“I recently became a lifetime member of the ‘I’ve lost a child club.’” by Lezlie Christian https://link.medium.com/5V2ORIn2e8
I really enjoy writing to the prompt of the day, but today has been no normal day, not even close, so I’m going to write about suffering, its affect on humans, and how some people who act ins…
Lezlie Christian, MPW
Too common is the image of young people running out of school buildings with their hands up because shots have been fired in their school. Americans are either becoming desensitized to this violence because it has become a familiar component of the background of their lives, or they don’t want to watch the news and witness yet another exhibition of the tremendous potential for deadly devastation when there is easy access to military style, high capacity, semi-automatic weapons. Marjory Stoneman Douglas has been the most recent example of tragic destruction of the lives of American school children. Why is access to these types of military weapons more important to the legislators and the people of this country than the lives of all our children?
Oklahoma legislators, as well as national leaders, in desperate attempts to prevent another tragedy similar to those at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, at Sandy Hook Elementary, Virginia Tech, Columbine High School, and many others, have considered introducing legislation that would allow administrators and teachers to carry guns. They believe that that will solve the problem of the explosion of gun violence, particularly in schools, in America. It is the second week in April, and there have already been 18 reported shootings on school property in the U.S. just in the first three months of 2018 (Ahmed & Walker). How many more innocent people must lose their lives before we realize that our current plans are not working? Moving in the direction that puts more weapons in the building will NOT decrease the chances of destruction by firearms.
This is an opportunity that I, for one, am unwilling to accept. Public school teachers, some of the most highly educated individuals in their respective disciplines, are not trained to be cops. If they’d wanted to be cops, most likely they would have pursued that field instead of becoming teachers.
According to CNN, there have been 18 school-related shootings in the few months of 2018. These include accidental discharge in the classroom by a teacher, and incidents between students that were unintentional, as well as deliberate destruction. Seventeen dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. One shooter, with combat grade weapons. According to CNN’s estimate, that’s an average of 1.4 shootings a week.
Back to the legislation. These legislators earnestly seek to protect the youth of our state, and every state, and know that teachers and administrators hold the safety and well-being of their students ever foremost in their minds. But arming teachers is a phenomenally bad idea. One accident, and at least two lives are ruined, not to mention the traumatization of everyone who witnesses it.
Teaching is my second career. I carried a gun for many years while on the job as a licensed private investigator, working criminal defense. I never knew that the career change I was considering would put me and many others in greater danger than working for alleged felons.
Changing careers is difficult, but there were compelling reasons for me to do so. I grew to feel that it would be unhealthy for me to continue to expose myself to the sordid and horrific details that make up the record of human interaction. Becoming a teacher held the potential to be more effective keeping people out of jail from the classroom than from, well, jail. Inadequate education was the one characteristic that almost all my clients shared, more common than gender. “About 41% of inmates in the Nation’s State and Federal prisons and local jails in 1997 and 31% of probationers had not completed high school or its equivalent. In comparison, 18% of the general population age 18 or older had not finished the 12th grade.”
Clearly there is a correlation between achieving an adequate education and avoiding incarceration. Further, the U.S. Department of Justice, in their Bureau of Justice Statistics, reports that “Between 1991 and 1997, the percent of inmates in State prison without a high school diploma or GED remained the same — 40% in 1997 and 41% in 1991. Of inmates in State prisons, 293,000 in 1991 and 420,600 in 1997 had entered prison without a high school diploma, a 44% increase” (Harlow).
Being a teacher in a large public high school, the demographics of which are eerily similar to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, I share their intense concern, and my students know that any intruder would have to get through me before getting to them. I’m smart and observant, and have more than a passing understanding of how to defend myself. Our school performs drills regularly in order for both teachers and students to know exactly what their duty is during several different types of emergency situations.
