Moses and The Seedless Orange   by    Ruth Utnage

Early on in my sentence I explored spirituality. My take on it was if God was real, the onus was on Them to present Themselves because I had already searched everywhere that I knew to look. One afternoon I was in a bad mood, mainly I was hungry and a little jealous, feeling a lot forgotten. I was in the process of dropping a bunch of weight, about 75 pounds by that point, and I was always hungry. The prison had just gone from making its own food to outsourcing with Correctional Industries which meant we got a lot less of it. One of the major changes was that we were only allowed to have one piece of fruit per meal and for months, only oranges were served. Except, these were terrible oranges, out of season and obviously rejected by any other kitchen! More often than not the seeds inside had sprouted a root system, but all were heavily seeded, which I loathed. On top of that my cellmate at the time wrote his church the month prior and guilted them into taking a collection so he could get packages, stuff like shoes and food. The way he asked them was greasy, I found it distasteful and was even more disgruntled about it when they actually sent him everything that was able to be purchased. He wasn’t even appreciative, in fact, he called the pastor and complained because they bought him the “wrong kind of shoes” and he berated them and rejected the order demanding a new one.

Meanwhile, I had nothing.

So there I was hungry, looking at this guys unappreciated stuff and comparing it to my belongings which consisted of state issued clothing, Velcro shoes issued by the state and 2 rotten oranges. I was still hungry and so I began to peel and orange, as dinner was still hours away. Because the peel would stick to the orange meat, I peeled slowly and pulled it off in dry sections. I tried to eat around the roots that had all but consumed the insides, but it tasted acrid and earthy. Still I tried…and about halfway through I had finally had enough. Everything had finally boiled to the surface. I was tired of being lonely. I was tired of seeing that the only people receiving mail and community support were the type that were hustling places like churches. But most of all I was mad that I had to look at oranges at all! I resented them. In a fit of rage I threw the remaining bits at the wall and watched it explode as I shouted “Goddammit! Why can’t I just get one, stupid seedless orange!” I cleaned my mess and proceeded to feel foolish for shouting at the walls and coped the only way that made sense anymore. I worked out more.

Three days later I was in my cell hungry again, this time with a better attitude, and I noticed that on my shelf was an orange. This was strange because i stopped bring them back. I didn’t want to look at another one, not with my view on them. Unfortunately, there it sat. Another orange. Without much further thought I began to peel the orange and didn’t notice it peeled perfectly. I didn’t take notice that I broken it in quarters and the juice ran down my arm. I didn’t notice when I bit into the first wedge and it was sweet and my teeth didn’t crunch into anything. I popped another slice into my mouth and began to savor the sweetness when a memory suddenly returned of me throwing the orange. I heard my words get repeated back to me “Goddammit! Why can’t I just get one seedless orange!” and then I heard “See, one seedless orange.”

I pulled the orange in for closer inspection and realized that it was, in fact, seedless and Out loud I said “But I cussed, I wasn’t talking to You”.

“Yeah, but I heard you and furthermore, I answered. I have provided you the answer to your prayer, one seedless orange.”

“Of all the prayers You decide to answer, this is the one?” I replied sarcastically “The orange is the miracle You decide to provide? The Almighty and Powerful God, the Provider of Oranges! Behold!” I shook my head and said more to myself than anything “That wasn’t even a prayer, that was just me yelling”.

The voice only continued “I hear everything, you addressed Me, you said my name, you requested something of me. You put the onus on Me to show myself. Remember? I know precisely what you needed to see in order to prove I was real, not you, Me. I know what hurts you, I know what ails your grieving spirit, I know what makes you run and why you cry at night, I know why you really despise oranges and I, I alone, am making a covenant with you. Whenever you see an orange remember this day and know that you are unable to deny My existence any longer, you are without excuse. I love you and forgave you, long, long ago. Oranges are no longer a source of personal torment but a reminder of the redemption you have received and remember this well, just because you whisper and curse alone and in the dark does not mean I am not listening or valuing what you say, neither of those things stop me from feeling your words or your pain.”

That made me stop. Until then I felt crazy and at that moment all I could do was cry. I felt loved. At the same time I felt stupidity, regret, shame, joy and embarrassment all at once. Oranges were a reminder of my son, Moses. Nobody knew that but me. I never told a soul because it was too shaming to think about, let alone tell people about. In fact, I wouldn’t talk about my children at all. I actually went through a grieving process where I “buried” my children as if they passed on. This is a coping mechanism that many inmates employ. They act as if their loved ones had died and that’s why they cannot contact them. They grieve their loss and attempt to move on, but, I did this with my own children. To this day I have a hard time with this. I even refer to them in the past tense despite the fact that they are still very much alive. I don’t know any other way to cope with not being able to communicate with them.

