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911

On a soft summer morning, a Sunday in June, our front door stands open to the sleeping city. The old house inhales dawn, and our normally bustling block soaks in quiet like a sponge. The screams seem far away at first—cutting through the morning silence, rising like a set of waves on hard sand, louder and higher, louder and higher again.  Coffee mugs land on tables. Listening at the back windows, then moving to the front porch, the shrieks become words. Help! I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed!  A young woman stands across the street, leaning on a neighbor’s railing. Help me! Help me! I’ve been stabbed!  

I experienced trauma as a child, and I was a therapist for a decade. But that morning, I re-learn how perception is torn by trauma, how time pauses and re-winds. As I recognize danger, colors brighten, and sounds sharpen. The fear jabbing into my belly is immediately tamped down, creating space for decision-making.  

I ask her, Do you want me to call 911?   

Yes, call, I need help! She walks toward me, left arm holding her right. She pauses to lean on a parked car. The block is eerily quiet, deserted. Where are the usual early dog-walkers and baby strollers? Why hasn’t anyone else heard her screaming?

I tell my husband, Call 911. Now. She’s bleeding a lot. I grab a chair from the porch and set it on our lawn. Here, I ask her, sit down, please.

I don’t want this to be happening. Blood streaks red stripes down her legs and oozes slowly from the back of her neck. I put my hand on her fear-damp shoulder and tell her she is going to be okay. I ask her to keep her wrist up, to squeeze the towel I’ve wrapped around it to her body. I’ve been stabbed! I’ve been stabbed! Her voice shakes. Her pupils are circles of glazed fear.

He stabbed me! He’s in a car. He’s still around. He’s in a car! She stands up to keep running from him, to repeat the motion that kept her alive this morning. The mind tells the body now now now run run run!

I look up and down the block and see no one.

Your job is to sit still right now while we wait for the ambulance. You’re going to be all right. I rewind. I repeat: Sit down, please. Help will be here soon. You are going to be okay.

The ambulance comes. One strong woman takes each of her elbows and walks her inside its big doors.  The siren wails away.

Soon, police crime-scene tape closes both sides of our street, and pooled blood dries slowly on the plastic chair in my front yard.

The sun is high when neighbors begin to gather in tight circles on the corner. I avoid them. I try not to swirl my thoughts into whirlpools by over-telling the story. I focus my mind on the police, mostly women of color, whose compassionate intelligence shines over their face masks. Talking to my friend, I describe their supervisor, wearing a simple summer skirt, badge around her neck.

Mid-day, a firefighter hoses down the blood in the street and on the sidewalk. Water pressure flips the plastic chair over and leaves a patch of bare mud on the lawn. We use a soapy brush to clean the dried blood off my car.

The next morning, I wake up and think, Crap. That happened. I recite the thank God’s: thank God we heard her; thank God her injuries will heal. I remember my hard-won crisis-counseling mantra:  trust the intervention you could give and when you gave it.

I have a nightmare the next night:  I’m still a therapist, working at the university counseling center. I’m supposed to be doing something, but I can’t remember what it is. In my dream, I avoid my frustrated boss and finally tell myself, in a refrain, I’m going to have to quit. I’m going to have to quit.

Four days after the stabbing, I’m hoarding gluten-free bread. I have one loaf in the bread basket, two loaves in the freezer, and two in the refrigerator. I’m not anxious, I’m just hungry, right? Before I left the job where vicarious traumas stuck to my skin like burrs, I’d open my desk drawer to find six open bars of chocolate in my desk drawer, each with one solitary and reassuring square remaining. Under my desk, pairs of Piccolino sandals and Dansko pumps seemed to multiply on their own–as if someone else had bought them. Until I realized, until I finally said, I’m going to have to quit.

Day nine, I look down at my sneakers and see small circles of rusted red-brown. Oh. Blood specks on my shoes. I remember that, not long ago, I helped someone. I keep walking.

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Happy Mother’s Day?

For the grieving moms, children lost to overdoses and gun violence, to illness or accident, all of you who have whisper-sung their lullaby at a funeral.

For the hearts carrying unmarked loss by miscarriage, for those who tried and tried, whose fertility couldn’t meet the call. To the adoptive parents, thinking of the woman who birthed this child you love with every fiber of your own body. For the ones who stepped in through marriage, and stayed, even when the marriage didn’t.

For the pastor mom, working on Sunday. For the trans fathers and trans mothers, on a day when maybe no one really gets it, and the gay and lesbian parents wondering why, even today, we have to use these labels.

To the mothers whose own moms have died. For the stay-at-home fathers and mothers, unpaid and too often unsung. To the mothers living in poverty, no home in which to stay.

To the woman after her abortion, grieved or relieved, and to the terrified teen in Georgia today.

To the incarcerated parents and to the grandparents standing in, to the soldier mom and the brave woman who knows Not this body, not this lifetime.

To all of you, I send comfort. To all of you–not a Happy Mother’s Day–but the day you have, the day this life has given you.

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God Bless You, Lester Bagus, Jr.!

Just when I start to lose my optimism about our democracy, a miracle happens.

I spent a full morning at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, puzzling over the past and editing the post I had planned for tomorrow. As I ride my bike to the gym, fuzzy-brained and tired, I see signs exhorting me to vote. And I hear myself think with a sigh, Not this again. It all feels like too much right now, like too hard a push for good things to happen this mid-term election.

I lock my bike and step into the Carla Madison Recreation Center, a colorful four-story building erected less than a year ago at the bustling corner of Colfax and Josephine. Behind me, a man enters the building and approaches the desk. He’s holding a small plastic bag carefully in his left hand. He wears a cap embroidered with insignia, and a gold cross shines around his neck.

Where did you say that thing is? he asks the young woman behind the desk.

See those orange pillars there? she replies. Just behind them and then to the left. She points through the glass doors. He looks perplexed, and I see that his plastic bag contains a ballot.

I’ll show you where it is, I offer. I just dropped mine off yesterday.

He smiles at me, broad relief in his brown face. His voice holds some southern gravel as he thanks me. Oh, I almost asked you outside. You look like you work here. We step back into the November sunshine and walk together between orange pillars and toward the drop-box, a squat white rectangle not easy to see. You know, he tells me, I never voted before. This is my first time.

ballot boxI stop walking and erupt: God bless you! I see his face shining, full as a Thanksgiving platter. I can’t believe I get to be here with you casting your first ballot! I say.

God bless you, too. I’m glad you’re here with me. You know, I volunteered for Vietnam when I was sixteen years old, and this is my first time voting.

My skin tingles as I watch him drop his signed ballot in the slot. As his envelop lands on top of others, my temptation to cynicism falls away.

We look at each other and grin. I’m sixty-seven years old, and I’m finally voting! He gives me a big hug. I breathe in the scent of his aftershave, and I soak up the warmth of his satisfaction and of his hope.

Before we say goodbye, he introduces himself to me and shakes my hand. Thank you, Lester Bagus, Jr.