It’s always other people’s children who get shot.
Last week, a man was shot by a Milwaukee police officer. Although not all the facts are known, everyone seems ready to lay the shooting at the feet of mental illness. The thinking trajectory is that if mental health services were adequate then this man, who had been sleeping in a public park in the middle of the day, would not have reacted as he did to a police officer and the police officer then would not have reacted as he did and the man who had been sleeping in the park would not have been shot ten times by the police officer for reasons we don’t know and might not understand if we did.
But it’s always other people’s children who get shot, right? And isn’t it usually because they’ve done something wrong or they’re mentally ill and acting irrationally? No. Not always.
Somewhere, maybe it was in the rare, episodic moments I found myself in Sunday School at the local Methodist Church or the endless hours in my smoke-filled dorm room listening to the pining of Joan Baez or when I looked over at another adoptive mom struggling to keep her head above water, somewhere in all of this I was branded with the message: There but for fortune go you or I. It has stuck to me like a second skin. There is nothing special about me that protects me and mine from disaster. All bodies look the same to a shark.
I am not so fearful now, but there was a time in my sons’ lives when every night without a phone call was a miracle, times when the phone would ring in the darkest hours and I would hand the phone to my husband because I was too afraid to hear any words that might be said. I think that now that time has past. I think we are all, us and them, beyond that and I can put my phone in another room plugged into its charger and not lie there in the dark trying to hear its tiny song. The phone won’t ring at night. They’re safe. I say that but I don’t really know. Anything can happen.
Last year, a young man was in police custody in the back of a squad car and he died. He kept saying that he couldn’t breathe. The police officers, believing him to be malingering, ignored him. This was unbelievable to me, that anyone could hear someone’s urgent pleas and ignore him. How much cynicism does that take? Is there a meter to measure that?
In both cases, the men who ended up being victims were African American. In a city as segregated as Milwaukee, this more than factors in.
What would happen, I asked my husband today while we were walking with our dogs, if you fell asleep under a tree in this park and a police officer woke you up? Would it end up with you being shot?
“You know the answer to that,” he said.
I did. I do.
When I look at the picture of the mother of the man shot in the park, I don’t see myself. I see her. I don’t know her or her story. I don’t see myself in her. I don’t think that I’m lucky that I’m not her and that one of my sons isn’t in the morgue. Even though I have the There but for fortune mantra playing constantly in my mind, that’s not why this terrible event grips me.
I just think it’s a complete crying shame that this happened, that her son is dead, and that she has to grieve in this horrible, public way with everyone having an opinion about what her son should or should not have done and how the system failed him and how he wasn’t taking his meds. As if it matters.
There will be explanations galore with blame stapled to each. It was his fault for being mentally ill. It was the officer’s fault for overreacting. It will never be sorted out. It is likely to be a tragedy without any satisfactory explanation. But that is the nature of tragedy. Unexplainable, random, unfair, heartbreaking.
If you are a mother and you think about this terrible event long enough, it makes life seem very perilous. For everyone, not just yours.