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.