommy enjoying stretching out on the grass after successfully completing his first half marathon

Since then we have been trying to find different ways to push our bodies. He has competed in six half marathons getting a better time each run. To help you understand how hard he has been training, the first half marathon he completed took him 2 hours and 33 minutes, the Billings half marathon he completed took him 1 hour and 33 minutes!!! He spends 2-5 hours training per day, six days per week. Lately, he has been running 30-50 miles per week. In the evenings he helps coach kids boxing and then follows by participating in the adult boxing program.

Tommy doing his version of a sprint across the football field in our hometown

This summer someone told him that he couldn’t make it to North Crow Falls, and to prove he could, he hiked up there without his chair. We got caught in a thunderstorm, so I hiked out to get camping gear and hiked it back in. It was a grand adventure! His perseverance through absolute exhaustion never ceases to amaze me.

Thanks to Impact Montana Tommy recently received a Grit chair, which has enabled him to traverse rough terrain. He is using it to train for the Baatan Memorial Death March which is a challenge we are looking forward to. We have been enjoying the freedom the Grit chair allows during Montana winters.

Tommy and I participating in a 5k in Helena

Also thanks to The Honor Group Tommy recently received a racing wheel chair. We are working on finding local spaces for him to train with it. Our first go around revealed that it will really help improve his time once it gets figured out! 

Tommy testing out his new racing chair at the University of Montana’s indoor track

The FreeWheel attachment has also been great in going over rough terrain. Most of the half marathons he has participated in are not designed for people that use wheelchairs and there has been gravel, dirt, and even a ditch Tommy had to navigate during his races!

I am so proud of this man. Throughout the last year he has reconnected with important people from his life. He has discovered how to achieve a natural high through exercising and competing. My kids and I, the boxing club, and his community service give him a sense of purpose.

Life is difficult for any of us to figure out. There are high peaks and low valleys, monotonous flat stretches, and unexpected obstacles littering all our paths. I strive to follow Tommy’s very stoic example and, without complaint, endure what needs to be endured and find humor and celebrate the little things. To truly live in the moment.

As we start our second year together, I am grateful to have him by my side. All those months ago when he promised he would never choose meth over me, he meant it and I am now convinced. It turns out the most powerful drug of all… is love.

Tommy and I after a hike to Schwartz Lake