Conversation at Starbucks

I’m on my way to a doctor’s appointment in town more affluent than mine. There are two gentlemen two tables over dressed in dress clothes, designer shoes shined to mirror shine and pants but I wonder slightly. One of them is wearing Costco socks in his designer shoes. The other is wearing a cheap windbreaker over his neatly dry cleaned shirt. They they are deep in conversation with each. I cant make out the words but the man wearing the windbreaker looks like he is holding back tears. The other is very serious but composed. Words like heroin and manufacturing and police make their way to my ears.

Evidently they must be regulars here. A woman in running stops at their table and hugs both men before sensing the emotion in the air, she excuses herself and continues on to the register. Another person that looks like the spokesperson for Patagonia stops and begins to talk to the two men. He also senses the emotion in the air but appears to know the situation at hand and asks for an update. Both men exchange glances and take a minute to respond. This is difficult for both of them. The update is given in a horse whisper, while the men inspect their fingernails not able to make eye contact.

‘Patagonia spokesman’ is uncomfortable with the display of  emotion at the forefront of this very human interaction. He claps both men on the back and gives them each gazes that say “I dont know what to say but I’m sorry”

Be kind always. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

Christmas With a Cop (retired)

Around the time the chain department stores start advertising Christmas decorations and presents; the tension in my house begins to mount. As the weather gets colder and the songs get more festive, a sense of dread fills the air. There are sleepless nights, nightmares, and the sound of pacing bare feet on hardwood floors late into the night. Tempers flare and emotions run hot. There is no Christmas tree until the very last second and even then it is merely tolerated for the sake of others.

Let me explain.

My dad was a police officer in an urban city for 25 years. He was on gang, human trafficking and drug trafficking task forces with the entire alphabet soup of federal agencies many times over. He’s saved lives. He’s been in shoot outs. He’s been shot. He’s been stabbed. He’s been run over. He’s pulled people out of burning buildings with little to no protective gear and sustained 3rd burns on 25% of his body. He’s risked his life to save children from shootouts and domestic violence incidents. He’s done CPR on babies, children, elderly people and everyone else in between. He has stood up for prostitutes and sex workers when no one else would at the risk of his own career and reputation. He has had friends and strangers alike die in his arms. He has given the hat off his head and the shirt off his back many times over to people who didn’t have anything else. He has solved murders, rapes and robberies.

A lot of these things happened between Thanksgiving and Valentines Day. That’s the ‘busy season’. Tune into the news. Abductions, Murders, suicides, robberies, rapes, domestic violence, drug overdoses abound this time of the year and the police have to respond to each call. Even stretched out over 25 years that’s a lot of trauma to process. Each time he responded to one of those calls it might be his last. There might be a shootout, or a fight; serious injuries were bound to happen. Throw in inadequate mental health care in general but especially for men and even more so for men (and women) that are first responders (not just police officers- Firefighters and EMTs too).

He’ll never admit it but I see the look in his eyes. I see how he instinctively steels himself against this holiday seasons horrors even though he has not worn a badge in almost 21 years. I see the blazing look in his blue eyes that say it only happened yesterday.

In a rare moment of vulnerability he told me about how he was assigned to the gang unit task force in the late 80s- early 90s with multiple federal agencies and police departments represented in the Tri-State area. They went up to a city (in a different state than the one he is from) to conduct a raid. The site was an average middle class suburban neighborhood with unassuming minivans in the driveway and white picket fences in surrounding the backyards. Dozens of law enforcement officials and federal agents swarm the area, clad in helmets and SWAT gear they prepared to barge into a raised ranch, warrant in hand. But, they were spotted and the occupants of the house opened fire. My dad and the other law enforcement officials were forced to take cover behind their cars. They returned fire. All of a sudden a neighboring side door swung open. A three year old boy, disorientated by the noise, ran out of the door and directly into a hail of bullets. They tore his abdomen apart and he fell whimpering in pain and fear. My dad struggled with this sight for a little while and finally his emotions won out. He broke cover and ran out into the firestorm to retrieve the boy. Once he picked him he ran back behind the armored cars. He began putting pressure on the wounds but there were too many, he could tell that the boy was bleeding out too fast to be saved. The boy was scared and crying, so my dad decided to take the pressure off the wounds and pick up the dying boy. He cradled him close and hugged him so that the boy’s last experience on Earth would be of kindness and comfort. That boy died in his arms. He then had to pick his gun back up and continue the firefight.

