The limits of observation, part II

There are cases that I can’t forget, stories I’ve written that I wish for all the world I could unwrite, erase from my memory, look into that pen held by the Men In Black, or shake out of my head like the drawings on an Etch-a-Sketch. To be honest, most of the dead children, those I remember. (what is wrong with me, though, that I say “most” and not “all”? yikes)

Michael Plumadore is one of those stories. And when it snows, like it’s been snowing, and there are Christmas lights on the trees and bushes outside, and little girls are wearing Christmas dresses, I can’t forget him. I can’t forget what he did, what we couldn’t do as a community, and the limits of what I could do as a journalist. Hell, the limits of what is available to you as a fellow human being is the most maddening of all the particularly maddening things about life here, no?

Anyway, a little girl went missing at Christmas. I blogged about it then, as best I could, but packed it back up, buried it in the back of all the other homicide stories, the robberies, and the daily debris of my life as a crime reporter. But now, two Christmases later, I still remember her. I remember how I left work on a Friday night, mentioning to our police reporter that there was something weird about a “missing child” at that time of day, at this time of year. I remember coming back into the office at 6 a.m. the next morning, and hearing the county police continuing their search. I remember my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. I remember calling a police source, and asking if we could help, if it was time to say something to the public about this way-too-small-for-her-age girl and how she was not where she should be.I remember her little face, in the picture the police sent us, wearing her Christmas dress at the funeral of her grandfather. I remember posting those stories that day to the newspaper’s website. I remember listening all day to the scanner, my face buried in the soft fluff that was my old Golden Retriever who always accompanied me to the newsroom on those lonely Saturday mornings. I remember praying, praying, praying. I remember hearing them organizing volunteers. I remember them calling in the search dogs.

When I left that night, I went to church. It was Christmas Eve. By this time, the whole city knew. By this hour, this snowy evening, everyone was praying or begging or hoping. I lit a candle in the narthex. I prayed for her, by name. Someone asked me, she’s going to be found, right? She’ll be fine. I remember deciding right then to lie, at least partly. Yes, I said. They’ll find her. I sat in the pew, in the candlelight, thinking of so much that had nothing to do with Christmas, tears absolutely pouring down my face. Of course, I knew how this ended.

They found her alright. Cops cried on my shoulder the next day, at the press conference, where they told the city what we feared. As the story moved from the trailer park into the courthouse, becoming words on paper, hearings in cavernous rooms, drawing vultures like Nancy Grace into my world (she’s nuts by the way),  I remember just being stunned at this creature who did this. I was never in my life so grateful for a guilty plea. Only worthwhile thing that man ever did, I am damn sure. 

Saturday morning, I sat in a cold-ish barn, drinking too much coffee while I looked at excel spreadsheets and phone trees, planning out my goal for search training for the  year.  The people to the right and left of me, these really interesting and generous and smart people, and their amazing dogs — their names are all over the witness list in that horrible case. They did try. They did something.

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that the case of  that sad little girl didn’t push me a bit into wanting to try to help. I told one of my judges at the time I felt like a carnival barker in hell, doing nothing more than publicizing the sad freak show.  I know, at some level, that my work as a journalist did help a bit that day. We got the pictures out, we pushed the community to want to  help, if just for one day or so, to look out for things larger than the sales at Macy’s. At least I have told myself that for a couple years now.

I just want to do a bit more. And to my very core, I am so very grateful for this weird opportunity to try. I am still a little disoriented by the way in which I found myself here, and the rightness of how it seems to me. Tonight, when I got home after an hour-long commute, I put on my boots and Helo and I went out into the snowstorm, working on our stuff in the driveway. We have a long way to go, but I promise the one missing a year or two from now: We will absolutely be ready.

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The limits of observation

This post has been rolling around in my head for a week now, sometimes more put together than others. It woke me up this morning, along with a sunrise showing itself on the field behind our bedroom. It was a pretty solid thought right then, but after I let the dog out, got my computer up and running, then went outside to take a picture of the sunrise, and was greeted by a big wide canine grin asking for play time, I lost it again. This is my attempt to get it back. I think it’s a good one.

I think I’m nearing the end of my abilities to just stand by and watch. In 20 years as a journalist I have stood by and watched the ridiculous, the mundane, the terrifying, and the sorrowful. I have wiped many tears from my eyes in a quiet darkened car before I’ve called the story in to my editors (shhh, don’t tell them). It’s my job. I watch, and I try very hard with some success to put what I have seen, heard, smelled and touched into words safe enough for a family newspaper written to about an eighth grade reading level. I argue and cajole, badger, coax, ease and tease the stories out of those who think it’s too much to share, too little to be of value, or that which they are trying to hide. I work with amazing and talented people who do the same thing in words or in pictures, providing to our communities information they need to know, should be aware of or what they are entitled to understand. I know, absolutely, that what I do is important, in spite of what people often tell me in emails, phone calls, and face to face. It is my chosen profession and I do an alright job at it most of the time.

