There are times when you witness something happen to someone else that causes you to contemplate your family – parents, spouse, significant other, children or grandchildren; whatever applies to you, and spontaneously, you find yourself thanking God, Fate, the Universe or mere Chance – whatever your faith may rest in, that you are not the one being afflicted with such foul adversity. Grim calamities of this sort can be so absolutely grievous that they literally stop you in your tracks – the weight of a gigantic stone suddenly laid upon your heart; a crushing loss that you feel for them but only on some miniscule scale, comparatively, because you, after all, are only the spectator of their terribly real ruin.
It was such a tragedy that I found myself witness to one Christmas morning, several years ago, while still working as a cop. After shift change at 7am, our squad sat around talking about plans for the day, gifts bought for loved ones and who was going to go home when. There were four of us working an eight hour shift and Christmas was not known for being busy in our small city. Our sergeant made the decision that we would each take a two hour block and go home. Three people could hold the fort down and if something came up none of us would be more than ten minutes away. I chose to take the 9-11am block. One of the guys left to go be with his family and the rest of us sat around for a while longer chatting and telling stories about past Christmases at work when something of note did occur.
It was around 8am when Dispatch stuck her head into the squad room and told us that Rescue was responding to a possible DOA (Dead On Arrival). It was in my partner’s zone but having nothing else to do my sergeant and I both accompanied him.
When I pulled up and saw which residence the ambulance was parked in front of, my heart sunk. I knew it fairly well. I’d dealt with a teenage girl that lived there on multiple occasions. She’d been a spitfire from the time she was probably eleven years old, getting into arguments and fights and then later, when she was about fourteen, riding around with boys that were older than her who didn’t care she was a minor as long as she pretty beyond her age and might be willing to put out. I remember taking her home to her mother that day. I tried to talk sense into the girl, but it was in one ear and out the other.
I felt bad for the mother. She was widowed and had three kids to raise on her own, two younger than her problematic daughter. She was a good person; a God fearing sweet lady who exuded kindness and tried to do right by her kids. She worked two different jobs, to my recollection, in order to provide for her family. I would often see her outside her home talking with neighbors while I was on patrol in the evenings. I would stop and speak to her and see how things were going. She wasn’t one to complain despite her hardships and I quite admired her commitment, her poise and patience through trials and tribulations as well as the fact that she never seemed to grow cynical or bitter nor was she ever overcome with a relentless austerity that defined so many others I met.
As a cop in a small city you come to know some people a bit more than others. And even though you don’t really “know” them like a close friend, you’ve spoken with them enough and helped them out in times of trouble in a way which has created a connection that sustains a sense of closeness because of the intimate knowledge you have of their circumstances, knowledge that they might not even desire to reveal to friends and family for fear of feeling ashamed.
She was one such person I had connected with over a period of years. The sight of each other engendered mutual smiles and prompted us to stop and speak if possible. It was purely platonic but a genuine friendliness even if our interactions were usually brief and, more often than not, infrequent.
When I walked in I saw Richard, one of the EMT’s, knelt down by the couch where this sweet woman lay next to the Christmas tree, one hand resting against her neck even though his face clearly said he already knew she was not among the living any longer.
The tree’s lights twinkled and danced across all the gifts stacked around the base and against one wall. The room was toasty warm and though I was certain her face was cold, it appeared peaceful even if slightly slack and somewhat waxen from whatever illness had taken her during the night. She slept with the dead now and my heart mourned for her loss. A loss I saw on the daughter’s face, a girl of only sixteen who, now, this Christmas morn, had the mantle of mother thrust upon her. I watched as she consoled her younger sister, restraining her own grief to be strong for another.
What really left a long impression though was watching her try to deal with the little brother who was around four to five. He didn’t get it; didn’t yet understand the ramifications of mom not waking up to open presents with him. And so he asked to open presents and dragged one out from under the tree, eyes bright and hopeful for something good, something that he had asked for and keenly desired.
His sister chided him at first but couldn’t bring herself to say the words, to explain to him how mom wasn’t just sleeping and that the rescue workers and cops weren’t standing here in their living room on Christmas morning out of some warm sense of community and kindness to simply see what they had wrapped under the tree and maybe, while there, get some cookies and egg nog or another treat of holiday sorts.
And so she didn’t try at all.
She proceeded to pull out all his gifts and set them well out of the way. And there I stood, watching this clueless, blissfully ignorant boy open gifts and joyfully play with toys even as the gurney was wheeled in and his mother placed on it inside a black plastic body bag, zipped up, the pliable cover crinkling as it enfolded her face.
I offered heartfelt condolences, despite their impotence, and though her wants and my job and advice were almost always at odds, she welcomed it. But she knew my words and feelings did nothing to alleviate this newfound burden. It seemed to be already eating away at her grief, and the fear of overwhelming responsibility was hardening her heart even as I observed her watching her brother. A resentment birthed in her eyes because of what this new and cruel reality meant for her future – a future where she would now have to raise him for the next thirteen years instead of being free to do as she pleased in only two more years when she graduated high school…which surely would never happen now.
Before rescue left they informed us of the cause of death. She had been fighting breast cancer for some time but treatments had been unsuccessful. I was shocked. Her strength and fortitude was inconceivable. I had never heard her speak of it and she certainly had not stopped working her two jobs during chemotherapy. She truly was an amazing woman, who, to many, most likely appeared unremarkable beyond her relaxed congeniality. How completely wrong any were who thought such a thing.
As the ambulance pulled away, carrying the discarded flesh of a soul that certainly, in my mind, was now in heaven above, my sergeant and I and our other squad mate stood in the drive way and shook our heads and commented to one another about how fucked up the whole situation was, how good a person the mom had been and absolutely fucked all three of those kids were now. I commented on how every other Christmas after this would be heavy with sorrow, any festivities tainted with a recurring, unshakeable depression. We stood silent for some time waiting for their aunt and pastor to arrive and then someone finally spoke and said how immensely glad they were that it was not them or their family damned with such an ill fate. We all nodded in agreement, thankful for our better fortune.
Later, when I finally made it to my own house, late, but not caring because they were there, alive and well. I hugged my wife and played with my kids and thanked God that they were alive and so was I and none of us knew the terribly singular sense of bereavement gripping those kids even as joy rested upon our own household.
~~Mike Duke, Author, Stitched Smile Publications