He wouldn’t allow himself to process that event until many many years later. I am almost positive that every December he is transported back to that suburban minivan lined street from 30 years ago. What I don’t know is how many more people like that boy come to visit my dad every year. Its no wonder he has a hard time looking forward to the Holiday season.

Every year when I can see the pain grow in his eyes I try to be a little more understanding, a little more gentle, and a little kinder to not just him but to everyone that may be fighting a battle I know nothing about.)

An Insomniac’s Musings

Stillness. Quiet. Calm. Call it what you will. The insomniac in me relishes these moments. Even though tomorrow I will be tired. Even though tomorrow I will curse this inability for rest.

Right now I am grateful.

I am grateful for the hum of the air conditioner creating a relaxing white noise while a cool breeze plays softly across my face.

I am grateful for the darkness. It forces me to look inward, something I don’t do nearly enough in the light.

I am grateful for the solitude. Solitude, it’s a desire that’s rarely satiated.

Maybe it is a different kind of rest that I crave.

I try to let the emotions and pain come as they may. Welcome them with open arms. They come. They visit and then then they’re on their way. Sadness, happiness, pain, joy all of it. There is a place here. If they are allowed to come as they please they will usually leave as they please as well. But each emotion requires the others’ prior or future presence. One cannot know happiness without sadness and pain. They give each other intensity and contrast that we would not know otherwise.

I am reminded of Rumi’s poem

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

— Jellaludin Rumi

Without Hesitation

Last week I went to The Sailfest in New London, Connecticut. For those of you that don’t know, it is the largest fireworks display on the east coast. People sit on the piers and watch the hour long show in sync to the local radio station. It is quite the spectacle. Upwards of 30,000 people descend on the area.

The piers are surrounded by waist high metal railings. The concrete pier itself juts out about 8 inches past the railings.

Just before the fireworks started I noticed that there was people sitting on opposite side of the railing with their legs hanging over the ledge. I knew the water was deep and about a 6 foot drop from the ledge to the water. And the people. There were a lot of people. Of all ages. Elderly people. Kids. Toddlers.

I have been a certified lifeguard for 15 years.

When I saw those people sitting/standing there, my heart started racing, my mouth went dry. My mind went into overdrive, trying to figure out what I would do if one of those people fell in.

My friends not realizing how serious I was started joking and lighheartedly teasing me. They asked me if I would jump in if someone fell in. Without thinking about it I immediately replied “of course. I wouldn’t even hesitate.”

Shocked, they replied that they wouldn’t, in their minds those people were stupid enough to sit there, if they fall in its their own fault.

I told them that I wouldn’t be able to let someone drown, if I have the knowledge and capability to prevent it. If I didn’t jump in and they didn’t survive; I don’t think I would be able to forgive myself.

Then they started realizing that I was completely serious. One of my friends took notice that I was nervously pacing our small area trying to see as much of the water as I could. I could feel my heart beating like I was on the treamill and my muscles twitching, ready to react. My shoes and socks were off and safely under my chair. My phone and wallet were in my bag. Then the fireworks started and I found myself unable to enjoy them because I kept scanning for trouble.

I never had to jump into that water, thankfully.

But I keep replaying in my head how it would have played it out even now four days later. How would I have gotten the person out? What would I do if there was more than 1 person? Would anyone else jump in to help me? What if someone fainted or had a seizure that caused them to fall into the water? How would I get then out in time to provide care such as mouth to mouth or chest compressions?

This is a common scenario that plays in my head whenever I am near water. Once a lifeguard, always a lifeguard, I guess.

Collect call

The cool night air carries with it promises of warmer nights. I walk across the crowded parking lot of barnes and noble, sidestepping the broken glass and wads of discarded chewing gum. I pull on the heavy wooden door and walk inside. The florescent lights assualt my eyes and I take a second to adjust. Scanning the the cafe area I zero in a couple people I would like to observe. Not in a creepy way, I just like people watching. I like observing the way people interact with each other, either as strangers or friends something more.

I can tell a lot about people by the way they interact with strangers. For example someone that tells their whole life’s story to the barista without being asked is insecure and is looking for the assurance that their life has meaning and that someone will know their story.