Also obvious is that it is impossible to anticipate every possible situation, and humans sometimes do horrible things to each other, many times for unknown reasons. Another tactic that is flawed is the strategy that has been practiced in most public schools in America for at least the last ten years: quickly locking the door, extinguishing the lights, and scrambling to hide behind desks in the corner. Every student who has spent as much as two months in any public school in the last ten years knows the details of the drill. We’re sitting ducks, and sitting ducks are easy to pick off.
But Districts are struggling with disgraceful funding shortages, (another issue altogether), so most alternatives are unattainable, such as giving radios to teachers, enabling them to make better, more informed decisions, knowing the location of the shooter or shooters. Radios are expensive. Since schools struggle to buy enough paper for teachers’ use, how can you begin to consider funding radios, much less guns?
I never had to use my gun on the job, but I practiced its use and maintained it well. My step-father taught me how to shoot, and I’ve always enjoyed target practice. I have annihilated hundreds of paper targets over the years. Great stress relief.
The level of security it afforded me as I traveled around the country by myself looking for and interviewing people involved in criminal cases was most welcome. Sometimes the people lived in labyrinthine apartment warrens of urban density, other times at the dead end of a deeply-rutted red-dirt road, aswarm with tick-laden hounds. The gun was a tool that insured I would have a better chance of protecting myself should I need to do so.
Many of my former clients, in their absolute ignorance, or unfortunate limited cognitive ability, used guns inappropriately, usually ruining at least two lives in the process. Reading about, seeing images of, and hearing from witnesses the results of gun violence in thousands of cases spanning 25 years makes me feel certain that arming teachers and administrators with such potentially dangerous weapons is not the solution to the problem, it will only compound it.
The thought of teachers or administrators carrying weapons in schools makes me nauseous. Guns aren’t like classroom technology, something you can take a certain number of hours of training on to become proficient in, then use it with little risk. Guns are tools, and have numerous valid purposes, but they aren’t like smart boards, they can and do kill people in the hands of other people. The professionals who have trained to carry and use guns in their work regularly spend countless hours on training in the use of their weapons. They practice regularly. They have spent years building the body awareness that goes along with the weight, both literal and figural, of wielding a deadly tool.
One solution that would at least limit the ability of any would-be shooter to kill large numbers of people in a short time span would be to limit access to military-style, high capacity semi-automatic weapons. I don’t propose banning all guns, because there are legitimate reasons to have access to certain types of firearms. Some of my students hunt to supplement their family’s diet, and they use their kill responsibly. Some folks have the need to carry or possess a weapon for self-defense or home-defense. In neither of these cases would a gun such as I described above be appropriate or even practical. If in public, a weapon is best safely holstered or stowed in an easily accessible handbag. For home protection, the distance you could potentially need to cover would probably be no more than ten feet. If you don’t feel comfortable with the difficulty of shooting a revolver accurately, then purchase a 9 mm firearm. Less recoil means easier accuracy. And you don’t need more than 6 rounds, even if there is more than one intruder. A military style weapon would be overkill. So let folks keep their self-defense or hunting firearms, but don’t allow military style weapons into the hands of civilians. It’s a ludicrous proposition that they have any need or use for that level of firepower. If we do not have them in our homes, or make them available to the public, fewer shooters will have access to them.
Compounding the difficulty of the issue is the fact that most young people don’t really understand the consequences in real-life terms of violent force. Those weapons can kill quite by accident. The multitude of ways things could go tragically wrong is impossible to predict. But I believe the likelihood of a tragic event due to a shooting in a school goes up exponentially once we legally introduce guns into schools. Beyond the cost in lost lives and livelihoods, there is the issue of liability. Who is going to bear that? Let’s please take a moment to consider the clearly unintended consequences of acting on this new measure aimed at protecting our young people and choose wisely.
