Sometimes we are just broken

“What are you going to do about it?” The man is really shouting now. He points at three of us sitting quietly across the room. “They keep on shooting and dying.” I am not looking at him but looking slightly down and simply nodding my head. I want to stand up and just yell. I want to scream at the top of my lungs until there is no air left to create sound. “What do you think I have been doing asshole?,” I want to yell. I spend every day trying to figure out what more I can do, how else I can have an impact. I already work eighty hour weeks and leave before the sun comes up and struggle back in the door long after it has retreated for the night. I have given you and this community what is left of my crumbling soul, I have nothing else that I can give.

 

There are gym windows above his head. I stare out at them, wishing I could escape his wrath. He is a parent and I know the son that he lost. He has every right to be mad, there are two more innocent lives that he must shelter from the storm. He needs help. I know that he needs help, but so do I. We need each other, we all need each other but no one here gets that. Today is about blame and responsibility.

 

These meetings are a waste of effort and I grow tired of them. Some politician will come in and remind everyone about how much they have done to help the crime and violence problem. They look to us to support their claims, although we each know that their “efforts” are just talk and the end result is absolutely nothing. The impact is none at all, their effort cannot do much. A fly cannot possibly move an elephant yet these fly’s want to take credit for trying.

 
The uniformed chief next to me speaks first. He explains that we use data to help deploy resources to areas that need then, that officers walk the streets now instead of driving up and down with windows closed and eyes hidden behind dark glasses. He says that we talk to people now.

 

All of those things are true, yet it hasn’t changed. We do walk around now and talk to people but they don’t talk to us. They don’t trust us and they don’t trust each other. Here if you are heard saying the wrong thing to us and your name will be shared quickly with those who do not like that you chat with us.

 
A community opens its door to everyone. When I was a kid, the back door was never locked. The mothers, all of the mothers, would sit and listen to the yard to hear what kids were doing and to seek retribution when they heard one of us wrong another. More than once I was corrected by another mom or dad on the block for my violation of our neighborhood rules for the way we treat each other. They would not do that now. They could not do that now, it would be disrespectful toward the kid. The kid who decides what respect means and uses his 9 to communicate the decision.

 

I look back at their faces and see the fear. It looks like anger and hatred, but that is exactly what fear looks like. Fear and anger are the same. I cannot get angry at something that holds no sway over me, that I am not afraid of. But if I fear you, then you have power over me and that makes me angry. They have no control and they are angry.

 

So am I. I am angry every time I look at the lifeless eyes staring back at me from a child whose bright future came to a dark end on a cold filthy street for no reason. I am angry because that same street is empty of life, no witnesses, no empathy for the family or guilt for the failure to stop it. They will come here and be brave and bold in accusation but out there, they cower and hide. They avert their eyes but I cannot.

 

They leave shaking their heads and muttering about how useless we are. That is the first thing that they would say today that I agree with. That is what I feel. This is why so many days I have to close my door and hide so that I can just break down. The tears will come for maybe a half an hour then just stop. I have no idea when they will come again. I don’t know what images trigger them, but I do know why. It is because I am helpless. I am a tool for a broken system. I am a broom left to clean up whatever mess is created. But even a broom needs a hand to help it. There is no magic here. The broom will sit quietly in the corner until someone, anyone, steps up to use it.

 

I am tired of feeling this way. I am tired of not sleeping and feeling the guilt of a hundred innocent lives and countless more who have yet to suffer but I know will. I am tired and weary when I leave. My shoulders sag and I feel as if I can do nothing but stagger under the imaginary weight of all of them.

 

broken windows
These are the days that I don’t just have thoughts when looking outside this dirty and disgusting broken window. These are the days when I just wish that I could jump and not feel it any more. I am too afraid to jump. I am afraid and I am angry. I cannot look out the window anymore, I just close my eyes and wait for the pain to stop.

When love speaks louder than hate

I love the view today. I can hear the shouts and yelling but I smile when I do, for it is not the type of shrill shouting or vile words being yelled that normally beckon for my presence. I watch as what must nearly be a hundred kids jump, swim, scream and splash in the community pool in our city.

The streets are hot in the summer and it is a delicate time for me. No kids in school so I spend most of my time preparing for their return and praying. Time can be a friend or foe to our streets. Like anything else, time can be used by these kids for good or for evil.

