Go Quickly into the Night

Facing Death General

Suicides…

Too many to count. So many ways. Some appear peaceful. Free from the demons. Free from depression, anxiety, despondency and fear. Free from pain.

I leave every one of these calls changed in ways that are likely too difficult to explain. I absolutely loathe when an individual does it in his/her home. As I often say, no one should have to see a loved one that way.

Over the years, I have read last words hastily written on paper, computer screens with instructions, warning notes on doors and apology signs to first responders. Most writing has a “I am sorry” once, twice, ten times in it. Then there are the very organized, those who guide us through the home with arrows and have left an array of letters addressed individually to family and friends. They leave out contracts for funeral and cremation services fully paid and financial paperwork or portfolios. They believe they are easing the burden.

There are couples who lie side by side on the couch, legs outstretched with the now all too familiar plastic bags over their heads and the nitros oxide tanks propped nearby. Those hit me deeply, viscerally. What conversations did they have or words did they utter to each other before they fell asleep forever? 

A recent incident that troubled me was a 60 something man who printed out a crude diagram from the Internet showing where one needs to point the barrel of the gun on the side of your head to kill yourself instantly. He lay on the bathroom floor, the gun nearby as well as a hand held mirror and the diagram. I imagine he saw himself before he pulled the trigger. He wanted to get it right. He did. 

Stuck Somewhere in The Middle

Children Facing Death General

Community had called because she was weeping in public and appeared to have wet her pants. When a man stopped to check on her, she told him that she had no reason to live anymore. She wanted to die. The caller estimated her age (or was it a dispatcher typo?) at 92 years old. 

I am a worst case scenario peace officer. Over the years, I do “what if” scenarios as I am driving around. What if someone jumps out from behind that dumpster with a machete? Shotgun? I then do visualization and practice in my head as to what I will do and say. Yes, I have practiced verbally to myself in the patrol car too. 

So I am off to a welfare check of a suicidal 92 year old. I certainly don’t want to tackle an older person even if she is about to dash into oncoming traffic. Or grab her too hard even if it is for her safety …or would it be ? Does she have an organic process taking place? Dementia maybe? Just really sad? I could definitely digress regarding experiences with older community members. 

I find her on a busy part of Downtown Berkeley sitting next to a bank. Definitely not 92. She’s taller and bigger than me. She looks pretty able bodied. She has a purse and other bags around her. She has layers of clothing. She is suicidal. “What if…?!”

I often feel a friction on patrol. It comes on when engaging individuals on calls for service. It is the friction between sensitivity and suspicion, compassion and questioning, “What if” and ….?

I begin to speak with her and she has tears streaming down her cheeks. She is recently homeless. Her family stole her Social Security. She had a dog that she left in St. Louis when she visited over the holidays. She has no reason to live anymore. Some community members are watching our interaction.

The friction starts. What is the truth? Does she have a weapon in her purse? Is this a suicide by cop? My sensitivity and compassion have always been a big part of who I am. They have only deepened over the years in doing this job. But there is that friction again. For as much compassion as I may have, I just can’t make assumptions in this work. 

Some veteran officers will tell you that they can gauge individuals. It comes with experience. Yes, I have those instincts too, but I won’t let my guard down. Never underestimate small children or older people. They can kill you too. The gun will kill you regardless of the hands it may be in. 

I am actively listening and watching her hands. I stand casually with my gun side away. I remember that even if a quarter of what she is sharing is true, she has reasons to cry. 

Don’t Forget To Look Up

Facing Death General

Those We Have Lost 

The Year In Review

The Stories That Moved Us in 2016

Let’s Take a Look At What Happened

These pieces are predictable at the end of each year. Seems like every media outlet has some version of these retrospectives, these obits to the previous year. 

I have always had challenges with goodbyes. Hence the title of my end of 2016 blog post – No Goodbyes. In my home we say, “See you soon.” It is a phrase of expectation, of something good to look forward to. “Goodbye” has such finality. 

While I was on vacation, I focused on the simpliest things. I held those I love. I took longer dog walks. I read the inscriptions on the sidewalks. I looked skyward at night. I drank my coffee more slowly. I wore flip flops in the rain. I refused to say goodbye to 2016. I said hi to 2017 instead. 