Ahmed, Saeed and Walker, Christina. “2018 school shootings: A list of incidents that resulted in
Harlow, Caroline Wolf, Ph.D. “Educational and Correctional Populations.” Bureau of Justice
Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice. 2003 https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ecp.pdf
#childrennotguns #gunregulation #schoolshooting #armingteachers
I really enjoy writing to the prompt of the day, but today has been no normal day, not even close, so I’m going to write about suffering, its affect on humans, and how some people who act insufferably cause others to endure suffering.
For those two of you who haven’t moved on yet, let me start for saying thanks. Thanks for listening. Thanks for your time. I know how precious time is. My full-time job as a secondary English teacher requires that I have a second job. I got a Master’s degree in professional writing in order to get a job working at the absolute bottom of the heap at a University, teaching English Comp, also known as 1113,as a part-tune adjunct. This second job is far better than the first, but now I owe the Government more money in student loans.
So I’m trying to manage five different curricula simultaneously. I know others who have gone the route of trying to teach as an adjunct part-time at more than one institution, but they get no benefits. My high school teaching job affords benefits. Not much income, but I can go to the doc when I get sick. A former professor graciously offered up an hour of his precious time counseling me on what to do with my Master’s degree.
“Less than half the people who obtain PhDs in any branch of English, whether Lit Crit, Creative Writing, or Rhetoric and Comp, wind up in a tenured position at a University after the time and money they have spent proving their expertise.” Dan clearly felt great empathy for me. He has one of the few remaining tenured, subsidized seats in the English Lit Department at my University. He was the best teacher I had, in my undergraduate work (As was David Gross, cannot neglect his influence). Someday I’ll tell you about my best graduate professor, but that’s a happy story, and we’re suffering at the moment. He suggested that my best option would be to become a public school teacher, to gain certification (which I’ve had since 2009), and to work full-time at that. I felt a bit down in the mouth, to say the least.
This is too long, and I’ve barely begun. So back to the narrative. The balance I’ve been seeking, which really represents my ability to remember which class I’m teaching at any given time, was close at hand. I had worked very hard on two curricula over the summer, not to mention shopping around a novel. (Total brag, that.) I had all courses planned out throughout most of the semester. I started learning how to post material on two different new software platforms, and had accomplished some on one of them, then we were given a holiday.
We all know about holidays. I truly believe that there are people who have holidays that look like the Norman Rockwell paintings. Ours is closer to A Christmas Story than It’s a Wonderful Life. After gifts (most of which I had purchased with a wad of foreign bills my mother gave me when I flew to Singapore to buy Christmas), Mom cracked the Vodka open. I’d like to say champagne, but that was a rare bird in Sumatra at that time. Hard liquor had a markedly stronger market in Southeast Asia in the 70’s. By the time my Mom started feeling good, my Papa became angry and left. My little brother, ten years my junior, and I played with his Christmas toys. I knew he would love the Hot Wheels cars I’d picked out in Singapore, and the little race track I had managed to find.
I anxiously monitored my mother. There was food to finish preparing, and food already ready to consume. No holiday meal in my mother’s house was ever a simple affair. It was a major undertaking, detailed down to the hors d’oeuvre toothpicks (again, from Singapore), and the festive table arrangement of unusual forms of greenery. No holly or fir, wrong part of the world. Whatever was prettiest and green was around a candle she must have been hoarding for over a year, in place of privilege in the center of the dining room table.
The oil lamps had been lit, as it was a dark day, heavy with rain, and the electricity was on the fritz, as usual. Rustin and I were growing hungry, Papa had left over two hours ago, and Mom was passed out on the sofa in the living room, amid the wrack and ruin of Christmas morning. Fortunately, we had servants, as it was “simply impossible to live as an expat in Indonesia without servants!” And it was true. So, coaxing Rustin to play with his cars alone for a few minutes, I went in to talk to the servants and see what they knew. Mom had had them double-timing for this glorious event. Fortunately somewhere in there she had communicated her entire plan, and everything that needed cooking was underway.
