I remember how a friend told me that when his partner died of cancer, he didn’t understand how the bottom could have completely dropped out of the world and yet the world just went on as if nothing had happened. I remember him saying how it made no sense to him. “Why doesn’t it stop?”
I felt the same when both my parents died, within 4 months of each other, from harrowing illnesses. We at least both got to be there, by them, watching them die, knowing how it happened, gifting them as much comfort, dignity, and love as possible — even if his partner and my parents had suffered much lack of comfort and dignity before their final breaths. My parents had “good” deaths, understandable deaths, even if my world fell apart and I became, without choosing, a new person in a new world — which hardly anyone saw for much of the first year, or often still doesn’t see. Because one doesn’t ever return.
But that is worlds away — worlds we can be empathetic about yet never inhabit unless a cop kills someone we love — from what Antonio Martin’s mom feels tonight of her new world, unasked and uncalled for, in Berkeley, Missouri. A world where she wasn’t allowed to gift comfort, dignity, or love, by touch and closeness, to her 18-year-old black son, a high school senior out with his girlfriend in the earliest part of Xmas Eve, murdered by police outside a gas station, in a town just a short distance from Ferguson.
Her son’s death will always be a bad death, an unresolved, unknowable death, removed from her by the same cops who also stole her son’s life. They stole, too, her ability, her need, to grieve and heal in the way that good deaths, utterly transformative as they are, allow for.
I’ve heard many moms, black and brown, speak lately here in the Bay Area of their stolen child. The stories are hard enough.
The pain that never leaves me, that haunts and ravages these moms, is all that they don’t and will never know about those last hours or minutes or seconds. Their faces seem universally etched with a guilt that isn’t theirs: “I wasn’t there for them, with them, while they were scared, while they suffered and died.”
Police steal and are guilty of much, but that particular theft of someone’s final moments is the recurrent and worst parts of the stories these women are now compelled to repeat, like a funeral oration without end or often audience.
We have an ethical imperative to extend ourselves as much as we can into these moms’ worlds. To do what we can, even though we don’t know what to say, or what to do, or how to make the societal transformation that must happen so that black and brown lives matter.
Around these moms, I feel that awkward “at a loss for words” that too many people used as an excuse not to reach out to me, not to do or say something, as I was going through my new world of hell, post-deaths. Instead they turned away, afraid of their own fears or discomfort.
But I also know that I don’t want to be that person who lets the difficulty of maybe doing or saying the wrong thing stop me from listening to the narratives of remembrance, rehumanization, and striving to comprehend the incomprehensible that such moms feel the compulsion to tell as salve to their wounds.
I don’t want to let the difficulty of doing or saying the wrong thing stop me from struggling, with so many others of us, to stop this nonstop slaughter, this lawless police state, knowing that I — that we — will make mistakes.
We need to be human. Because this old world we reside in, on stolen lands and made possible by stolen lives, is not human at all. Not one ounce.
We are in the midst of what, for the United States, is a mass uprisings by so many types of people, using varied actions, creating such people power, because Ferguson said “enough” and fought back. Yet it just doesn’t stop. Not for a night. It just doesn’t stop that another mom has to be livestreamed while breaking down by the side of a cop car, while police encircle her son, letting him lie and die in the street outside a gas station’s convenience store.
No time off — not Xmas Eve, not Christmas, not any day. There is no time-out for these moms and their families. That has to matter to us all, more than ever, more than mere slogan or hashtag, in tangible and extra caring ways that also might discomfort us. We have to be present, as witnesses and resistance fighters, as compassionate community, to these bad deaths that should not be happening — that must stop, that have stretched from slave ship to city street.
Walk toward these deaths at the hands of police and state, and see each murdered body as a person in their fullness, especially the fullness of the life and love they had stolen from them. Walk toward the mourning families we will feel awkward hugging because that seems so inadequate to the enormity of their loss.
Use pain as rage to find ourselves more strength to, again this day, mourn the dead well and fight even better than ever for the living, us walking dead in this world that knows no humane boundaries.
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