It fits completely with my nature, my inclination to stick my nose in where it absolutely doesn’t belong. (Have I mentioned how alike my cattle dog I am? Kinda spooky). But I am growing emotionally weary of being unable to do more, to stop it, to ease it, to smooth its rough edges, to make it better. Along with that ridiculous need to nose, I also very much want to fix it or help it.

And there is not usually a damn thing I can do about any of it. I couldn’t put the little girl back together when Michael Plumadore chopped her up. I couldn’t make it easier for the cops who cried on my shoulder the day after they found her. I can’t bring the families and friends and loved ones back for those who have lost. I light a candle. I pray. I don’t ask why, though, anymore, because there isn’t a why. Reason is not for this place. This is place is for survival and courage. But I am at a place where I want to do more, to do something, to do anything.

That desire intersects right now for me at a very strange and odd place –the aforementioned Australian Cattle Dog, this energetic, fuzzy-headed bundle of fur and brains and way too much boldness for his small size. An effort earlier this fall to find a new place to provide him with intellectual and physical stimulation of obedience/agility work escalated a wee bit and now I have my new thing, a way to do something, even in a small-ish way, a way that may not show any fruit for years.

I am training Helo for Search and Rescue work. He seems to have the easy part, for he is a  young dog and as we know, new tricks are the easiest for them. This old dog, though, I have to learn all kinds of stuff–scent theory, how the wind works, how not to ruin crime scenes, how lost people behave, and become a first responder. It is going to eat up time and energy, and more time. I spend my Saturday mornings now buried in rubble piles, hiding in woods, wrestling with much larger German Shepherds to help them learn and love their work, and getting my little guy acclimated to heights and holes, and trying to turn him into a barking machine.

The husband spent a lifetime chasing radio calls as a professional and volunteer in all kinds of emergency services and is becoming content to let the younger guys run into the burning buildings. I am quite sure he is a tad concerned I’ll lose my balance in this new thing and wear myself (or him out). It’s possible. But I married him in part for his ability to ground me, to keep me from floating off into dangerous orbits. I know with absolute certainty he has my back in this, in every way that’s appropriate and real.

Helo and I may never find anything, but by golly we’re going to try. I owe it to him to give him a job, and I owe it to myself, after all these years of watching and standing by, to make an effort to do something.

 

helo on the pile

Lap 41: A few scattered thoughts

I am eight days into my 41st lap around the sun. Weird, huh. I told a friend the other day we are who we are in the eighth grade. She argued with me vehemently, but I stand by that. In fact, the older I get, the more I seem to be that person, albeit a more secure, self-assured version of that person. I liked that person. She was competent (working at an animal hospital at 13) and teaching herself the 8th grade (homeschooler!). She was curious. She was a good sister. She was brave, in ways I see now, but am not going to go into here. She loved well. I see nothing wrong with being that person again, though this time with a driver’s license, a good chunk of student loan debt still to pay off and business cards with a title on them. If I brought all that I liked about that girl into life with this woman, I could do a lot worse.

Fort Wayne has had a blue million homicides this year and apparently it finally got to me. Early this morning, I woke up deeply disturbed by a dream involving a young black man walking around with a bullet hole in his head (he was dead and walking around) and I could do nothing about it. I tried to draw attention to it, but nobody paid any mind. I couldn’t help him in anyway. Maddening and nauseating. The timing is puzzling to me, though. In April, I stood at two homicide scenes, feet from the bodies. No problems. I covered a couple homicide trials this year, and had no issues there either. Why I woke up panting and disgusted with myself and all in the world at 4:30 this morning, in a hotel room after four days away from it, I have no idea. I can only guess the trouble is cumulative: too much death in too few days, too much controversy, too much feedback from the public (they can take a step back at any time and it’ll be fine with me).

I notice, though, I’m getting a lot more cynical and a lot less tolerant at the same time. It seems counter-intuitive, but even though my gallows humor functions quite (inappropriately) well, I am prone to feeling more sad in the courtroom, much less able to separate the victims’ emotions from mine by distance. I blame age. I blame an ever-deepening realization of consequences, of loss, of anguish, of love, of all that makes life here so completely miserable and amazing all at once. People I love with my whole heart have lost so much in the past year, and it is maddening to be so completely impotent, so totally incapable of doing anything more than walking along beside. And I just am not any good at that. (see above reference to incapability and know that makes me angry). If we have another case like Plumadore in the next few months, I very well might find myself curled up on the floor.

This all sounds very depressing, I realize. I’m really not though, just feeling a tad introspective. Maybe it’s Bach on the headphones, maybe the darkened library in this fancy-pants resort we’re staying in for A’s work conference, maybe it’s the rainy November weather. No worries, though, it’s all good. My blessings are frequently counted these days.

