A Bit of Night


I was reminiscing about working overnight yesterday. Maybe because I was stuck in traffic at 1:30pm trying to get to a call. Seems as if every street in Berkeley has orange cones on it, heavy equipment backing into the roadway, detours and workers holding signs – “SLOW”. I can’t drive my patrol car any slower. I am at a complete stop. 

Once the line of cars starts to move, the car in front of me appears to get the all too familiar “Oh No… There is a police car behind me.” I am now dangerously close to going on a tangent about how people drive when a police car is nearby. 

Back to the hours of darkness. I generally try to negotiate things that are challenging for me. That goes for people too. I find the endearing qualities, so everything is easier to negotiate. 

Working graveyard shift, or dogwatch as our department calls it, has its advantages (this is where some of the endearing qualities kick in) During the more silent times at night, I would find gems. There are the places in west Berkeley where the smell of baking bread fills the air. I would sit across the street from the kitchens and watch as the bakers, donning paper caps, were kneading or filling pans or fashioning dough into shapes. 

There are a couple foundries where the huge doors to the warehouses stay open and the bright light of welding splits the night. A forklift or two might zip by me. I respect the hard, hot work and know that I couldn’t tolerate it. I’d wonder where all theses large strange pieces of steel were going. Maybe they were off to creating cityscapes and bridges or holding back the rockslides along some piece of coastal highway. 

If I climbed to the hills, I could take in the city from above. I’d sit and marvel at the beauty of it. The lights, the silence, the deceiving calm. 

Calm Never Comes 

Children Facing Death General

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?


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.