Sunday, December 3, 2023

Pitter Pattering Feet

He liked cucumbers.

Roderick called cucumbers "comb comb".  Two year-old French, and a drooly pointing finger, got the point across: 'Cut me another piece'.  

We sat on a porch the Peace Corps rented from Roderick's family.  Cote d'Ivoire was hot and eating inside made things worse, but eating on the porch made me Roderick's target.

"Comb comb..."

Cherub cheeks and a toddler's indecency made him unapologetic.  'You see me standing on the porch and you just came back from the market.  Give up the goods,' is a rough translation.

His belly distended, nose ran and feet were bare.  My twenty-something idealism fueled the trans-Atlantic volunteerism.  I shared with Roderick, but his entreaties became intense.  Once, I ate a cucumber by myself.  

I did.

Twice or so, I hid in the oven of his father's rental rather than capitulate to Roderick's demands.  Magnanimity was the mode, and miserly meditations the exception, but remembering my stinginess stings.

If I'd shared more cucumbers, would Roderick still be alive?  He, like Wynter, died before his third birthday.  He, like Wynter, was embedded in stinging circumstances.

Wynter was abducted from her home, driven across county lines and killed.  In oppressive heat, officers searched for Wynter's cherub cheeks.  Sometimes they second-guessed themselves.  'Did I let a bad guy get away?  Was there something else I could have done?'

Answers that satisfy are in short supply.  Seeing children die is hard.

Connecting cops to the Lord is the best I've got.  God sees and cares.  Roderick's and Wynter's Creator cares, yet 'Why do wee ones die?' haunts.  Scripture helps.

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. ~ II Corinthians 12:7

'Why do children die?' is a thorn in our flesh.  Alan Kurdi's family asks for relief from torment.  Three times, the Apostle Paul asked the Lord for removal of the thorn in his flesh.  How many times, and how many of us, have asked God to spare children's lives?  

If children dying pains you, you understand Paul's plea.  Scholars are torn over the origin of Paul's thorn, but Roderick, Wynter and Alan reinterpret what a thorn in the flesh means today.  Children dying HAS to have something to do with Satan.

Sorry, not sorry.

Longing to stop deaths pulls us irresistibly to scripture:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. ~ II Corinthians 12:7-9

Longing for feet, that will pitter-patter no more, makes us weak.  In our weakness, Christ's power is made perfect.  Grief and doubt are stirred in the hardest hearts when children die.  All of us, including cops, grope for answers.

So that Christ's power may rest, chaplains minister in His name.  If a child is missing, police officers are summoned.  If a child dies, it's a police matter.  Scores of abused, missing, suicidal, accidentally killed and murdered children will impact a 25-year police career.  A chaplain trusts, and invites law enforcement professionals to trust, the sufficiency of God's grace amidst heartbreak.

Nothing is as heartbreaking as eating a cucumber.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Working The Plan

A romantic weekend requires a plan.  

Long walks, good food and brilliant sunsets were falling into place.  A weekend away was going according to plan until we heard a muffled protest.  In the next parking lot, her foot was sticking out of a SUV.  Reaching for the ground unsuccessfully, the owner seemed to dangle.  She wanted out but was stuck.

As her plea turned hysteric, our enchanted evening disintegrated.   Before shooing my wife into the condo, I asked her to call 911.  Now what?  Approaching a woman, being pulled by her hair, requires a plan.  

I had no plan.

I had a voice but he wasn't listening.  I had a flashlight and shined through the rear windshield.  Her foot touched the pavement before her body crumpled.  He walked to the passenger side and told her to get up.  She refused, angering his grip on her shoulder.  Maybe fifteen feet away, armed with a flashlight and separated by a fence post, trauma's jaws snapped.

In 30 seconds, I went from celebrating our 22nd wedding anniversary to wondering if his violence was going to spill onto me.  Distance is safety; he could have covered the ground between us in less than a three seconds.  

"The police have been called.  Go ahead and walk away from her.  Walk away."

He spoke to her, never to me but it was loud enough to gather they had business he felt was unfinished.  "I don't want to ride with you...leave me alone...give me my $h!t" rang into the night.  They moved from the SUV to the sidewalk and onto the side of the fence I was on.

His focus on her gave me enough time to gather the license plate, run back to the condo and recite it to the 911 dispatcher on the phone with my wife.  Looking at her, I realized I knew nothing about the situation but was learning more about myself.  The whimpering woman was no younger than our daughter.

Collegiate and cute, the choked coed reminded me of our oldest, who had just pecked me on the cheek a few hours before.  To put distance between me and him, I started our truck, turned on the high beams and leaned on the horn.  As she shrieked, I spoke to him.

"Do you see all these condominiums?  There are eyes on you.  Walk away before the police arrive."

"I'm not going anywhere...I don't care... I'll have to go to jail tonight."

He had a plan.