Uncomfortable to admit, but for as much introspection that I swim in, I hadn’t realized how very much I was in need of a break. 

Cross My Heart…

Facing Death General

..But not hope to die. No more. Please no more. My Sergeant partner and I muttered to each other the other day that we didn’t know when and if we would ever get to take the mourning bands from our badges. He told me he was thinking of getting another, a secondary badge, with the black band permanently etched in it. Please no more. 

I used to think that maybe the increase in media made it appear that every sex offender who kidnapped children lived in Florida. Or that there are lettuce or hummus or beef recalls every other day. 

Maybe all the media made it seem like there were more officers getting killed in the line of duty. More executed. More gunned down as they approached scenes that they were called to help resolve. 137 to date in 2016. 

You can’t make this stuff up. It is true. Bad things happen to good people everyday. Are we that different from so many others murdered everyday? Are we  not involved in high risk behavior? Are we not the focus of others’ anger, disgust, distrust, damnation? Are we not “the man”, the government? Are we not judged by the worst amongst us?” I can hear the “But we…”now. Are we that special? 

Lately, I have felt the angst. The bitterness and cynicism has spewed from me more than ever. I have looked into the eyes of the fallen online. It has been an angonizing time to say the very, very least. I have reached in deep and asked myself if I can be a better version of myself as a peace officer. What would they say if I were gone? If I fall too far, do I not cross to that darker side? Do I lose what makes me just a tiny bit special in my uniform? 

Walking Wounded

Facing Death General

Crumpled pages filled with half sentences, beginnings, ends and middles. I have nearly hit Post – Publish so very many times in the last month with pieces about mental illness. About Homelessness. About Addiction. I venture to post and publish my “place” in it. The Peace Officer place. The listening. The watching. The touching. The physical restraint. The fights. The necks lengthened and the feet dangling. Lifeless. 

I pretend to know how I feel about it all. I spout my politics mixed with compassion. But I know I can never really “know.” Memories well up behind my eyes, tighten my throat and seize my muscles. 

I fear that I will minimize the issues somehow or offend with the humor that comes with some of the interactions. Maybe it is me who is wounded. 

Percolating #2

Facing Death General

It has been a very trying, tense, couple weeks. I trust you will receive this post in the manner it is intended.. Not the whoa  is me, feel sorry for me, kind of sharing. I want to illuminate that the issues that plague us are smacking me in the face all day, everyday. 

Check that – Smacking me in the heart, whacking my soul and bruising my consciousness everyday. 
Pop culture and the evolution of technology and media has made all of this a moment by moment conversation and a consistent call to action. 

Community members with smartphones are challenging me when I am helping someone, the phone holder asking the individuals, “Do you need help? Is this Officer harassing you?” Over the years I have gotten used to CopWatch and civilian oversight. In fact, I have told my colleagues that it does not bother me if they watch me as I know I am doing the lawful, ethical, professional thing with as much respect and dignity as I can given whatever the situation is…” 

When I jotted the post “Percolating #1”, I was carrying around some of the weight of the communities I belong to. One of my long standing stressors has been to try to avoid controversial political conversation at work, particularly since I am a Supervisor. Of course, those conversations happen and I enjoy filling everyone in on the goings on of the Berkeley City Council. What I don’t do is talk about the death penalty, presidential elections, war, abortion, gay marriage, gun control and ______ << insert more hot topics there. 

When I started this blog I wrote that  I would avoid being political, but I may get personal. It is more difficult than I imagined writing about work without injecting political themes. Any member of law enforcement who thinks policing is not political needs to reevaluate what he/she got into. 

When I titled the previous post Percolating #1, I felt that more current events would develop to inspire Percolating #2. I never thought it would be more high profile, widely distributed videos of even more officer involved shootings including one caught and posted live by a loved one. 