During my days when the hallways of schools are swarming with them, I can be content that I am here to help them, to protect them and keep the wolves outside of the door in the hopes that those within the walls would be free to discover so much more than what they have been presented with. That within these walls they would become more than what they thought they could be, and what once seemed impossible would seem within their grasp.

When the halls are empty, I cannot protect them and help them avoid the wrong choice. So many fall so quickly back into the rhythm of the street, the ease of finding money and respect by just doing what they have watched so many others do.

For years I have watched motivational experts on television and the internet talk about becoming successful by modeling successful people. Do we not see that these young minds are following that advice? The filthy death merchant on the corner looks successful, he drives a nice car and never appears to want for anything. They are modeling. I cannot stop them but wish the clock to tick faster and get through these days so that I can try again. I maintain my sanity because I can try.

Not today. I smile today because they are not thinking about respect or street credibility or whatever else they call it today. The color of a bathing suit does not represent an allegiance or loyalty, it represents childhood and happiness. I cannot help but smile and watch as they play. I let my guard down and my fears begin to slide away, just for the moment.

pool

I almost didn’t hear the footsteps next to me but turned my head and tore the smile from my face as I felt the approach next to my window. I instinctively reach for my hip, for the reassurance that is always there. But I am greeted by a smile. I relax and smile back. He hasn’t changed much. TJ looks like he did two years ago when he walked out of our school and out of my life.

TJ was high when we first met. He had joined up with others and left the protection of my halls to go into the woods and experiment as young people occasionally do. He had never been in trouble and I hadn’t even known his name. He didn’t have anything “on him” I had told the school, so I would not place him into my custody, but I would take him into my care.

We got to know each other and I had hope for him. We had lunch together in school occasionally and I felt as if he were staying out of trouble. One day when I saw him in the hall, he averted his eyes and tried to hide the marks on his arm that I had already seen. It was artwork to some, a way to use ink to display your sense of self. I knew better, and he knew that I knew. I had seen this art too many times. I had lost TJ. He had joined a gang.

He tried to explain and I told him that I understood. I do. I do not live on his street where survival comes in different colors. I just had hoped that he would find a way out. I heard he had picked back up with his friends and that again he was getting high. I eyed him suspiciously behind my sunglasses.

I hate myself. I hate what this job and this city has done to me. I no longer look at people and assume that they are better than they were or that they had turned their life around. No, like so many other guardians, I assume that once you have joined the forces of darkness, it is too hard to find your way back through that darkened curtain.

I ask him what he is doing. “Working,” he said smiling and pointing his still gaunt finger toward the pool that I have been allowing myself to enjoy and to hide away from my real world. “I lifeguard now.” I notice that the art is covered up by a light brown bandage, big enough to hide it from prying eyes. He sees me look, “they don’t like to see it so I hide it.”

You still hang with your crew? He smiles. I know smiles. I know when someone smiles because they are about to lie to me and want me to believe that they are smiling because their pulse didn’t just increase as they prepared to lie. I am a bit surprised because that was not this smile. “That’s not me.”

“My moms is sick and I need the work for the family,” he tells me as the smile slides away and he looks down at the ground. An adult would be proud to say that they work to support their family but he is a child, he knows that he is doing something that so many others are not capable of doing.

I am proud of him and let him know. The smile returns. It is again my turn to be shocked. “Next month I leave for boot camp and going into the Army,” he says with a true sense of pride. I do not even try to hide my surprise and my pride. I had nothing to do with his change or his desire to change, but am proud that I know it.

We part ways and he trots off to work and I roll the window up and begin to pull away. Someone once told me early on that there were too few victories on the path that we have chosen. Too not get invested or take them personally. I didn’t model that behavior. I am always part of them as they are a part of me. It hurts when I lose them. It hurts when I cannot protect them.

But that is the cost of caring that I have willingly paid so that I can experience these moments. These quick glimpses of so many that do make it out and do move on to change the world. They are few and far between, but I take them and store them behind the shield, closer to my heart. He made it and for that moment, all is right with my world. When I pull away, I pray that this moment will last forever, or even just longer that it has before. Only the hands of time and fate can tell. For now, I can again smile at the view.

