Next to Last Epitaph
At least three times in a particular two day span at our workplace, someone’s death has transformed the lives of those around them. We’re not really in the position to know the extent of transformation that occurred, but we know that it happened. As police 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, we cannot remove ourselves so completely from the human element of our job that people’s deaths mean nothing to us. I’m not suggesting that any of us actually view their deaths as nothing, but I am hoping that we remember the people, at least for a moment, as having once been living, thriving, breathing, needing, despairing people who probably had someone, somebody, or something loving them, somewhere. I want to believe that we really care, in spite of our gallows humor and what we say sometimes.
There was a collective, genuinely sad “Ohhh” as one of us announced that a teenager was just found who had overdosed and was alone when he died. Fire gave us the call. How they got it before we did, if they did, I don’t know. At any rate, I was touched that we would suddenly, as one being, feel for that moment, the sadness or despair that the grown child had felt before he took his life. If, indeed, that was what we were all feeling.
And nobody was home. Rather, no parents were there. Where were the parents? Did only Mom, or only Dad live there with him? Had there been family problems, things that only the parents could reveal to us if they had the opportunity? Had he been to counseling? Had the parents been to counseling? Was the kid just off his medication and this was a freak thing that happened? The incident-history on the call said that a friend was in the house. Was it a girl-friend, or a boy-friend, or just a friend-friend? Did that friend get there before it happened? Did the friend find him dead, or did he sit there with him while he passed-away? Were the parents at work, school, at one of their friends’ house getting high? We aren’t going to know these things. It isn’t our place to know them, but they are still significant factors. They are still things that have contributed to the one line that we have on our call page – “JUV OD’D NO PARENTS AT HOME”…even our remarks don’t end with a period…it’s like we know the picture isn’t finished with our meager description. Well…that’s the way it seems to me, anyway.
And then there is the one that gets really wordy: “COMP SAYS HUSB’S FRND JOHN L. HAS HANGED SELF IN BKYD…SUBJ HAD DUI & WIFE LFT HIM…FIRE 1017 (enroute)” – again, with no period for an ending. I know that periods are not our normal fare given the peculiarities of our computer-aided dispatch system, but here it is again, that ending without an ending. Our ‘Unknown-Trouble’ had a name, he wasn’t just a third-person entity swinging from a branch…there was someone who might have loved him…or maybe not. Why did he have a DUI? Why was he drinking? Was his father or mother an alcoholic? Was he drinking last night or early this morning when he slipped the noose around his neck…or was he sober when he took the final step in trying to right his problems?
We can imagine the body swinging from a branch that may or may not be creaking under his weight. We can imagine that the face on his oddly tilted head is all purple with old, deoxygenated blood and that his body may be starting to stiffen a little already…but we don’t know. The two lines dedicated to JOHN L.’s death don’t include that type of information. They don’t tell us if the complainant and her husband saw him do it, or whether or not they had a suspicion that he was going to do it. The call doesn’t tell us whether or not JOHN L. had children at home who may or may not miss him tonight. Maybe he was saving the children from repeating some of his mistakes by removing his bad example. Maybe he was tired from a long list of failures and now couldn’t bear to live without the one thing, or person, who had stood behind or beside him through all of those failings. Maybe…again there is just too much that we aren’t going to know…that we don’t need to know to do our jobs.
“There’s a body swinging from the complainant’s tree in her back-yard and we need to get our officers over there to get it down so she can have her yard back from that nasty bitch named death.” Did someone possess those thoughts, maybe, but probably not. Did our complainant’s morning routine of drinking coffee on her back porch get messed-up by her husband’s friend JOHN L. hanging himself in her tree? Are the birds still going to alight and sing in the drought-bare tree after the sirens and lights and activity have ‘died’ down? They probably will. They’re probably there now, sitting in the upper branches looking down at that bit of frayed, yellow rope or sun-bleached, green garden hose that is still attached to that one limb down there.