They were kind to me. They didn’t understand our lives, but they knew I worried more about my mother and my brother than anyone worried about me. So together we finished up the meal that only my two year old brother and I would consume (the servants were also invited to partake of the bounty of the meal). I made us plates from the kitchen, and we ate at the dining room table out of habit, large gas chandelier suspended over the long table.I promised to go outside with him after the rains moved out. He seemed satisfied wth this compromise.
My father returned some time later, disheveled, smelling of alcohol and something else I couldn’t identify, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. He kissed me on the forehead, picked up my little brother, who had passed out after one tour through the garden, and carried him to bed. Mom had long since refilled her glass and then promptly passed out in the bedroom. (Yes, that sounds weird, but our house could only draw enough energy to run one window unit at night. No lights. So we all slept in the same bedroom).
I was reluctant to go to bed. I found one of the novels my cousin Glenda had sent to me over a month ago from the States. (I had seen the return address on the package before Mom hid it). I immersed myself in the story of a people who created a society on an alien planet. Marion Zimmer Bradley saved my life so many times. (Thank you, Glenda! <3)
I start with this strange preface of sorts to what I want to write about, both because I want you to understand that weird families are all I’ve known, and because I think I’ve begun to realize I cannot endure any more drama on this level.
Every dysfunctional family has an enabler. That’s me. I’ve been extensively trained in this role by both my mother and my first husband (yes, I see the connection).
Several years ago my current husband made known his guilt over not caring for his mother, and wished he could find a way to do so. He is an only child. I foolishly suggested that we could buy a larger house, and she and my daughter, who was about to start college, could live in for as much time as they needed. Both satisfied with the benefits for our beloved family members, we moved forward with selling out existing home, and locating another.
Not only was it far more expensive than anticipated, packing and moving remained to be done. It was left primarily to me and to a young man who had done occasional labor for me on other projects. And we closed on the house we were selling a week ahead of the house we were purchasing, so we had to store all our belongings and stay with friends until the new house was purchased. Then we (read “I”) moved all the stuff from the storage unit into the new house. Summer in Oklahoma is miserable, with hot winds blowing from the southwest, and a blistering sun that frequently brought the temperatures up to and above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought this might kill me, especially as classes at my school started in one week.
We’ve had rough patches, off and on for the last six years. One patch was so bad that my MIL moved back to the south, from whence she had come. But then she returned, because the people who were assholes when she left had remained so. The daughter tried college, then dropped out without telling me. Later she moved out, coming by to pick up things, and then fleeing as quickly as possible. Finally she told me she was living with her boyfriend. “Well,” I thought, “that’s life.”
Then she came home, and she was a hot mess. Some things had happened to her a few years earlier of which I was wholly unaware. The theory is that this trauma caused her latent mental illness to come front and center and make itself known. The first time I took her to the psych ward we went to this inner-city hospital and waited for ten hours for a bed to be found for her. She spent about ten days that time.
Every time I drove 45 minutes one way to visit, she clearly made me understand that everything she was doing she did to shorten her time in the facility. She was not using it to find her feet and get her meds straightened out.She had learned that if she was compliant, they would allow her to leave. The doctor there prescribed a drug for her that nearly killed her because of her intense allergy to it.
The second time (I think), she was in the orthopedic surgery wing of the hospital until they rebuilt her tibia and fibula. Her car broke, and the telephone pole broke, but it did not quite crash down on her car and kill her, so she succeeded in making what for her seemed a desperate situation (obviously) into an even worse situation. Once her wound had stabilized, they moved her to the only facility that would take someone in a wheelchair. Oh. My. God. It was a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest sanitorium-style facility. It was horrible. And her doctor refused to speak with me, even though she had not only given permission, but had requested that he do so. His soul is black, and he will eventually reap what he has sown.
Every time they change her medication, new demons pop up. It’s bloody unreal. We are all suffering because of her suffering. But I thought we had a plan to help her gain independence, and that everyone in the household was on board. I was mistaken. The MIL doesn’t believe in mental illness, and whispers in a judgmental tone, “she is just such a good actress!” I want to break things. Really.
