Dead Man Walking

In the movie The Nature of the Beast, Eric Roberts tells Lance Henriksen that “dead man walking” refers to an inmate on death row when he’s on the move. Anytime they take the prisoner anywhere, they make sure all the other inmates are locked down and that the condemned man is accompanied by several armed guards. As they walk, they announce, “Dead man walking,” because this is the most dangerous sort of person in the world. He can do anything to anyone without any repercussions. He has nothing to lose. He’s already going to die, so what can they do, kill him twice?

prisonListening to that exchange, it struck me that we are all dead men walking. We are all on death row, condemned to die, just waiting for the day when life executes us.

When my grief was at its worst, a bereft friend who was also struggling for reasons to live told me about a woman who had lost everyone she had ever loved, was now alone in her old age, but was the most joyful person my friend had ever met. We marveled at that because it seemed incomprehensible to us, but perhaps the woman knew something we didn’t. Perhaps she knew that we are all dead men walking, the penalty of death has already been handed out, and so we have nothing left to do but live each moment until the sentence is carried out. Maybe the truth is that within the prisons of our aging (and sometimes disabled) bodies, within the prisons of our responsibilities and financial burdens and fears, we can do whatever we want.

Of course, most of us have no interest in killing, robbing, or doing anything that will land us in the slammer; our desires are more socially acceptable and carry fewer penalties. And perhaps it’s not even a matter of doing what we want, but simply living each day as it comes and being open to whatever happens.

A woman who lost her husband many years ago recently told me that things will get better in ways I never imagined. She said she believes that we are all blessed and will know joy to the degree that we have felt sorrow.

Perhaps that, too, is a lesson the old woman learned, and now she is experiencing that joy. Maybe someday we all will. If nothing else, it’s something to believe in, that despite (or because of) our sentence of death, we will be blessed with unimaginable joy.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

7 Responses to “Dead Man Walking”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    I agree with you on all points, except that not everyone who’s a dead man walking is necessarily the most dangerous man in the world. Some are just in the wrong place at the wrong time in a bad justice system.

  2. Elaine Mansfield Says:

    In 1990, I was awed by Tibetan refuges in Northern India who had lost their country, their families, and so much else and yet seemed full of joy and easy laughter. Perhaps there is something to be said for a philosophy that says suffering always accompanies life and accepts death as an inevitable part of the cyclic mix. As you say, there is nothing to lose. I feel death close by now–and it is as my friends and I age, sicken, and die.

    For seven years since my husband’s cancer diagnosis and for five years since his death, I’ve steeped myself in my own and other’s suffering while also watching for joy, beauty, small bits of kindness and humor, the wagging tail of my dog, a phone call from a friend, the call of a bird. None of it replaces what I’ve lost, but it’s my life now. Color and exuberance are everywhere when I notice, even on a trip to the grocery store, even on coldest winter days as I follow animal tracks on snowshoes. This doesn’t make my longing dissolve or mend my aching heart, but it provides balance. After Vic’s death, I was heartbroken and lost (still am some days). But it was June and the world was green, the bluebirds nested, and the lupines bloomed. I spent hours outside noticing life’s exuberance in counterpoint to my inner gloom. It helped and it helps.

  3. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    A really wise and beautiful post. Thank you for this, for putting things in perspective.

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