I never imagined that the shooting and killing of Dallas officers would happen. I didn’t consider the shooting and killing of Baton Rouge officers would greet me on CNN.com this morning. It is not only percolating, it is boiling, spilling over everywhere and burning…

Calm Never Comes 

Children Facing Death General

2006   
The banter, the edge of laughter destroyed. “Sarge, A two week old infant not breathing…” I recognize the address. The dispatchers look at me, as they had been facing me while I told the back story of a call I just went to. “Are you going?”, someone asks. I was halfway out the door as I said yes.

Sometimes I move so swiftly despite the gear on my hips that I surprise myself. I am already tearing down Martin Luther King Jr. Way. I am mindful of the intersections even in spite of the lights and siren. No use if I don’t get there.

“Control, S6. I’m approaching 97…”  I make a high speed turn onto Russell Street and nearly lose control of the car. I care not. When I reach Oregon Street,  I look west expecting to see other lights. No one is there yet. I park and leap out, forgetting to turn the ignition off and grab my keys. Later, I criticize myself for that.

An older woman is standing on the top of the steps of the old home. I take the steps two and three at a time till I meet her gaze. “Where are they?”, I ask, breathy already. “This way”, she answers. I follow her. She is not moving fast enough but I respect her lead. I am alone. I await the calm that greets me in crisis. The Zen. The place that I find to face fear. This fear I have never met.

I reach the doorway and stop short. I have to soften my energy, slow down. I see a small room, a bedroom, a mattress on the floor fashioned as a bed. The baby is lying on her back. Mom is kneeling at a distance on the bed. The distance is profound. No touch. She is overcome by…fear? No, it has to be terror. 

The baby is tiny. My vision blurs when I look to her tiny face. A form of emotional, spiritual protection, I imagine. I widen my eyes and things come into focus. Oh nooooo. She is so tiny, too tiny. I drop to my knees and start whispering….”Hi little one.” 

I hear Mom sobbing, speaking, but I can’t understand her right now. I lean as closely as I can to the baby’s face. I want to be ever gentle. I instinctively hold my breath.. I don’t want to confuse hers with mine.  My cheek, the hairs that I know are there, just barely touching her sweet small lips. No, no breath.

I pick her up, cradling her head in my palm and fingers. She is warm, her hair delicate. I balance her body on my forearm. I feel so large. I don’t want to hurt her. I cover her mouth and nose with my lips. Little puffs, puffs, puffs. Life, Please. I start those little compressions, but am aware that they don’t feel the same as others I have done. She is soft, warm. I become aware that others are there, but I don’t look to see who it is. My own heart is fluttering, my body tingles with urgency. Please… “Come on sweetheart, ” I say between the puffs. “Come back little one.” I talk to her. 

I am talking to myself. Where is the calm? What is happening to me? Have I met the demon, kneeling in this room, cradling purity, touching innocence? “Please, little one. please.” I realize that I am begging God. 

The paramedics break the spell. They tear the silence, my whispers that could have been silent as well. “Is she breathing?! Anything?!” “No,” I concede. One of them scoops her from me and I am overcome with remorse, grief. His hands are so big. She is dwarfed by his hold, but I know he is as soft as he can be. I look to them as they say, “We are out, let’s go.” I chase them down the stairs. “Where are you taking her?, I ask. “Children’s (Hospital)…” he says as his voice trails off. I am left alone once more.

I take in air, but it is not filling me. I am anxious. The calm never came. I stand in the street paralyzed.

I have to take charge. Oh, please not me, not now, I think. The tears rise to my brow and are stuck there. I begin to feel the pain of a headache coming on. Officers are looking to me for…guidance?

I want to take to the middle of the street and scream. Look skyward and ask why. I knew the baby was gone, lost, dead. Why me, why now? what lesson, what punishment, what does the pain mean? 

I don’t feel sorry for myself, but I need to know…something. Meaningful? Can there be that – in this? 

I learn that the baby is indeed dead. Now I must tell her. I could leave it to someone else, and yet, I make that my role, almost always. I think of the other times, older people – mothers, fathers, sons, daughters – natural death, suicides. I leave each one changed in some way. An infant, an infant. What words, what language fits here? Mom is sitting in a kitchen chair. I ask her if she is cold.