And the last three weeks had been so wonderful, because no one had tried to provoke anyone into an inappropriate emotional response (you get to learn a new language with mental illness, too. It’s great!), and the one under scrutiny was managing to adjust to a job while maintaining her chores at home. She is like a small child. She cannot see logical consequences of her actions, and sometimes she totally flips her shit and lays into someone. It was the MIL most recently. The child was not in the wrong, but her actions were inappropriate. She grabbed the Wicked Witch’s wrists and accidentally cut her with her fingernail. She thought the woman had the remotes for the TV, which she had been denied, hidden in her car — Really.
The Witch hollered at her to call 911, so she did. She called 911 on herself.
Tell me, do you think someone would choose to live like this? Mental illness is real.
She just wanted to watch TV, and it was her turn. The Wicked Witch called her fat, lazy, a slut, and for the piece de resistance, stated that she stank. When I heard this I was frozen. My heart iced over immediately and refused to converse with the mind. The mind wasn’t sure what to do, but we do have some good friends who have suffered vastly more than we, who care for my daughter. The friend told us to take her to the hospital. It was better than jail, for someone who is mentally ill, and perhaps the MIL might not press charges.
Okay. I cannot live this way. I get along with my husband quite well, and for the brief period when both MIL and the daughter were gone, we had a wonderful interlude. We’ve never had time alone. We’ve always been giving care to someone.
I am personally exhausted. My father left us when I was fourteen. I lost my mother when I was about 45. (She’s not dead, merely estranged, with occasional bursts of communication). I’m about to lose my daughter, as well.
Life is nothing if not challenging, and our loss of over $1500.00 a month income has had a profoundly negative affect on our lives and ability to function, as well. It’s all on me, nobody else will deal with the money. I am tired. I want to stop being in charge. I want to walk to South Padre island. No, I’ll crawl there on my knees, as if to a great shrine. I’ll gain employment as a teacher in nearby San Isabel, and I’ll live on the beach. And my heart will heal, and my soul will be soothed by the balm of the ocean. I fear I will be alone. What man wouldn’t choose his mother over his wife? Especially when the wife comes with baggage in the form of a girl child, almost 24, and an ex-husband who should probably be in prison.
The house needs some TLC. I have to dust the walls. Gather up the small nick-knacks that have sentimental value, and pack them away.Leaves less to dust, some of moving prep done. Don’t know where we’re going. We might want to take an apartment for a while to decide what we want. And will I be a “we?” I don’t know. He has only wavered a few times, when Sarah was clearly just being a brat, being lazy, but she has stepped it up and that bitch better never talk to my daughter that way, or there may be some spitting and cussing a’coming.
I can’t fix her, but nobody is trying harder than she is. She was just fired over a stupid incident. It could have been contested, but she just said, “Mom, let it go. If they will fire somebody over so little, I don’t want to work there,” So I kept my mouth shut, but I’m not done with that issue.
She works really well with little kids. She lights up around them, and they love her. I hope she can find her niche in life. I’ve looked so long for mine, through so many rich experiences, and maybe I’ve found the beginning of the next layer of life experience.
I sat this morning and sobbed. I felt pressure in my chest at the screams that wanted to be let out but which I refused to allow escape. I hiccoughed a couple of time, with sobs. Tears washed my face. I cannot fix my daughter. I cannot take on her suffering in exchange for a better life for her. I would that I could.
But I can’t take on the constant drama thing. It’s disruptive to my productivity. I have to be productive. I have things to do, yet, what with the bees and the monarchs and all the sea life being endangered by man’s actions. We have not been good stewards of “this earth, our island home.” And those aren’t the only things that I worry about.
After seeing my daughter safely ensconced in a facility designed to treat people with her particular illness, I came home to a sad house. Stella, my daughter’s dog, was missing everyone very much. Husband had left for work, daughter is in hospital. Wicked Witch is locking herself in her room every night, because she’s afraid of us.