I wish it were different…

I have told this portion of my story many times over the years but I have never told what the oranges reminded me of exactly. I always stopped before that point bringing testimony to the nice, warm and cuddly close that stories like this are supposed to have. Until today. Today I finish it. The seedless orange is a warm and fuzzy memory of realizing for the first time I could begin to find self-worth, that I could be forgiven, even loved. But until now I never told anyone why.
My middle child, Moses, loved fruit. The kid would eat watermelon until his stomach bulged no matter what was being served. Fruit was always a first option for him, particularly, he liked oranges. He would eat them by the bag if he could. Problem was his fingers weren’t strong enough to peel them. His finger couldn’t break the flesh of oranges yet. So he’d ask me, constantly.
Unfortunately for Moses, he wasn’t born to a very good set of parents. I was so wrapped up in my own misery and self-pity, still wearing ridiculous masks covering up the fact I knew I was a woman. My then wife was beginning to slip farther and farther into what we later found out was schizophrenia and had become altogether unmanageable for any of us. I was angry all the time, mainly because I was still alive, something I tried to “fix” about a year later . I had already committed my crime and was not planning on living much longer, literally. On top of just giving up on my own life, I gave up on everyone else’s too. I couldn’t get anymore distant. In retrospect, coming out would have stopped nearly all of this. But I wouldn’t be courageous enough to face that for another 7-8 years.

One afternoon I was in a particularly sour and surly mood when Moses chipperly and politely asked me to peel him an orange. “Daddy, can you peel me an orange?” he asked.

I made such a big deal of it, I responded with such venom that I watched him shrink back. My 6 year old watched as I grabbed a kitchen knife and angrily chopped several oranges in lazy quarters and slammed them on a plate and shoved them at him. “Here!” I shouted bitterly.

“Thanks, Daddy.” Moses said solemnly. It was the worst possible thing I could have heard because I knew I deserved neither a thank you nor the title of Dad. Moses took the plate with his head down and walked away sobbing.

I should have stopped everything right there. Hugged him and changed everything right that moment and if I could go back and do that, I would. Even in that moment I hated what in was doing. I was so ashamed of so much up to that point already. It is one of many moments I wish I could go back and undo, apologize for at least and make up somehow. My child just wanted an orange, peeled by his parent who should have been more than happy to be spending any time at all with such a wonderful child. He should have felt love. Instead, he given neglect, disrespect and surely felt unloved. Even as I write this my mind is screaming at me to change it. To go back and peel the orange. Tell him that I love him, hug him tightly and never let go because as I sit here in this cell it’s all I can think about doing.

I replayed that memory and every time I seen an orange. Reminding me of that day and what an awful person I once was. They reminded me of what I cannot take back and the hurt all those moments caused and continues to cause today. They reminded me of his face dropping in sadness as I yelled at him for no reason. Of his little hands taking the plate and slowly walking away with his little shoulders slumped. Of how I stole the joy away from him as he quietly ate each piece despite it being obvious he had lost his appetite. From that day I hated oranges because they reminded me of what I did and I had to relive my bad choices, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t get away from them.
I’d give anything to peel a million oranges for him, day and night I’d peel oranges.

Inevitably I thought of my youngest and all my mistakes with him as well. Then, of course there is my oldest whom, well, we won’t discuss that but let’s just say I wronged in a way that no child should experience. But I’d give anything to rewind and change it, to stop it. It would have been so easy to intervene, a simple “just come out, be you and be free, it’s okay, it’s not as scary as you think! The bad memories you have as a child, let’s talk about them finally.” I’d give anything to be a present, real, loving parent to my kids.

For so long all I could think about was getting a “life” sentence I deserved. I had failed in life, given up on everything. I lost everyone and everything imaginable. I had stopped thinking about forgiveness, self-worth or ever reconciling. I had no idea how to begin rebuilding my life. I was lost. Then the seedless orange happened.

It has taken me nearly 10 years of intensive therapy to confront my former self. I had been such a coward until the past few years when I decided to finally let go and face my fears. Owning my life has been the most empowering thing I have ever felt. Dispatching painful memories by illuminating them, taking away their powerful grip on me and removing the shackles of shame. Now I get to move forward towards my purpose in life.

If there is a lesson I have learned since I have been in prison and from this incident its you cannot change who you were, what you’ve done or where you went. You can change who you are and who you’ll be. You can change what you’re doing and what you’re going to do. You can change where you are and where you’re heading. All you have to do is have the courage to begin. Begin with love…

Ruth Utnage

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