“Can I get you a jacket, sweater?”, I ask. “Yes,” she answers through the tears. “It’s gray.” I rush up the stairs and look for gray, gray. A gray sweatshirt is crumpled in a corner of the bedroom. I take in the faint rose colored blood on the sheet, the “binky”, the blue plastic baby wipes container still on the bed. I grab the sweatshirt and head down. “Thank you,” she says. Oh, where is the calm. Mary, the calm.

I touch her shoulder as she sits. I had warned the other officers there that I would be telling her. “You’re little girl is gone.” I chastise myself inside as the words do not seem right, right, none of this is “right.”

Dammit. I have seen this reaction before. The anguish, the collapse, the loss of……Only she feels the depth of her grief. I am merely a voyeur. I feel disgusting. I stand still for minutes, then walk outside. I spit and spit. I spit death. despair. loss. dreams never realized. squeals of joy. I spit like I have never. The blood still in… in there. I can’t rid myself of it, all of it. I want to cry, but the place is not here, not now. Where did the calm go?

Namaste

Facing Death General

  

We found him at the kitchen table, his head against the wall. If his reading glasses hadn’t knicked the side of his face when his head came to rest, he may have looked as if he was asleep. 

His wife of 30 years repeated the same thing over and over, “He so loved his books. He often came to bed late after he read for awhile. I should have checked. I should have checked. I should have checked.” Her grief was suffocating.

The first moment she collapsed against me, I wrangled between my safety and her comfort. It is impossible to predict the reactions when death suddenly enters their lives. The anger. The guilt. The “I can’t go on. I can’t live without ____…” That might spark an impulse in her to grab my gun and shoot herself in front of me. Sounds nuts, I know, but this job is nuts. 

She holds on to me as I ask gently if there is anyone I could call for her. Wrong question. She wails. Her body goes limp, her weight sliding down the front of me. Her knees hit the wood floor. “My daughter. Nooooooo. She is 8 months pregnant. It was his first grandddddd childddddd….” It is only going to get worse from here. I am starting to sweat. 

I guide her to a bench in the hallway. She has covered her face with her hands. She is alternating between silent disbelief and sobs. Every once in awhile she crosses her arms in front of her as if trying to muster composure. I imagine her inner voice. “There are things that must be done. People to call. Arrangements to make.” I sit beside her and put my hand on her arm. The opposite wall has an array of frames with photographs. I recognize her in one of them. The man beside her on the beach looks like her husband. They are smiling at me. Great spot, I think…but where else do we go? The memories in that photograph will now take on new meaning. 

You Never Know When It is Good Bye

Facing Death

I have known too many women and men living on the streets in my career. Some are dead now. Either natural causes – maybe cancer or old age. Others the victims of violence. Still others have disappeared. Once in awhile I hear a story on the street about someone. “Sergeant Mary, did you hear ——passed?” I ask where and how. I am curious, but hope it is not some dreadful tale. Once in awhile, an officer will say, “Hey, Mary, remember so and so? Whatever happened to him?”

This is a piece about one of those people living on the Berkeley streets. I wish her end could have been different.

Winter Salvia

 

Ave Maria

I was standing watching the flames when she seemed to appear out of nowhere. “I’m going to get John some soup, ” she said in that gravely voice of hers. I knew her voice right away. I pulled my turtleneck up over my mouth and nose to shield me from the smoke of the house fire. In a muffled voice, I reply, “Ok. It’s probably better to get away from this chaos anyway. This smoke is bothering me, so it must be bothering you, eh?” She didn’t answer and instantly she was gone. Walking east on Addison likely. This was her stomping ground after all.

The officer’s voice on the radio was so troubled, that I knew the scene must be bloody or otherwise difficult. When I drove up, I saw the body crumpled in the roadway, slightly on its side. With the clothing in layers, I didn’t recognize her. I sucked in air through my nose as I often do to calm me in these moments, and exhaled very slowly. I drew closer and saw the head. Her head, I would come to find out. The officer yelled at me, “It’s Maria King, Sarge.” I bend closer, tilt my head ever so slightly and still cannot process what I see.