I have promised to not physically threaten her. (She’s 78, for God’s sake!) But my words are regularly sharpened and oiled and there are so many that will flood over her, like starlings picking seed from the newly mown field, that she will be so confused that she will not know how to respond. She will go with bitchy, and I’ll respond in kind.
Those concrete abutments look more and more tempting as time goes by.
The lock was easy to open with a credit card. She let herself in, and eased the door closed behind her. The girl stood still, calming her breath and listening for noises in the house. It felt empty. It’s external appearance had been one of slight neglect, a hint of peel to the paint in places.
The kitchen was on her left, and held nothing but saltine crackers and canned tuna. “Thanks, Grandma.” She started rummaging through the drawers for a can opener, and finally raised up with one in her hand only to see a person standing across the kitchen, watching her.
“Who are you?” the young woman asked.
“I think I should ask you that. This is my grandmother’s house, and you’re not my grandmother.” She put her hands on her hips and raised her left eyebrow.
“I’m so sorry,” the girl stammered, “I didn’t know you were coming.” She shifted her weight from one leg to the other every few minutes. “Your grandmother, they just took her to the hospital, she had a heart attack, they thought.” She kept rubbing her hands together, as though they sought activity, and would have to make do with each other until the woman decided what she was supposed to do.
“I’m just the home health aide. I come three times a week, and this time I had to let myself in.” She shook her head. “She had fallen in the hall, and her head had apparently struck one of the bronzes she has there.” She hesitated, then said, “Well, I’ll be on my way.” She gathered her supplies and her purse and scurried out as quickly as possible.
Maura didn’t know what to do. She should call her parents, but it had been three months since she left home. She’d been rotating couches, including Grandma’s. She wasn’t going back to that, she couldn’t.
She hopped up on the counter and ate the tuna out of the can with a fork. The saltines helped cut the incredibly fishy taste of processed, canned tuna, but Grandma couldn’t afford the albacore in water or olive oil. She got the store brand, cheapest available. But she always tried to help Maura. She offered for Maura to move in with her, but Maura gets queasy when she thinks of living anywhere her parents could find her.
As she hopped down from the counter, she heard the door open very slowly, oh so very slowly, and she knelt behind the bar in the kitchen, invisible to the person coming in. Her heart was beating so fast that she was afraid whoever it was could hear it. She concentrated on relaxing by controlling her breathing.
“You might as well stand up, Maura, I know you’re here,” said a voice rough from smoking and whiskey. She wasn’t sure how the whiskey could hurt a man’s throat. She wondered why they were so frequently paired in conversation, as well as in real life. “Move slowly, child, so we don’t have to treat you like a psycho, okay?” The acid voice of her step-mother cut through the acrid smell of greasy tuna.
Maura stood, lifted her arms, and pointed a gun directly at her step-mother.
“You will not treat me like anything. You will allow me to walk out of this house and never see you again.” Her voice grew stronger the more she spoke, supporting her resolve. “Neither of you will ever be able to touch me again. Nobody will ever touch me again, if I can help it.” She vehemently spat the words out.
“Maura, you don’t have the guts to shoot me. Stop acting the fool, girl, and get your ass out to the car!”
Maura slowly sighted, took a deep breath, let it halfway out, and…
Wait until the darkness comes, the bones are going to shake. Don’t wait in here, they come alive, your soul they want to take. The bone chapel stores the bones, of those from long gone …
My friend has been dying for several months, that we know of. We don’t know how long she has known, how long she put off going to the doctor. But she’s gone and done it, she died this morning at 3:30 a.m. Damn it! I wanted more time!
This woman, oh my goodness, this woman was amazing. She was funny, and brilliant, and generous. Kind. Helpful. Did I mention funny? Woman could make me laugh until my sides ached, and tears ran down the sides of my face. And SHE said she was pleased to be MY friend! Crazy woman! I was the lucky one, she was willing to be my friend.