When innocent blood spills

My view is of the wipers across the curved windshield as the rain pounds across the glass and each drop sounds like a bullet shot on my thin tin car roof. The sounds distract me as I begin seeing the flashing lights up ahead. As I get closer, I slowly prepare for what is next. Then I look over and I see him. I wish that I didnt, that I could close the door and drive away.
He was only six years old. The paramedics are working on him on the ground, his mother is being looked at by another ambulance person. I am trying to focus on my job, looking at the faces in the crowd to find the one, the one who did this terrible thing. Is he here? Is he looking at his handiwork as they try to save the child’s life?

I try to wrap my head around the scene that unfolded before me. I arrived to see them doing CPR, I had seen it so very many times before. These people are amazing warriors, they don’t take death lightly and fight it as if the enemy were there standing over them trying to steal away this precious young life. When it is a child we are all there to fight, it is even more important.

The window of the white SUV is shattered with the speckled shards of broken glass all over the inside of the car. This is what we call a clue. The window to the driver was closed. So many times we see the window open and begin to ask, was there more to this than meets the eye? Was this some poor drug addicted mother, with her vulnerable child sitting in the back seat, helpless to help Mommy fight her addiction as she purchased her sins on the corner?

No, she cares and she was driving home. Macaroni and cheese, she said. That’s what the conversation was in the car, he wanted macaroni and cheese she begins to wail again as she watched. They are taking the stretcher now and putting it into the blinding light of the ambulance. The siren will soon start to wail as they rush to the trauma center, life hanging on every tick of the clock.

The bullets struck him in the head. One moment sharing what joy a mother and son share when talking about a family dinner with mother, father, son and older brother. Then in a flash, their life changes forever. Not because they wished it upon themselves, only because on this night, in this town, they pulled down the wrong street and drove in between a violent representative of the devil and his intended victim. The child did nothing wrong but get in the way of a bullet intended to end yet another life.

I look at them and wonder if any will talk to us. So many times they tell us that they are afraid, but when do we draw the line and push fear away to fight? When will they fight for their own freedom? This innocent child is the victim of this war, what will they say?

 The next morning I was surprised and elated. Three people had come forward in        the night. They were afraid but said they needed to give this fallen angel justice. We   will find him, we must find and bring him to justice and off of our streets. We will win this battle, but will they help us fight the war?

 I am hopeful on this rainy day looking out on my city. Hope emerged in the  darkness and I pray that others can learn and follow on their path of bravery. Behind the clouds I can see the sun and I cannot wait. My view is one of renewed hope in those on the other side of my window.

The search for truth and meaning

Today’s view begins behind drawn curtains but will end with a view of endless wonder. I was reading this morning, as is my habit to try to expand my knowledge beyond that of a simple guardian, and was struck by how difficult it was to answer two very easy yet terrifying questions.

The first question I have asked myself perhaps a thousand times but the wording was such that I had to choke back and realized that I knew not what the answer truly was. I have asked myself “what would I try to teach my children if I knew I had only minutes to live?” I have confidently answered this question many times in my mind as I prepared myself for the challenges of fatherhood. Honor, I say to myself, and ideals are the values that I wish to impart. Something cliché such as to leave the world better for your having been upon it.

But alas that was not the question which stopped me before I took the time to look out of the window. The question asked of me was, “If I knew I had only thirty seconds to live, what three things would I teach my children about how to live a happy and fulfilled life?”

My pulse quickened even as I re-read the dastardly note. A Happy life? Why I don’t know what I would say! I turn from my window to glance upon a mirror on the wall. Have I lived a happy life? I query my own image. Can I even define happiness? Were I to pass today, this very moment, I would not be able to impart guidance of any value to them for I am not sure that I have completely lived a “happy” life. I have enjoyed friends and celebrations, have experienced true romance and passion. I have “felt” happy, but cannot say for certain that I have lived a “happy” life.

I smile almost daily, surely that’s it, that is the sign of my happy life right? We cannot really smile if we are not happy. So that must be it, I would tell them to make up their mind to just “be” happy. I can see my son looking right through me as he asks the question that many a young person has asked, “how?” I don’t know. That is all that I could say. Make a decision to be happy, but its not that simple is it? What kind of father could I be if I do not know how to teach my kids to be happy?

