Talking to Noah about Teresa Lewis

By Heidi Notario-Smull
September 24, 2010

Heidi, a women's rights and disability rights activist from Pennsylvania, also volunteers her time providing spiritual support to men and women in prison.

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On Thursday September 23 2010 at 9pm EDT, Teresa Lewis was killed by the State of Virginia.

As the hours ticked away I kept hoping for a miracle. I just didn't understand. Couldn't process how an atrocity of this kind was about to take place. What I thought I knew about impermanence wasn't making sense. I emailed friends who fought together with Teresa's attorneys to stop this from happening. We were all inundated with so many emotions. Nothing seemed to make sense. I had sighed in disbelief when the decision from the Supreme Court giving way to the execution reached all of us. It was final. Still, I was hoping for a miracle.

That morning, on my ride to work, I called my Buddhist friend asking for guidance. I needed something to help me get through that day. Is there something, I asked, to help Teresa travel that journey so violently forced upon her? Anything I can do? My friend suggested a meditation practice used by Tibetans to help those who are dying. He couldn't think of the name of it and I haven't tried to look for it either, but I decided to follow his guidance and was planning on meditating through the execution. Doing whatever I could to help her with the only tool I had left…my purple meditation cushion.

As the workday ended I realized that this time was going to be problematic because it was coinciding with my son's bedtime routine. Not knowing how to exactly explain to him that I needed to move his shower time and that I was going to need to sit quietly for half an hour on the first floor of our home, I remembered my friend's Terri's words: "Just answer the question he is asking. Not more". My son Noah is almost 9 years old and I feel like he knows everything. Sometimes I think he is a very old soul…but we never had to talk about the death penalty before. So I just told him that I needed to sit and meditate to help someone who was dying that night. Only a few hours away from our dinnertime.

Noah asked: "Who is dying?"
Her name is Teresa, I said.
"Is she sick? Does she have cancer?"
(Please, God, give me a good answer, I begged…Remember, just answer his question, that's all…I recited the grounding mantra of this moment).
No, she is not sick. I said.
"How is she dying?"
(Please, God…)-Teresa was involved with people who hurt others in the past- I said- so she went in front of a Judge, that's called a trial, and he gave her a terrible punishment. She will die tonight. It is called the death penalty.
How, mommy? How??! -Noah asked with tears in his eyes-
At this point I thought that I had forever damaged my 9-year-old son. I took a deep breath, trying to be present. I hugged him and said…someone will give her an injection. That's how it will be done.
"Like an old doggy, he said. Like Midnight, the cat."
Yes, I replied. And all we can do now is send Teresa our love and our best wishes to keep her company during her last journey. (I said this hoping that it would remind him of a story we read about death beautifully written for children called "Bear's Last Journey".)
But I also want you to know that we don't believe in the death penalty-I added- No matter how terribly wrong someone can act. We don't believe in killing people back. It is my hope that by the time you are an adult there is no death penalty in this country anymore. Just like in so many countries in Europe, like in some states here. What do you think?
"Mommy, what happened to the other people who did bad things with Teresa?"
They got life in prison, Noah.
"Why didn't she get to do that?"
We don't understand that either, honey.

Some time went by and I called my partner to tell her that I had probably damaged Noah with this conversation about the death penalty at his young age…She tried to reassure me that he was fine. She just had that feeling.

I hope she is right.

I checked the news. I wanted to know what was happening. Still hoping for a miracle. But there was nothing on TV about Teresa Lewis. No one in the media seemed to care enough to talk about her case during prime time. I was hoping for life coverage, but I was wrong. There was not enough interest to follow the case of a woman about to be killed with an IQ that placed her within the mild range of mental retardation. A group of republicans and their outfits got all the attention. It didn't matter that someone was about to die. However, the web had real time postings. The sentences were still in future tense. She was still alive.

It was shower time, and Noah usually tends to reflect out loud during this period. He suddenly said:
"Mommy, is the lady dead"? —It was almost 8:30pm and I knew that Teresa only had thirty minutes left-I responded-No, honey. Not yet.
"Is she scared"?
I don't know, Noah.
"Would you be scared?" He said.
I think I would.
"Then she is, mommy. She is scared"
I heard that she believes she will see Jesus soon-I said- Maybe that is helping her be less scared. Buddhists believe that she will go on a journey for a while…from place to place…
"And then she will reincarnate!"-He said, to my surprise.

I went downstairs and sat on my cushion. The grandfather clock was so close that I could hear its faithful ticking. Upstairs my son laughed at something on TV. My dogs were asleep. The cat was outside diving into the night. Another night.
I sat. I sat. I sat.

The clock alerted me that it was time. Nine o'clock. Nine times ringing through my heart…and I sat. And I sobbed. And I hoped for a miracle some more.

The postings on the web changed their tense. "Teresa Lewis died." I read.