Let me tell you a few stories.
The year is 1996. I have just endured 25 hours of hard labor and given birth, only to discover–much to my dismay–that the pain does not magically end once the baby emerges. It seems unfair–I lie on the too-short bed, flat on my back. I ache everywhere. My son has been whisked away for housekeeping and testing. I have to go to the bathroom, but for some mysterious reason I must remain flat on my back. The logistics of emptying my bladder in this position without resorting to just flooding the bed and the room escape me. And then a woman in scrubs comes in and starts poking and prodding at my poor, abused, aching stomach. I am dazed. I am exhausted. The pain is indescribable. I don’t even think to object. But I don’t need to.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I know this hurts, but I have to do it. We have to be sure that everything has been expelled, or you could get an infection.”
And just like that, I go from being a quivering slab of bruised meat to being a person again.
Fast forward to 2001. I ride through the urgent care center a block from my house, traveling from the examination room to the x-ray room via stretcher. We have to go through the lobby. People in chairs stare at me accusingly, like they think I’m taunting them–“Ha ha–I’m getting care and you’re not.” But I don’t really care. My lungs ache and I can’t catch my breath. The doctor has just told me I have pneumonia. I’ve been sick for a while; I need a shower. My hair needs a wash.
And then, as the woman pushing my stretcher rolls me through the swinging doors out of the lobby and into the quiet back hallway, she says, “Your hair smells nice.”
And just like that, I go from being a lump of aches and mucus to being a person again.
Come with me once more, this time to the dark night a couple months ago when The Boy and I got home and found Leroy lying on the floor. We made the calls. The EMTs arrived, and then the police, and then the coroner. The house filled with people going about the shocking, quiet, confusing business of death. The Boy and I sat on the couch, and then moved to the porch, while all around us men in dark blue uniforms spoke in hushed tones and worked out the logistics of getting a stretcher through my small house and onto the back porch. The Boy and I sat, stunned. I can’t speak for him, but I know that for me no matter where I looked all I could see was Leroy, facedown, his hand curved defenselessly by his side. I knew the men in blue faced this sort of situation often, but for us it was shattering–the sort of thing for which there seems no real help.
But then it started.
“I know you,” said one of the EMTs. “I came to your house for a party.”
And the fog cleared a bit, and I saw his face, and knew he was right. He left me and went out on the porch to where The Boy sat. He squatted by the chair, put his hand on The Boy’s arm, said something quietly.
“Your son and my son played football together.” It was a policeman this time. And then he, too, went out to the porch, and I watched him talking to my son, reaching through the mists for him as he had done for me.
The coroner arrived. He asked the minimum of questions, gathering just enough information so we could do what we were all here to do–take care of Leroy.
The EMTs and the policemen gave me a last minute with Leroy, and then they put him on the stretcher and wheeled him out. And then that EMT, the man who had been to the party at my house, the man who had heard my address and known to say, “Oh, no,” to himself, came back inside carrying rags and cleaning supplies, and he tidied away the inevitable messiness of death, and then he swept the floor, cleaning up the cat food that Leroy had been getting for Nina when the lights went out.
They left us, but they left behind the shining gift of kindness, and final promises. “If you need anything, anything at all, even if you or The Boy just need someone to talk to, call us. We’ll help.”
As I said, this post has been a long time in the making, but it’s time. It’s time that I said “thank you” to these wonderful people who probably don’t even remember what they did, and if I reminded them would probably think I was making too much of it. “I was just doing my job,” they would probably say. “It was no big deal.”
It was a big deal to me. These moments have stuck with me not because these people were acting out of character, but because they were acting out of their characters–they saw my son and me as more than a job to be done–they saw our common humanity, and by their words and actions didn’t pull us out of that dark and frightening place–nothing could do that–but reminded us that we weren’t alone in that dark place. They gave us hands to hang onto. The nurse in the delivery room acknowledged that her actions–though necessary–caused me pain. The nurse in the urgent care center gave me back a bit of self-confidence–I might look a mess, but heck, my hair smelled nice. Those women reminded me that I, too, am a person. The police officers and the EMTs who came to our house the night Leroy died saw us as people. They saw my son and took care to check in and see how it was with him. They offered their ears, and their hands. They saw him as a boy who had just lost one of the most important people in his life, and they offered help not just that night, but for the future. We are not alone.
I could go on, but that’s all I really have to say. No matter how flawed our institutions are, they are also filled with people who see those of us they serve not as problems, but as people in pain that is all too often beyond fixing. And the wonder of it is that reach out, they offer what they can–words, a hand on the arm, a rag and cleaning supplies–not because they “should,” but because that is who they are. And they do it over and over.
So for all of you in the blue uniforms–and the scrubs–thank you.