As a member of LifeLines, you hear some amazing stories. People who’ve been writing to someone on the row for 20 years, who’ve been to visit several times, who consider their pen friend to be a member of their family.
You also, unfortunately, hear about a few friendships which haven’t worked out, for all sorts of reasons.
My experience as a LifeLiner has been somewhere in the middle. I’ve had three pen friends; the first was much older than me (he was in his 60s, I was in my 20s) and we had very little in common. He was also going through a re-trial process, so would frequently disappear with no warning and reappear somewhere else a few weeks later. Sadly, he passed away only a couple of weeks after being found guilty and sentenced a second time.
My second pen friend only lasted a few weeks before deciding he ‘just wasn’t into it’, and shortly after that I started writing to Juan. We’ve been writing now for nearly two years; he’s originally from Mexico and speaks no English, so we write in Spanish. The problem there is that because it’s not my first language, it’s not all that easy for me to be myself. I often find myself referring to the dictionary while I’m writing, and worry that I’m writing in a very formal way (my experience of writing Spanish has predominantly been for academic and work purposes).
Juan’s always very nice about it; he doesn’t write at a particularly high level himself, and he’s always telling me I write better than he does! (But then again he also tells me I draw better than him, and that’s definitely not true – I end each of my letters with a small pencil drawing, usually featuring stick men of some kind, whereas he, I’ve recently discovered, is a really talented artist.)
I’ve often wondered if I’m being much help to Juan. I worry that my letters aren’t that interesting, and that I might come across as quite serious, because it’s not always that easy to put across my dry sense of humour in another language. It concerns me that I spend too much time talking about the weather (although of course, I am British, and that’s what we do) and not enough on topics that interest him.
But any doubts I might have had were put to rest a couple of weeks ago, when I received a beautiful hand-drawn picture from Juan for my birthday. It must have taken him ages. The picture’s now on display in my living room, and when someone spotted it the other day and asked about it, I was proud to tell her it was a gift from my friend.
There’s a great quote by the author Barbara Kingsolver: “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” Sometimes we might not feel we’re saying or doing the right things for our friends on the row, but it could well mean much more than we know – and that’s why we can’t stop.