Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on phase II of death watch, which begins seven days prior to execution. They remove all your property from your cell while an officer sits in front of your cell 24/7 recording everything you do. Staff also performs a "dry run" or "mock execution", basically duplicating the procedures that will occur seven days later. This is when you know you're making the final turn off the back stretch, you know your death is imminent, easily within reach, you can count it by hours instead of by days.
He wrote about how everything suddenly became trivial after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed his warrant, when death became imminent:
I've already thrown or given away 95% of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I'll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I've been dragging around, and studying, for two decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance.
My magazines and newspapers stack up unread; I have little appetite to waste valuable, irreplaceable hours reading up on current events. Does it really matter to me now what's happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What's the point? Ditto the TV; I'm uninterested in wasting time watching programs that now mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. Really?, I wondered, as the absurdity hit me. Likewise, after 40 years of working out religiously, that's out the window now. Again, what's the point? Now, every decision about how to spend the next hour reminds me of Elaine in that "Seinfeld" episode where she had to constantly evaluate whether her boyfriends were really "sponge worthy."
He wrote in an almost nonchalant way about how he would go to his death. The number of days remaining and other grim details were accepted as normal by everyone around him on death row:
My cell (one of three) is next to the execution chamber so I won't have far to walk. There's another guy down here with me, his execution is set for two weeks before mine so assuming he doesn't get a stay I'll have a front row seat to how the final days and hours play out. Aren't I lucky?
Van Poyck discussed the practical aspects of his death, though he admitted they were a little disconcerting:
On Tuesday they came and measured me for my execution/burial suit. Sometime soon I'll be given the details on how "the body" will be disposed of following the legally required autopsy (will my cause of death really be a mystery?). I understand the state will pay for a cremation should I choose this form of disposal (I do) and my ashes will be available at a Gainesville funeral home; but don't quote me on that yet.
He pondered the moment of his own death and the people who would bear witness:
I understand there are usually about two dozen witnesses to these executions and I sometimes wonder about those who will be at mine, unknown, faceless men rooting for me to die, happy to see me breathe my last breath. I wonder about men who do not know me, have never met me, never broken bread with me and who know nothing about what's in my heart, who nonetheless are anxious, eager, happy to see me die.
It does not bother me, but I wonder if it will ever bother any of those men (and yes, it's almost always men, with their lust for blood; women seldom indulge in this), perhaps in their sunset years when they reflect back on their youth and wonder about their imperatives. I hope, for their sakes, that one day they will be ashamed -- or at least disappointed -- with their naked blood lust and will determine to henceforth set a better example for those following behind them.
And what it felt like to find out that a non-death row inmate had hanged himself:
The irony wasn't lost on me that while three of us on death watch are fighting to live, this poor soul, living just 10 feet above us, stripped of all hope, had voluntarily surrendered his life rather than continue his dismal existence. When nothing but a lifetime of suffering lays ahead -- with no hope, no promise, no opportunity to change your fate -- the idea of utter annihilation can come to look appealing in contrast.
He watched as an inmate was scheduled for execution and won a last-minute reprieve:
That's gotta be a hell of a transition; you are hours away from execution, you've had your final visits (imagine how emotional that is), made your peace with the inevitable, perhaps eaten your last meal, then, in a finger snap, you're told you won't be dying after all (at least not that night) and you are back on a regular death row cell talking with the fellas.
I've seen a number of guys go through this over the years, one of whom was just 20 minutes from execution in the electric chair when he got his unexpected stay. They moved him next to me and I was startled to see that his hair had turned almost entirely white during the six weeks he was on death watch.
He died quietly in his sleep from a heart attack about six years later, right here on this floor.
He described what happened when death changed from an abstract idea to an absolute:
I got little sleep the first week, perhaps two hours a night and then I was up and wide awake at 2 a.m., mind racing, thoughts all a-jumble, despite my best breathing and meditation techniques. I'd finally get my mind onto some mundane subject and then, bam, my gut would knot up as the thought suddenly elbowed its way into my mind, these guys are going to take me next door and kill me in x-number of days! This still happens a dozen times a day, and more at night.