Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.
BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.
She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.
True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.
My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.
Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.
Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.
“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.
By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.
Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.
Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.
Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.
Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!
Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.
Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.
We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.
The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.
Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.
The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at email@example.com.