Once, I misread a sign directing cars around a construction site and found myself driving against an empty oncoming traffic lane, the only one available to me, at least as I had interpreted the sign. When I saw the flashing red light of a police car behind me, I realized I might have made a mistake. The officer came to stand at my car window red-faced and screaming at me, “What kind of idiot are you! You could get someone killed! People like you shouldn’t be on the road!” He didn’t give me a chance to tell him the sign was ambiguous, which information might have prevented the two cars behind me from also misinterpreting the sign.
So there’s that kind of cop, and I’ve read about worse.
Another time, I went to the police station to report that someone had lunged at me with a kitchen knife. They said they couldn’t do anything until I was hurt (or dead, of course). I was hoping there was a law here like the one I’d learned about in Greece where you report threats, the police make a note, and if there are three complaints, they pay a little visit. They at least attempt to prevent injury and death.
The fault in this case lay not with the police, but with the laws they were working under.
But I’m writing here about two times I needed a policeman, really needed a policeman. These moments came at times of crisis and remain vivid in my memory.
The first time was when I lived, with my children, on the second floor of a large Victorian house belonging to my friend Margaret. Her son Alex was schizophrenic and spent most of his adult life either in the hospital or in jail, but when he got out, he headed home to his mom…and me. He usually walked home from the hospital fifteen miles away. He’d been arrested once walking naked down the Garden State Parkway.
Margaret explained that she always had to wait until Alex did something dramatic enough to call the police about, then he would go back to the hospital and start a new cycle of medication-not taking medication-going back to the hospital or, if Alex had his way, to jail.
When he got out of hand, there was no avenue of communication with him. As far as we knew, he was never violent toward a fellow human being, but acted erratically: a lit cigarette in the wastebasket, a chair thrown across the kitchen. The most dangerous episode was when he used the disability money accumulated while he was in the hospital to buy a jalopy. He swerved back and forth driving down the street and ran over a neighbor’s rose bushes when careening across his lawn. I called Motor Vehicles who said they had no grounds to take away his license. We were relieved to hear that the car had been towed away after being parked illegally.
The police knew about Alex and each time Margaret called, they came ready for trouble, but tried “come along with us” first. Alex never resisted. Even in his disarranged brain, he knew the score. Margaret and I would not have had the means to help him or to protect ourselves and the house.
He died at 35, walking down the middle of a road at night dressed in black. A driver hit him at full speed, killing him instantly. The police were the first on the scene and had to manage the distraught driver whose first glimpse of Alex was of his neck breaking when he hit the windshield. The police tamed the scene until the medics arrived. Think of the broad range of knowledge and skill required to spontaneously handle, daily, a crisis like this one that most of us never see or hear about, much less experience.
My sweetest memory is of the two policemen who arrived after I found the body of my husband, who had died of suicide. They stood as silent sentinels in my living room as the EMTs, the coroner, the detective, the chaplain, and the social worker came and went. They directed traffic, explained the situation, kept watch over me. I was sitting on the living room couch a stunned statue, but if I’d collapsed in a hysterical ball, they would have been there to catch me.
When I asked them, “Does this happen often?” the older one said, “Yes. Quite often.”
The younger one gave me particulars. “Yesterday we were at the house of a young man who OD’d. Twenty-five years old, wife and kids, had been clean for two years.” He let me know I wasn’t the only person in town who would be grieving a suicide.
I don’t know these two mens’ names. They were “the older/younger one,” and “the fat/thin one.” They were there on the angelic, anonymous mission of watching over me, of organizing and doing the things I didn’t have the means to do myself. I wonder if sometimes they recognize me on the street, standing upright, going about my business. If so, they probably won’t say hello.
This post is my way of thanking them, and all the other police helpers who get us through our worst moments. I imagine that our struggles sometimes show up in their dreams.