Dear Officer: An Open Letter.
Yesterday, on the way to Nashville, the girls and I stopped at Chik-Fil-A for breakfast. Instead of going in, as we almost always do, we opted for the drive-thru. I placed our order and pulled forward, but there were a few cars in front of us and, as such, we weren’t able to move all the way to the window. The pause gave me time to glance in the rear-view mirror to see you pull up behind us after placing your order.
I spent the first sixteen years of my life fearing you and anything associated with you: uniforms, blue lights, patrol cars, badges. Really, anything that involved law enforcement. It created nervous tension in my stomach, a knot of fear. I haven’t been in jail nor had any actual reason to fear you. Still, I was taught to fear you. My father was in and out of prison my entire childhood. When he was out, he was running from you. We were the family that would hightail it out of the state in the dead of night because he was paranoid you were going to pound on the door that very night. I remember when he was on America’s Most Wanted, the TV show, or feared he was, and would spend the night glued to the program, listening for his name. Whether he heard it or not didn’t matter because his ultimate goal in life was to stay one step ahead of you; to get his way of life accomplished while outsmarting you. This meant a very, very chaotic and unstable way of life. I suppose, somewhere in the recesses of my subconscious, I learned to equate you with instability, maybe even erroneously the source of it: if you just wouldn’t chase him, we could stay still. (For the record, I know that’s untrue: he still would have uprooted us for other nefarious and complicated reasons. You were just a convenient scapegoat, really, but a child of six, eight, eleven, fourteen doesn’t fully understand that.).
Some girls dream of boyfriends. Some dream of friends in general. Some dream of the future. I dreamed of stability. The idea of a home from which I never had to move was huge; in fact, for a very long time, I didn’t care about anything else. I would have given up pretty much anything, followed anyone, risked everything, for a chance to find true stability. You see, my father was running from you because he was a fraud: he wrote outrageously bad checks, he set up fake businesses and convinced large companies to send him things “on credit.” He was a manipulator, in essence. Those were the crimes for which you wanted to find him. But, sometimes, he’s come to my room and hurt me. I’m a grown adult who speaks in public about this and yet it is still very, very hard for me to use the appropriate words.
He violated me; in essence, I was “his.” I don’t remember a lot of details, I can’t remember how old I was in some of the incidences that I can vividly recall. I can’t tell you what city we were in or how he got me alone since my mother rarely worked outside the home. I can’t describe the surrounding details. In most of the incidences I can really remember, what I remember most clearly are the minute details of how heavy he was, of how scary it was that he was so heavy because I was so little. I remember being very clearly afraid he was going to literally crush me. I remember how he smelled. Sometimes it was very painful (I remember fearing I was bleeding when he’d get up and being scared to look) and other times it was just uncomfortable. It didn’t happen every night, he didn’t happen sometimes much at all. But, on and off, from when I was around five to the last time he was arrested when I was sixteen, I lived in mind-numbing fear. Even seeing the word “rape” in print causes goosebumps of fear to race along my spine. It is a terrifying word that conjures up memories to this day—-19 years after the fact.
I used to wonder: if we weren’t running from you, if we’d had a stable home at which I could have developed stable friendships, if fearing my mom, sister and I might very well land on the streets without his seemingly magical ability to make money appear out of nowhere, if we’d just been still for long enough—-would I have had the courage to tell my mom, my sister or maybe even a teacher? In a book I wrote, “Broken,” my fifteen-year-old narrator Taya, whose home life and way of thinking eerily reminded me of me, called you and left an anonymous tip, giving you the whereabouts of her father who was running from you. A few days passed and then you came, arrested him, and Taya gained safety. Would I have been so brave?
So, you see, I feared you not only because we ran from you but because I thought you were keeping me from being in an environment safe enough that I might could have crawled my way out of horrific pain and abuse. Of course that misplaced fear was also coupled with the real, palpable fear of you that overrode daily life in our world. Together, the combination taught me to instinctively see you as dangerous.
As with so, so many other things, my daughters acted helped me heal from this misconception. Once, my oldest, Breathe, was about six, I guess, and my youngest, Alight, about three. We were leaving Centennial Park and, before we got out of the park, I saw blue lights flashing behind me. I was apparently going fifteen in a ten mile per hour zone. Sea-sickening nausea rolled in my stomach as I waited for you to approach my window. Then, I heard my little girls in the backseat: “Mama?” Their shaky voices asked, “What’s wrong?”