At the moment I cannot tell if I’m in the eye of the storm, or if it is just coming on. Perhaps it is moving out. All I know is I have endured so much pain and stress in the last 18 months that while I feel her loss like a physical hole in the middle of my body, it just seems like a continuation of the ongoing suffering. I was hoping the storm was passing. I’m not sure it ever will.
The cyclone of guilt twisting my gut over all the evenings that I told her I couldn’t meet her at Barnes & Noble to talk about books and life because I had grading, or I had writing, a deadline approaching. That’s time I could have cherished in memory. The memory I have isn’t worth recalling, of grading 150 papers over Fahrenheit 451, or having to meet a writing deadline, because those really are DEADlines. But not dead like my friend is dead.
The thing is, I love storms. The smell of the earth receiving the rain, the sizzle of the lightning, and the way the hairs on my arms stand away from my skin. They make me feel alive.
Metaphorical storms I can live without. I promise. There’s a passel of new stuff coming over the horizon and moving closer every minute. Some of these things I asked for, others I was forced to take. How long can it last? Will the new things improve my life, as I hope, or will they merely weigh me further down?
I don’t know any of the answers, all I have are questions. As Nick Cave says, “…and we call upon the Author to explain.”
Witnessing that which was once unbreakable breaking into pieces. Disintegrating like dust scattered into the universe to haphazardly blow soft warnings within the paths of those who have no inklin…
When you go onto private property unexpectedly, you’d best do so with some caution. There are all manner of things you may encounter. Once I spoke with a convicted murderer who had been released from the hospital where he had been treated for mental illness; he was living in an abandoned house with the roof open to the sky. Haste isn’t your boon companion; better you employ careful observation.
There were no dogs visible, no dog food bowls, doghouses, or lengths of chain attached to stakes; probably no dogs outside. The house was set back into the property at least a quarter of a mile. I drove down two dirt tracks with dried Johnson grass and earliest wildflowers growing up around them. Four old Chevy trucks sat on the south side of the entrance, in varied states of decay, and there was a pile of old tires under some pine trees on the other side of the drive. I inched past a hill of rotting cardboard boxes that later I’d find were filled with canning jars, summer’s dead weeds growing up and over and through.
A complaint has to be filed before The City can go onto private property to investigate, and it helps if you can see a violation from the street. Had there been a gate, I might have just documented what I could see from my jeep with binoculars and called it good. But there was no gate, and the property looked like a veritable hoarder’s paradise, with a cornucopia of health and safety violations. Such a collection of violations that I would work the property for several months, really sink my teeth in and get the property cleaned up.
I’d verified the broken down trucks, dripping their internal fluids onto the ground, inexorably polluting the ground water. The piles of stuff were almost too many to count: old lumber that had been salvaged for some long-forgotten purpose, steadily degrading and returning to the earth; about fifteen washing machines, all lined up neatly in two rows; a collection of rusting bicycle frames, tossed heedlessly in a pile.
The house was almost at the western edge of the property. The jeep slowly rolled to a stop near the house, at the end of the drive. As I carefully stepped out I touched my baton and slipped my ID case out of my back pocket; what had begun as a routine preparedness check had become ritual. My boots crunched on pine needles and dried oak leaves. The late winter air was cold enough to leech any trace of scent. “Hello?” I called. Birds were singing, and for a change, the wind was gently whispering through the hackberries, pines, and pecans. “Code Enforcement!” No response. No sound from the house, or the nearby ramshackle shed.
There were relatively new, wooden steps up to the front porch. On the door there was a “stop work” sticker, put there by someone else from The City, in building inspection. I knocked on the door, waited, and knocked more insistently. Still no sound of human habitation. I tried the knob, and the door opened easily. The house was only partially finished, with a foundation and floor, exterior walls and roof, but only bare wooden 2 x 4s where wallboard would be hung. There was a rough wooden work bench in one of the larger rooms, with crude construction plans on it.