This moment of pause, this process, has happened so many times to me over the years. The sights. The sounds. The smells. The imagery. The events. The things that the brain fights with because it has not had to deal with before. Then all of it becomes indelible.

Her face is unrecognizable, not merely because of the blood but by how deformed it was. She was gurgling, fighting to breathe through the mess in her nose, mouth and eyes. But…I just saw her last night at the fire, I whisper out loud to no one but myself. Dammit. What the hell?  Who the hell? Who in God’s name would do this?!

The dispatcher had said that a witness said he saw “someone jumping on what appeared to be a body.” I was baffled. Angry. Intent then. Three of us kneeled over her. Two were trained paramedics as well as cops so they were doing what they could for her. I held a flashlight above the mess, still not fully comprehending her condition.

Officers were dashing in various directions. The officer’s initial broadcast sending the right amount of importance and urgency. I was next barking directions. Officers made detentions and eventually arrested three young men, one with blood on his boots.

Everyone on duty at the time seemed to have some experience with Maria at some point. It became personal. Each reflected on some encounter with her. At times she was angry. It was mostly alcoholic belligerence. Some describe how tiny she was. I heard one officer say, “Anyone who could do this is a true monster.”

Elmwood Morning (years ago)

Facing Death

I have said that I leave each death changed in some way. Natural, unnatural, old, young, violent… As a Sergeant in the city of Berkeley, California for over 12 years, (and an officer for 8 years before that) I have gone to far too many. The deaths in which we force our way into a home or apartment as part of our community care taking role because someone has not seen a loved one or heard from him/her in (fill in the blank) days, weeks. Then there are the suicides, the homicides. I imagine I will share more of these moments, but for now, I uncovered this. Although there is no date on this piece, I know I wrote this when I was a newer Sergeant, maybe in 2003 or 4 –

Elmwood Morning

I had seen it before. Hands over her mouth. An impending scream that is stifled to gasps as she approaches the room. “Mom…Noooooooo…” “I made you salmon for lunch today.” She kneels close. Hands outstretched. Suspended with indecision. The indecision that comes with grief. Should I touch?

Her mom is on her back on the floor, covered with a blanket to her throat. Tubes still in her mouth, eyes half open. I stand at a distance. I feel oppressed by the uniform, the weight I carry, the belt, the officialdom, and my own emotion.

She turns to me, still on her knees, and I know the questions before she asks. “We have to wait for the Coroner to give a release. As soon as we get that, Officer —— is handling that, we can give her dignity – your mom dignity. We can get her off the floor and place her in your care.”

In the first years of being a police officer, I learned that word choice is powerful in this work, particularly with death. No matter the spirituality, “the body” feels wrong. I also came to know what officers are outwardly uncomfortable with death, don’t want to stay in the room, although they should. The officers who seem uncaring and officious and yet it is their own way of protecting themselves from what scares them. I allow them to do their paperwork and phone calls while I do the talking. I do the touching. Hands on an arm or back. Softly pulling those back who wish to fall on their loved ones. It is the least and the most I can do.

The daughter stays on the floor – fielding phone calls. “Mom’s dead.” She says it many times. I try not to look too much. I know I cannot offer the comfort she wants or needs. “I am talking to Mary and —- – the police officers,” she tells someone. Its sounds strangely personal and sweet and I am thankful that I have used our first names. More family arrives and the grief is magnified by 2, by 4. I linger beyond what I should.

When the Coroner gives the release, I enter the small room, this time alone, as the family talks and hugs outside. I put gloves on and look to the mom. I remove the intubation tube myself. At first, I am frightened. I pull gently and what air – what life – pulls out with it. Unpleasant. The sound something unforgettable. I wipe her mouth. Her jaw is misshapen by the passage of time. I hold her chin and push up ever so slightly hoping to make it…appear normal? Peaceful perhaps? I am not successful. I peel off the gloves and drop them in a bin nearby. I stand with my eyes closed – a ritual I have come to know. I take in the stillness. Offer reverence for her life, this woman, this mother I do not know. Reverence to she who is loved. I find the nursing home staff and ask them to place her in her bed and leave.