I put my brave face on, stomped down my fear and literally told myself, “No, no, no. Police officers are -not- scary. They are -not- the problem. And I will -not- teach my daughters to be afraid of the very ones who could potentially save them one day.” So I smiled, rolled my eyes and said, “Nothing is wrong. The officer that is walking up now is trying to keep everyone in the park safe. I was going too fast; it was my fault, so I need a kind of time-out called a ticket. That’s all.”
I got my ticket but, more importantly, I promised myself that day I was done running from you. It wasn’t you who had caused me so much pain. You weren’t the one whose knee held me trapped and you weren’t the reason I’d cry at night to awaken with a debilitating migraine. Nope. That wasn’t you.
My girls are not afraid of you. In fact, they are consciously aware that you are on their side, that you actively seek to keep them safe. For them, it’s an automatic reaction: they see your blue car and might check that their seat belts are on but don’t fear your presence. For me, it’s still a conscious effort. If you drive behind me for more than a minute, fear tries to coil around my stomach. But then I remind myself of what your job is: to serve and protect. It’s still my knee jerk, intuitive reaction to respond with fear to you but I combat it, actively, every time now. Fear is still a force in my life. Sexual abuse stains literally every aspect of my life; it colors everything I do and how I think. I’m sad that it tries to taint even the good guys, like you. Fortunately, though it is strong, I am stronger than fear. I recognize the lies fear tells and can combat it with truth.
Today, when you pulled up behind me, I smiled. “Girls, look: there’s an officer behind us.”
Breathe: “Oh yeah. I’m not scared of him.”
Me: “No, we shouldn’t be. His job is to protect us and he puts himself in danger in order to do exactly that.”
Alight smiled at you.
Me: “Should we pay for his breakfast?” I have no idea where that came from, except a strong desire to both create positive memories of you for my daughters and an equally pressing desire to say thank you. Every time you knocked on the door, that time you showed up at our school to arrest him as he picked us up, every time you were there? That meant a reprieve for me; he was taken away and I was safe. You made that happen by not giving up, by following us, by arresting him.
The girls excitedly agreed to the plan. We paid for your breakfast and I asked the employee to also give you a handwritten note I’d written on a napkin: “Thank you for your service! Have a great, and safe, day!” Pulling away from the window, I watched in my rear-view mirror as the employee gave you the napkin. I hope it started your day out well; I hope it made you smile and know your work, the sacrifices you and your family make on a daily basis, is not in vain. Even without me consciously thinking about it, you are actively helping me provide safety and security to the two most precious people in my life by being out there, by patrolling, by responding to the distress calls, by following up on warrants that take the real innocence-stealing thieves and criminals off the streets. You’re always on duty, 24 / 365; there are no holidays for you.
Thank you for choosing a life of service, for choosing to risk your own life for that of someone you know nothing about, day in and day out. That takes a truly compassionate person, someone who genuinely cares about and values human life. It takes a strong heart to be able to kiss your spouse, your kids, every day and walk out the door, knowing that you are deliberately choosing to walk where people like my dad could attack you. You’re brave and strong, you’re compassionate and conscientious, but you’re also human. As such, you’re flawed, too, and you have struggles just like the rest of us do. You have your own private demons and issues that haunt you, some of which undoubtedly came up as a result of your job. But knowing that you’re flawed, that you’re just a human, actually makes you more awe-inspiring and amazing because it means you don’t have superpowers that allow you to patrol the streets or put those blue lights on never knowing exactly who or what you’re going to encounter. Instead, it means you choose to do this job, you choose on a daily basis to sacrifice and endure because you have a desire, and a need, to protect people like me and my daughters from those who might harm us. The fact that it’s something that you choose to do, even on the days when that choice isn’t easy, truly earns you the title hero.
Nearly every day, I battle the way my past colors my present. Little things that shouldn’t bother me do. And there are lies everywhere, lies that I have to first recognize as such and then do my best to dismantle into the truth. It’s likely that there might be an instinctive adrenaline rush of fear in the seconds after I see you for awhile yet but I’m working hard, and will continue to do so, to then immediately remind myself that you’re on my side…. and always have been.