Back outside I set about cataloguing the numerous health violations, taking pictures of some of the most outrageous mounds of things to prove my stories when I got back to the office. When I returned to the city proper, I’d run the property ownership records so I would know to whom I should address the collection of violation notifications.
All the certified as well as regular mail letters that I sent came back; the property owner’s address was listed as a P.O. box, long vacated by these elusive people. I covered the front of the property with bright signs detailing the violations that the City would abate, one way or another, if the owner didn’t. Still no response.
The next step was to re-inspect the property. It had been three months since I had first hesitantly set foot on the property, spring was eagerly invading winter, and fresh green growth had joined the remaining decay of the last growing season. The signs had been removed from the front of the property; I felt a flutter of hope as well as the slight foreboding I always felt when going onto another person’s property. Again the jeep and I inched slowly in, only this time there was what appeared to be an operational car up by the house.
As I pulled up next to the car, a woman stepped out of the house. She walked over and introduced herself to me, and shook my hand. Her story was one of shocking sorrow. She had lived on the property with her husband in an old single-wide trailer house while working to save money to build a house; they had been saving for 15 years. They had begun working on it when the trailer caught fire and burned to the ground, fatally injuring her husband. They had no insurance.
She had been living with family in Midwest City, trying to put her life back together.
Her brown eyes in a plain, round face were so kind. Her hands reached out for mine, and she smiled warmly at me. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want you to think bad about my husband. He was a good man.” She shook her head, ruefully. “He had started tryin’ to clean up the property before the fire, but it was hard on him, workin’ and tryin’ to build the house, so it wasn’t goin’ so good.” Then he had died in the fire when a worn electric blanket shorted out and set his bedding aflame. She had been asleep in the recliner in the living room, “because he snored like a chainsaw.” She had been unable to go into the rear of the trailer once the fire woke her.
“I couldn’t bear to come back for awhile. We didn’t have no insurance. I went to stay with my sister in Shawnee until I could get myself together,” she explained somberly. Her face clouded momentarily as the memory possessed her, but she visibly collected herself and continued her tale.
She had decided to finish her house. Her brother-in-law was taking over, and had an appointment with building inspectors to determine what exactly needed doing to continue construction. Some friends from her church were going to come out and help her clear away the flotsam and jetsam of her husband’s life. She was happy, she said, that the City was making her deal with the mess. The woman told me she felt God had sent me.
There were lots of things I felt at that moment, but godly wasn’t one of them. I had been relishing towing the vehicles away, having the junk scraped off the soil, and filing charges because of the state of the house. Usually I felt a genuine desire for folks to just clean up their mess, but experience had taught me that many would not, and would leave it for the City. Over time my heart had hardened towards my “clients;” defendants, rather. I had been spit on and threatened enough times that the collective vitriol had scoured away their faces and names, removed their humanity.
I had identified my “others,” those I could safely disdain, holding myself to be better than they in some way. This was an idea that had been creeping most obtrusively into my conscious mind for a couple of years, the concept that I wasn’t truly acting in a charitable, Christian manner. Instead, I openly joked about their disgusting habits, and participated in that most hateful of group activities, ridiculing others.
My eyes stung bitterly. My chest hurt from holding in the anguish. This woman, whom I had openly disdained, had thanked me for helping her. She sent me a little floral notecard when she had finished cleaning up the property, so I could come out and close the file with my last re-inspection. She hugged me. I cried.
I came to believe that I needed to return to working for those who struggle with life, instead of against them. This epiphany changed me permanently. It made leaving the job easy, even preferable. My investigative work had burgeoned again, as it is wont to do. During a flush cycle, I left the City and went back to work doing criminal defense. That work was not easier, but at least I believed in the charge to do the best you can for your client, regardless who they are or what they are accused of having done.
The woman had broken my heart; the hard outer surface cracked and fell away. The exposed tender flesh ached for some time, but at least I could feel it beating, I could feel again.