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 –
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.