And what about us? What about the operator who typed the keys for the radio code of the unknown-trouble? What is that person thinking, right now, about the information they tapped into the computer and sent on its way? Did they go home and share the story with one of their family members? Did the Tactical-channel operator who hit the ‘Alert 1’ button to summon the officers go home and mention it to anyone? Did they think about it while they drove home from another night on the ‘graveyard’ shift? How about when they stopped at Fry’s to pick-up some milk for their kids’ breakfast? Did it intrude into their thoughts as they were considering that they could buy two gallons for three dollars even though they only needed one gallon but the sale would end by the time they needed another? And did they already forget about it by the time they dried off from the shower and climbed into bed? Was it still in their mind? Was their heart saddened with the despair that this JOHN L. must have felt as he stepped onto that milk crate or discarded dining-room chair, hooked the noose over his neck, and then kicked the crate or chair out from under his feet? Did the operator feel that despair? Did the call-taker have to pause a moment after completing their two-line hot-call to collect themselves after their in-calls button was free again? Did they think about what the wife might be thinking? Is she relieved? Is she sorry? Could she and JOHN L. have worked things out? “How am I going to tell the kids?” Or is it one of those ‘Thank God’ situations? Is she thanking her guardian-angel for rescuing her and the kids from the monster who hung himself?
Yes, as 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers we have to remove ourselves from the crushing despair, but to what extent? Isn’t life sacred? Aside from what our Sunday school lessons or catechism taught us, even removed from God or religion, isn’t it still sad? But what if he needed to die? Is it still sad then? And what about his last thought – was it “Oh, shit!” or “Thank God” as he swung there from the creaking or non-creaking limb on that drought-bare tree?
And finally, what do we do about the five year-old who drowned in his own vomit? How do we deal with this? And how did we present it to ourselves in the line of our work? Again, we only needed two lines. From our colleagues at Fire, the call very succinctly described this lasting picture: “5YO CHILD IS 901H (dead) SPAN SPKG FATHER SAID HE VOMITTED [sic] IN SLEEP: FIRE ALREADY 23 (on scene) NEEDS US THERE – right, and with no period, again. This story won’t end. It cannot end. The emptiness in someone’s heart will not be filled. Ever. Never, will this problem be fixed. The smell of vomit will forever bring to mind the quiet face of their baby. They won’t be able to wash his sheets and put them on the bed again. His little tennis shoes, the ones sitting near his closet door, blue, or black, or white, little tennies that won’t be handed down to his younger brother or sister, or cousin…they will remain empty, the way this little one has left them. Why didn’t the child turn on his side when he threw-up? Why did he just lay there? Why didn’t the parents hear him getting sick? Why was no-one watching him…didn’t they know he was sick? Couldn’t they hear him gasping, gulping, inhaling, and aspirating his vomit down into his lungs? When you picture that, can you see his horror-stricken face, knowing that everything was happening all wrong and that he couldn’t stop it? Can’t you almost see it? Oh…what a horrid thought! There’s no romance in this death, is there? And is there peace, knowing or thinking that he’ll be in a better place? No…there is no peace here, not if we understand that he’s just gone – simply not alive anymore, and not even if we imagine that he’s in our Savior’s arms, not really. Right now the thought is that he’s gone – without a period, just gone, and forever.
The call-takers did their job. The dispatchers did their job. The officers and paramedics did their job. And the episodes are essentially done – for those of us who were externally involved in the situations. And we can go on. We will go on. The tone will beep in our ears, or over our radios, again and again. Each following call will help remove the one we just completed, or cleared from our stack, or frequency…and we’ll go on. Our hearts are already hardened; our attitudes are somewhat jaded or cynical. Or are they? Maybe, and maybe not. Will we remember these people – the overdosed teenager, JOHN L., the five year-old? Will we honor their existence with a moment’s thought, or more? Or have we become immunized to the pain and ‘not care’ about what happens on the other end of the phone, or radio waves?
I believe that the bottom line, in the end, is that we only do our jobs, on the 9-1-1 phones and police radio, because we DO care. We want to help people; we want them to live to be happy another day; we want everyone to go home safely at the end of the day.