Before I could even begin to recover from this trauma to my fragile ego and psyche, the next question finished the job of melting away any semblance of belief in my own mastery of my life.

“If I could achieve one single thing in my life,” the written words taunt,” what would make all of my hard work worth the struggle?” Once again, I beseech the mirror; please tell me that you know, for I haven’t the foggiest! The truth is painful; I cannot answer the second question even an inch better than the first.

I try to think past material wealth and the well-being of my offspring, but is that all that we live for? Is our life’s mission to revolve solely around our children and take us past our own desires? I had desires once. I knew what I thought that I wanted. I have achieved so much yet cannot point to a single thing to say that one thing is worth all of the work and effort and blood and tears. Surely it must be my children, but why doesn’t my heart leap at that answer?

The answer to both is simple. The answer to both questions is that I do not know, but my journey is set to help me find out. We go through our daily lives looking and seeing but not searching. The meaning, the one thing which brings everyone happiness, the one moment that shows the victor that tha view of the night skye spoils of his victory are out there if only we knew we were searching for them.

Today I will look out my window with a desperate desire to know myself and know my destiny better than before. I can no longer just look outside of my window but search within and without until I find that which is out there awaiting my embrace. Out there I will find the answer to who I am and how can I know that I have accomplished that which our Creator sent me here to do? I turn the corner of the little book; I rest it on my shelf knowing that someday I will again take it up, once I know the answer. Until then, the search continues…

When fear shatters our view

As I am gazing out of the picture window on this brisk and starry night, I am thinking about fear. Fear that is so biting that it keeps some hidden behind their closed windows. Ny is hiding behind those windows in another city tonight, being sheltered in a relative’s home far from his normal life, out of fear. He hasn’t slept a peaceful night’s sleep in a month and I know that it may be many more before his fear subsides and he can again sleep the rest of the weary yet safe.

shattered window
I have known him for several years. He was a good kid, made the same mistakes that so many of these young men do, fall for the deception that is a gang’s lifestyle. Desperation for a sense of belonging, something to fill the void left from broken homes and shattered dreams of a family life far removed from his reality.

He was always willing to do what others would not, just to get noticed, to get recognized and feel accomplished. This did not happen at the dinner table at home nor at the student desks in school. But being bold and sometimes reckless are attributes rewarded in the wasteland of a crime ridden and desperate city. He would get caught and spend time away from the streets. Each time he returned, we tried to help him start anew. Each time he told us he had changed and would not follow the path of destruction that he followed before.

But each time the grip of the lifestyle would reach back for him. Almost like a drug addict in desperate need for the next fix, knowing that they shouldn’t, but needing that relief. He was addicted to the lifestyle of a street gangster. Ny was no more, replaced by a low level thug doing what he had to do to get attention and gratification. Seeking those rewards often comes with a cost. He was now discovering that cost.

For every gang identity there are other gangs whose identity is based on conflict. They declare ownership of their streets and seek to defend their own abnormal and often twisted sense of respect. With conflict comes blood. On our streets today, fists no longer suffice to end the battle. These are now gunfighters and the sound of gunfire echoes through our streets daily. They feel power when they are the ones holding the gun. They are also coming to know fear when they are on the wrong end of the gunfight. Ny is learning that lesson.

Last week three people jumped him as he walked to his school bus after school. They attempted to beat him, to hurt him and in the same way that animals in the wilderness show their superiority by vanquishing their enemies until their enemy will pose a threat no longer. Adults interfered. Their attack was thwarted. But there he felt the first real twinges of fear.

When I saw him next it was with his grandmother by his side in a hospital not twenty-four hours after the first beating. The shades in his hospital room were drawn tight and even then he looked suspiciously between the window and the door. The bandages wrapped around his head hid the stitches where the bullet grazed his temple. Another inch, the doctor had told him, and he would have expired. Ny understood what that meant. That meant fear.

He looked up at me with the same fear. I knew that he would not tell me who had done this to him. He knew, he was walking toward them when they did it in broad daylight. But if he told me, if I went out and attempted to serve justice, the real justice that is done in the sterile environment of a courtroom, the street would seek its vengeance upon him. It will be worse he said. I knew that is what he would say. Snitches get stitches isn’t a catchy play on words in his world, it is a code.