I sit down a few tables away from a man that is quickly heading out of middle age and into elderly status. He is talking on a phone that is comically too big for his head. His other hand covers his mouth and nose the way teachers do when they don’t want anyone to read their lips. The man’s cheeks above his hand are red and his eyes are watery and brimming with tears. At first I can’t hear what he is saying on the phone but then he begins to speak clearer.
“When are you coming home? [Pause] can you at least tell me where you are? [Pause] can I send a care package? Wheres the nearest base? Maybe they can find a way to get it to you? [Long Pause] oh you can’t tell me that either?”
The tears spill onto stubbly cheeks and he does not make an effort to wipe them away.

“Well honey, I love you. Mom sends her love too. Write or call when you can. Till next time.”

He hangs up the phone and dissolves into a heartbreaking silent sob. The kind where the lump in your throat blocks out all the noise.

He stays like this for a very long time before he stands up and begins to walk away. He is stopped by an elderly man wearing a World War II hat. The old man says “hey son, I couldn’t help but over hear your conversation. May I enquire about your daughter? Shes in the military right?

The middle aged man looks as if he is going to break down again, but manages to nod yes.

The old man smiles and asks “how many times have you gone through this?”

The middle aged man says- his voice breaking- “shes been in the military for 5 years. Shes been somewhere in the middle east for the last 18 months. But its classified and she can only call once in a while. It messes me up pretty bad everytime I hang up the phone.”

The old man nods sympathetically, and says after a while “you should know that it will always be difficult. But if you react like this everytime you will die of heartbreak. Sometimes it is enough to know it is difficult.”

“What’s wrong with your face?” The lupus chronicles.

I have lupus. Which also means I have the characteristic “butterfly rash” on my face. It covers my cheeks and my forehead and looks vaguely like a butterfly. Now it just looks like a sunburn, but in years past it was not so benign looking. For roughly 2 years approximately 75% of my face was covered in white scaly skin that looked similar to plaque psoriasis combined with a bad case of eczema. As you can probably imagine being an 18-20 year old was slightly hampered by my appearance.

Yes, people stared. A lot. But I learned to ignore them. What was significantly more difficult to ignore was the neverending barrage of strangers coming up to me and asking

what’s wrong with your face?”

Or “why is your face so red?

You’re an alcoholic aren’t you?”

Or “Are you contagious? You shouldn’t be allowed out in public”

My stock answer was that I had a sunburn.

That seemed to placate most people.

But I shouldn’t be bombarded with personal medical questions from complete strangers.

I shouldn’t be embarrassed to leave the house.

It’s been mostly under control for years now. Only flaring up occasionally. But now I have topical medication and pills to alleviate the symptoms. It only looks mildly red.

But if I get a sunburn the redness is much more pronounced.

That’s what happened today. I went to a charity walk forgot to put sunscreen on. My cheeks and forehead were a good shade of deep pink. After the walk I went to a dinner party. Within minutes of sitting down at the table, one of the dinner guests- a middle aged Italian woman- blurts out: “what’s wrong with your face? Why does it look like that?”

All that old embarrassment and anxiety came rushing back like it had never left. I managed to smile and say softly “oh its nothing I got a sunburn earlier”

Normally I would have said something like “well I have lupus and it causes redness on my face” and then watch the person squirm uncomfortably as they realize their insensitivity.

But I wanted a nice uneventful evening. And I wasn’t really mentally prepared for such questioning. It has been a long time since I have been asked questions like that. So I didn’t say what I maybe should have.

But you know what? I shouldn’t have to say these things. I should have to always be on my toes with the next comeback or the next teachable moment in regards to my own health.

That’s not to say that I won’t talk about it. On the contrary, if someone is respectful and says to me “oh wow did you get some sun?” Or “you are a little flushed, are you warm?” I would be happy to explain everything.

I guess it boils down to:

Just be kind. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind always.

Names on A Wall- A reflection after visiting the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.

I stand at the start of a wall
it stretches out before me,
it turns and curves,
bends and swerves,
like an undecided snake, trying to find its way.

I walk over the brick
worn down by the soles of others who have trod before.

Names on a wall.

All I can see are names.

Rows and rows and rows

of names.

I stop.

And turn to face the granite,
my hand outstretched,
until I touch the cool, smooth stone,
I feel the grooves and sharp angles,
where the granite
was chipped away
to make a name.

Slowly, I trace each letter with my forefinger
when I am done,
I begin to walk away.

I am stopped,
by the sight
of my own face
reflected like a mirror in the stone,

standing

with the names

for an instant,

I am among the fallen.

I begin to think
not of the names
but of this one name
and Mr. and Mrs. Someone
who gave this name away
all those years ago.