I had a recollection of my limitations.  Ignorant of the source of the violence and closer to him than safety allowed, I remembered I did care.  I cared about the hand I was holding a few minutes earlier.  I cared about our daughter more than I cared about someone else's daughter.  I cared about seeing our children again.  Her attacker was willing to lose.

When she took a step toward our truck, the locks were engaged because I was in drive.  The second it would have taken to park the truck and swing the door open to her is the moment I still think about.  He was within arms reach.  I braked but failed to park.

I failed to throw the passenger door open to her.  Just as soon as she was next to the vehicle, she was just as quickly walking away up the hill.  Questions abound.

Did my thoughts about my family keep me from flinging the door open to her?
Did my clarity about his willingness to be jailed prevent me from opening the door?
How might the night have changed if she made it into our truck?
Am I second-guessing the difference between 'park' and braking while in drive?

More screaming, her flight and his pursuit.  Then, beyond my hearing, his one sentence changed everything.

He spoke, knowingly, and inaudibly.  She gathered her belongings and followed him dutifully to the SUV.  You would never have known that she had been begging with anguished howls.  I never heard what he said but watched them both make a B-line for the same vehicle.  His tires squealed and 9 seconds later two sheriff's deputies pulled up.  

It was like he could hear or smell law enforcement approaching.  There were no lights or sirens.  He just knew, laced a phrase in her ear and compelled her accompaniment.

Deputies never found him but the license plate was a match.  The sheriff seems to have a plan for what's next.

Next for me is to ask whether I did all I could have done.  My wife and I discussed the evening using a series of debriefing questions.  She is a mental health professional and I am clergy, so one hand truly was washing the other.  

Now my hands run over this keyboard.  I write so I can sleep.  Tonight keeps playing in my head.  Writing moves the trauma out of my mind, down my wrists and into the keyboard.  To deal with the emotions, I have a plan: write.

I plan to continue celebrating my 22th wedding anniversary with the mother of our two children.  She and I worked together to help a young lady tonight. We plan to work together until death parts us.


Thursday, September 14, 2023

House of Strangers

While the body cooled, police worked.  

An officer climbed and descended the stairs on urgent errands.  Another prevented family members from viewing the deceased.  While police worked, gawkers gathered.

Some observed from the sidewalk, others gathered in the yard.  Three, then ten, then twenty times as many civilians outnumber the police.  With hundreds of eyeballs watching, the worker parked hundreds of feet away because of the police cruisers.  She was equipped with a weekend training.

She was called to help survivors answer the question, "What do I do now?"

The police called her to help grieving strangers.  While officers find out if foul play was involved, tenderness among the living helps.  Police bring her in alone, or with a partner at night, to serve the survivors.  

A listening ear, a bottle of water and silent accompaniment are some of the benefits she offers.  She gives guidance on funeral homes, wills and death certificates.  What she never knows is how the first 100 seconds in a home will go.  

Hysterics, apathy or deceit may await; rage, depression and grief are create a cocktail of human emotion.  On the fly, she has to know how to handle each situation.  Her job is to climb the porch, open the door and walk into a house full of strangers.  

We had a chance to talk to her after she entered a dead man's home.  A synopsis of the debrief is being shared by permission.  

Q: What is your one-word descriptor for what you experienced?  Please explain.

A: Endearing.  I walked into the house and found a sibling group working together.  Their differences were obvious but their love for each other was evident.  So often, when a citizen is dead on arrival, chaos reigns.  Finding people who were willing to help each other grieve was a relief.  The longer I stayed in the home, the more I saw the family's strength.  On a terrible day, his surviving family members encouraged me while I did my work.

Q: What was a point of tension?

A: Pulling onto a dark street, with the entire block watching the house is nerve-wracking.  There are a few things I have to do before entering the house and they happen in the trunk of the car.  Going through my preparations, while households silently stared, made me tense.  Then I had trouble finding the house in the dark.  Someone pointed me in the right direction, but the feeling of being lost, on a block I didn't know, made me tense.

Q: What did you learn from the experience?

A: I learned the importance of training.  In an emergency, we default to our lowest level of training. Since my initial training, I have learned new skills.  Box breathing helped me with the stress.  A few months ago, we were encouraged to inventory our duty bags.  Forms were organized and updated to prevent fumbling.  Using the bathroom, before arriving on scene, is a lesson shared by a trainer.  Grieving people need help and adequately trained helpers are better helpers.  

Q: How can you do the next call in a more excellent way?

A: Each call is different.  A part of being able to do this work is maximizing each opportunity.  We get one meeting with a family while their loved one is on-scene.  Even if we see the family again, the circumstances are different.  In a sense, there is no "do it again" because each call is different.  I can be more excellent the next time by remembering that the next call is unlike any other call.  Preconceived notions about survivors may sabotage what we're trying to do.  Maybe next time I can bring a flashlight so I can see the address more clearly.