His grandmother cries. She cannot help him and has other babies in her home. She too is afraid, for his life, for her life, for the lives of the others trusted to her care. She is the foundation of this small family. She also knows that for the sake of the rest, she must let this one go. He will go to another city. She packs a bag and the relative meets us the next day at the hospital.

Like a person in the witness protection program, every noise as he walks from the open doors of the hospital to the waiting car startles him a little. His eyes are weary, sleeplessness and helplessness twist together to cloak him in a dark fabric of despair. I tell him to look out for himself and to call if he needs anything. I tell him to get some sleep in the car ride, knowing that he will not. Knowing that it may take months or even years for him to sleep without waiting for the crack in the silence that comes with violence.

The car pulled away and I went home to ponder another victim to those streets where I grew up. How had I survived yet so many of them cannot find a way out of the decay? I had hope and with hope comes the courage to fight for that escape. Without it they simply exist, waiting to be swallowed up by the demons that consume them and their community. Ny doesn’t have to wait any longer. The demons have won. He will sleep in their grasp now, simply waiting for the darkness to come.

I look at the sky one last time and say a quiet wish for him. I pray that he will find renewal and peace. He is out there tonight, under these same stars but he will not take the time to see them. They hold nothing for him now, his only concern is for what lies below. I still hold a fleeting hope that he will not become a statistic. I must believe that or the journey would not be worth the fight for me. Once again, I go inside, kiss my wife and draw the blinds. Tomorrow is yet another day to seek renewal and a better view from inside my sometimes shattered windows.

When a knight falls

My view today out of my window is clouded due to the tears. The sting keeps me blinking and trying to keep them open to try to gaze through the glass in the hopes that it was a dream. In my mind, I can still see the flag-draped body and still feel the pain in my chest as I held my salute. I try not to think and to use my real eyes to see but my mind has taken over, and the images come like raindrops from the sky, just drowning my thoughts and pushing me deeper into the feeling of despair.

Yesterday he came to work and thought it would be a good day. It wasn’t raining but wasn’t too hot. It was quiet. He was doing his job. His wife was going about her day as was his five-year-old angel of a daughter. He was out doing what he did best; he was being a guardian.

But a clock never stops and each second includes the possibility of a change in your future. Yesterday afternoon his clock stopped. Not because our God called him home from an illness. Not because he was going to pass after a long and enjoyable life surrounded by loving family and friends. It was stopped by a person who was purely evil. It was stopped by someone who represents everything that we fight against. A madman killed him for doing his job.
end of the watch

I still see his smiling face and recall numerous conversations about his feelings for this world and his hopes for his future as one of the modern knights. He had been here for only eight years. So bright of a future for someone who cared and who loved donning his shield and protecting those who could not protect themselves.

After an entire night of watching and waiting for the cold-blooded, brutal piece of vermin to surrender, after continuing to try to kill more of those brave souls, it finally ended this morning. He stepped out in one last attempt to do harm to those guardians who had come to avenge our friend, colleague, and brother. Our brother was avenged in a split second by the dedicated, steady hand of snipers whose job was to protect the rest and stop the madman before he could take another human life.

I want to feel better that it ended this way. That our friend could look down and feel satisfied knowing that it was his handcuffs on the vermin before it died. However, I know that that image may bring some feeling of revenge and symbolic justice to us, it would mean nothing to him. His gaze from above would be directed far from us and to his family. His wife who now tries to explain to her precious angel why her father would not read her a story tonight or ever again.

Her father would not be there to take her to college or to walk her down the aisle. Her mother would not get the chance to live out the rest of her blessed life with the man who she chose to be her beloved for the rest of their lives. Who had laid next to her in bed and shared his dreams of their future. That side of the bed is empty now, and in just one day we watched his flag-covered body leave her life forever. Never to touch and hold her again.

I held my wife’s hand last night and told her that I loved her. After putting the black stripe across my badge, I kissed her goodbye today and held her a little tighter and for a moment longer. It had more meaning today, as it does every time this happens. The reminder that today may be the day. She will try not to worry, and I will try not to think about it. I will try to continue to serve a society that does not always wish to be protected. That’s would he would have done had I fallen yesterday.

I give up on stopping the tears from coming. They need to come and to wash away those memories. My clock still ticks, and I still have a job to do. But each tick has more meaning. Each movement of the hands has more urgency today than it did yesterday.

