Death row, life row

Every year by All Saints Day we remember the deceased and perhaps, just for an instant, think about death. A great deal all philosophy and religion is a meditation on death. In literature there is the recent Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes.

I remember some news about a book written by a Texas Death Row Chef. In the USA those going to be executed have the right to see their spiritual adviser, choose a last meal (a site with some examples: and  prepare a last statement to be released (a list by the Texas department of criminal Justice).
I confess that I couldn’t resist the curiosity, whatever morbid, of taking a look at them. I feel justified when I realise that, as I’m not going to escape death, somehow I’m in the Death Row too. Last meal and statement are a good opportunity to think about one’s own attitude towards death.
Most of last meal requests are not elaborate cooking, just fast food, for instance “a bacon cheeseburger with jalapeños, french fries, two slices of apple pie with vanilla ice cream and sweetened iced tea” or “One whole fried chicken (extra crispy), salad with Thousand Island dressing, French toast, two diet Cokes, one apple pie, and French fries“ (Why diet coke?)
The problem of choosing one’s last menu is a reduced version of the question “What makes me happy?” after a “Carpe Diem” invitation. An extended version would include the possibility of choosing a last view or scene, listening to a particular music, perhaps a last trip to some place. I’m not sure what my elections would be. From the point of view of the last opportunity, everything seems precious, a sophisticated menu or just an apple, may be red wine and cheese; a last trip to a lake in the Pyrennees or contemplating the faces of people commuting to work in the morning.
Many of the last statements I’ve read express regret to the families of the victims killed, and love to their own. Often they have found comfort in religion. Some of them address too the other fellows on the Row and the wardens. Some declined the opportunity of making a statement and a few can’t help a profanity.

Yes I do.  To my family, to my friends, and people who have accepted me for being the person that I am.  To the Sullivan and Hayden families, I do not come here with the intention to make myself out to be a person that I am not.  I never claimed to be the best person.  I am not the best father, the best son, or the best friend in the world.  I did the best I could with what I had.  I come with no hate in my heart or bitterness.  To my family and to you people, I can only apologize for all the pain I caused you.  May God forgive us on this day.  I am ready when you are.

Yes. I just want to let you all know that I appreciate the love and support over the years. I will see you when you get there. Keep your heads up. To all the fellows on the Row, the same thing. Keep your head up and continue to fight. Same thing to all my pen friends and other friends, I love you all. I can taste it.

Uh, I don’t know, Um, I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know.  (pauses)  I didn’t know anybody was there.  Howdy.

The reading is devastating,  particularly for the frequent “I’m ready, Warden” at the end. This statement allows the condemned to release a balance, an account of life, ask forgiveness for the evil done and express affection. While it’s unlikely that most of us are going to make explicit such a balance, I guess that sometime we will think about people we did harm, whether intentionally or not, or people we would have liked to express affection, and did not. When I think what I would say it is not an easy exercise.
For those who really would like to do it, there is what is called a “legacy letter”, or “ethical will” where people express love, or regret and try to transmit their values. This can be particularly important in case of parents terminally ill that want to leave a guidance message for their children.
I said that somehow, as we cannot escape it, we too are living in the Death Row. It’s just the execution date is not fixed and, of course, our cell can be quite comfortable, perhaps a couch and TV set, some books and even a nice view. We can attend visitors or share the cell with whoever. We can cook the meals we want or even go out to a restaurant. No wardens are watching us, we can go out, wander, explore neighbourhoods, cities, mountains, rivers and go back only if we want to. There are so many differences that it reminds me of an old joke: “Waiter, please, cafè latte, but no milk, and instead of coffee, I’d like whisky”. Well that’s a whisky, not cafè latte. This is not Death Row, but Life Row!


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