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 | Father Mark Pautler

Travels with Tommy

A few months ago, I spent a weekend with my brother, Tom, in Seattle. Nedra, his wife, had an opportunity to attend a presentation by her favorite author, Louise Penny, and get a little break — actually the only break she’s had from her daily commitment caring for Tom. This was something I was glad to do for a weekend, but not for 365.

The occasion provided an opportunity to visit Tom’s granddaughter, Ashley. This part of the story is difficult. Ashley is the mother of two little children. Her youngest was barely a month old in November 2015, when Ashley was involved in a high-speed car crash. An 18-year-old man in the other car was killed. Ashley pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide, and will be incarcerated until Jul 2020 at Mission Creek Corrections Center, a minimum security women’s prison located near Belfair, south of Bremerton.

I was grateful for the chance to visit Ashley. Mission Creek’s visiting room is an open space with tables and chairs. Ashley’s mom, Kim, was there as she is every Saturday. Kim lives in Bremerton, so the location works well. Ashley is making good use of her time and taking college courses. Her prison job is chaplain’s assistant. Her children are with foster parents, a couple Ashley knew. She misses her kids, who visit regularly. But incarceration is not reconciliation. And it is not assurance of repentance and forgiveness. The boy’s family attends the same evangelical church where Kim and her husband (Ashley’s stepfather) are members. That seems to have created an opening for grace. Nothing of this magnitude can be resolved by words. But, prayer that is sincere and sustained opens us to grace. It will reduce the power of anger,  resentment, and self-loathing. Does a person ever “get over” this tragedy or “put it behind them?” Most likely, we just get though it.

Tom, as you may recall from previous articles, has his own challenges to get through. This is his fourth year living with the effects of a stroke. While he does not suffer paralysis, his strength and balance have been significantly impacted. “It takes me three times the effort to do anything,” he said. From what I observe, he’s underestimating the physical demands of his condition. Happily, travel by car is not a problem. Getting in and out is another story. Anyway, we set out on our drive to Mission Creek around noon, intending to take the overland route via the Tacoma Narrows, but Lola tricked me. Lola is the authoritative voice on my iPhone’s navigation program. She wanted a boat ride on this sunny Saturday. What Lola wants, Lola gets. In fact, we gave Lola two ferry rides to reach Southworth on the Kitsap Peninsula. Lola may have been pleased, but we were running late. Kim called while we were on the road. I’m sure she wondered if we still planned to visit. I was not about to interrupt Lola’s chatter to answer.

Besides, there were more pressing issues. “I need the pot,” Tom advised me as we drove through Belfair. “Hold on, we’re getting close,” I said. Lola was on top of things. “In 500 feet, turn left onto Sand Hill Road.” I made the turn and slowed down. Shortly thereafter Lola cheerfully announced, “Arrived at destination.” There was nothing. I drove on. We passed a parking lot for a hiking trailhead. Still nothing. Then Tom took over giving directions. “I need the pot!” This was an “evacuate NOW” order. I stopped, backed up to the trailhead lot and helped Tom into the facility. It was not interstate quality, but it did the job. People at the trailhead told me Mission Creek was a short way back. We found the access road to the prison, which is built on a ridge and not readily visible from the road. All things considered, missing the entrance on the first pass worked in our favor.

And some people say there is no God.