Thank you for what you have done for us all Steve. Rest in peace and know that we have the watch for you know Trooper.

A child cloaked in anger

You can see the anger in his face. His brow is furrowed and arched in a way that makes his eyes narrow and seem very frightening. When he opens his mouth to scream, words don’t escape from his open lips, but they emit a sort of guttural groaning sound. It is loud, and it disturbs me. I want to help him to calm down, but he will not listen to me. The walls are up, and it will take a lot to bring them back down again.

I look into his eyes again and see the hatred and anger. I have seen this expression before, but rarely could those looks cut through me and expose me to the core. I open my mouth to speak and, like him, words simply do not come out. I close my mouth and contemplate what I can do next to reach him.

He is seven, and he should not feel this way. The pictures that he draws are frightening, and the stories that he tells can scare anyone. They are afraid of him. I am afraid FOR him. Something happened to create the monster before me. He wasn’t born believing these things. He wasn’t born with the need to see how people react in terror to the things that he says or the actions that he takes. This game that he plays, his desire to find your core fear and to expose it just does not seem normal.

I pause for that thought. Again, someone said to me that he is not normal. It begs the question; please tell me what “normal” looks like? As a society, help me to figure this one out! Is it normal to watch televisions shows that depict the worst parts of the human condition? But those are the highest rated shows. Is it normal to feel such a strong sense of religious belief that you are willing to strap on an explosive garment and blow yourself up along with hundreds of strangers to demonstrate that commitment? It happens each and every day around the globe.

I have decided that each person in the world has their own normal. It is their history and their sense of who they are. It is their character and their DNA. There is no one normal and we need to stop trying to force others to fit into our own definition of normal.

Then there are those who experience a normal that conflicts with our sense of right and wrong, of safety and fear. There are these entities like the child that hides under the table before me. His experience was so very different; he can’t talk about what created his normal. He is not yet willing to open the curtains and show us the room that he has lived his life within. It hurts him. He sees the others and he wants them to play with him, he wants them to accept him so that he can feel accepted. He doesn’t know how to pretend that whatever he has seen, heard or even worse felt, did not exist.

 
And so the words just do not come. His frustration just explodes from his body, every movement, and every sound is a display of his feeling that he cannot control his world. He wants to control it; I know he does. He wants to be calm as the others. I know that too. It is the bridge that I must find to connect him with the person that he wishes to be. This is what escapes me. I don’t know how to help him. I sit and simply look at him. Like a paramedic sitting with his bag of bandages and medicine next to the patient yet not being able to show us where they are bleeding. We want to bandage them and find a way to make them smile. We need to do that but I cannot even begin to try to help your wounds heal if you do not meet me on the journey to show me where you are hurt and where I can put the bandage.

His father comes and forces him out from under the table. The boy is still angry then frightened. He fears whatever punishment may come after the calls from the school. The calls that took his father from his work and yet again brought him to us here. I hate these calls for the parent’s sake. The call where the person from the school tried to dress up the issue with a pretty bow and wrapping paper, but each parent knows what the call means. Something is not right with your child and we don’t know how to manage it.

After a ten-minute struggle, I watch the boy go limp in his father’s arms, surrendered to whatever will happen now. His will to fight is gone, he knows that he will not win and that he cannot control whatever happens now. He gives up. His father asks him if he is ready to go home. He looks up and simply nods his head.

Then it happens. It happens so quickly that I cannot find a way to relate what happens next with what I have seen for the past two hours. This child reaches up to hold his father’s hand. His father reaches down and gently takes his son’s hand, and they walk out together. No more struggle. No more tears.

school-boy-holding-fathers-hand
I watch as they walk the sidewalk outside and I am struck by how much this poor tortured soul, for this one minute, gets to feel the way he wants to feel. He is a child who is loved by his parent. Watching out the window just now erases the painful words and jolts of pain when the kicks and fists came. There was the child I was trying to reach. He found what he wanted. He wanted to be loved. I don’t know what happened when they left. I haven’t seen him since.
For right now, I am hopeful that this child will find some peace. That the view outside of my window at this very moment will replay itself a few more times for his sake. That somehow if he is loved a little more and if he is allowed to be the child that he wants to be, that he can grow up and be “normal.”