My writing location
My writing location

And they are many.

On a totally unrelated note, I really like wedding rings. As you know, I’m big on symbol (connecting the spiritual reality to the physical realm) and they definitely are that. I like the wedding ring on my finger, I love the one on A’s and I just think it’s a fabulous tradition for a kinesthetic type like myself who is always in need of the concrete and the tangible. (I married Mr. Concrete and Tangible because I need it so much)

 

On holding together

Michael Plumadore pleaded guilty yesterday. I’m not going to tell you what he did, because I’m tired of writing about what he did. I am so incredibly grateful for a guilty plea, I cannot tell you how much. That trial would have been hideous. There are no other words for it. And I fear our community would have reveled in all the gory details, right up until the sentence of death. They are outraged now on various webpages and social networking sites, feeling cheated out of the promise of an execution. I am embarrassed for us, I confess.

I, however, I am doing surprisingly alright. I awakened this morning to the sound of birds instead of sirens. I drank my coffee while walking to the barn to retrieve the errant pup. After that, I took him for a run in a nearby state park and I thought as I ran about how whole I feel.

I’ve lived in Fort Wayne now almost my entire adult life. I finished school here, found a faith here, and built a career and reputation here. But most importantly, I found me here. I’ve seen glimpses of the person I want to be. Through God’s matchless grace, I’ve been able to put back together something I thought was hopelessly damaged and broken.

Which brings me back to Plumadore. As I jogged through the woods, I thought about how just a year ago, I would have struggled more the day after writing that story. I would have struggled more the day I wrote the story. Don’t get me wrong, it was especially horrifying to hear someone say, with their own mouth, how they did what he did. And it was physically difficult to figure out how to put that into words for the reading public. But I know a year ago, I would’ve struggled longer to put myself back together afterward. There was little less of the “post-traumatic” stress about today.

Two years ago, I reached the end of myself as a solitary person. I felt like I finally found something in myself worth handing off to someone else, something worth sharing beside my inclination for protecting others. But I didn’t know what to do with it. For some reason, I found myself driving around and around, Sunshine snoozing in the back seat, listening to Coldplay’s “Fix You”, and Sufjan Steven’s version of “Come Thou Fount” over and over again, tears streaming down my face.

I don’t know what happened that day. I talked to my friend, one of the truest I’ve ever had, and something about that conversation made me feel like it was OK to put myself in a position to meet, to date, to fall in love. Four months later I did. Now, I type this with a ring on my left ring finger, our dog napping at my feet, and the birds singing still outside the windows of his home.

I know that A’s not the only reason I feel OK today, after Plumadore and his mess of a life. But I think the reason’s I was able to be open to A–to trust, to risk, to love, and to be loved–are are all part of it.

This used to be me:

I spend my life
Becoming invisible
It’s hard to maintain
And it’s hard to get by
I don’t recall
Fight or flight setting in
I have no introduction
I just breath it in like the air
And there’s nothing to remember
There is nothing to remember

I owe you nothing
That’s all I’ve got for you
And you’ll borrow nothing
That’s what you expect of me
So send me a lot
Out of thin sailors knots
And I fear underneath
Your radiant thoughts
My footsteps now
They will echo loudly
All I owe, all I owe
Strides I spend to the finish line
All I owe, all I owe
Strides I spend to the finish line
I’ll give you those

You told me something
That scared me to death
Don’t take me home
I can’t face that yet
I’m ashamed that I’m barely human
And I’m ashamed that
I don’t have a heart you can break

I’m just action
And at other times reaction

All I owe, all I owe
Strides I spend to the finish line
All I owe, all I owe
Strides I spend to the finish line
I’ll give you those
Just don’t make me go home
Give me something to remember
Give me something to remember
Give me something to remember (Neko Case, “Nothing to Remember)

It’s not anymore. For that I will be eternally grateful.

Sorry if this was over-sharing.

On a familiar theme

Or actions have consequences, late 2011 edition.

I’m sure you hadn’t heard the news, what with the holidays and the recess appointments and the Iowa clown car, I mean caucus. So in case you didn’t, here you go.

The tauntaun made a bad choice New Year’s day and ate Princess Leia. As my 3-year-old nephew explained it, the tauntaun did not do what he was supposed to do, which was protect her, instead helping the tiger to eat her.

“But she’s ok. She came back to life,” he said as he made the tauntaun climb the door frame on the sun porch.

Well, thank the Force.

Most of our choices don’t have a complete reversal, especially if they’re tragic.

As I wrapped up the tauntaun the day before (we do our Christmas on New Year’s weekend), I was so mad I could spit. I intended to buy L a different present, as well as a more deliberate choice for my new month-old niece MM.

But I never got to the store last week for Christmas shopping or groceries. I ran out of milk, orange juice and patience as I chased the worst story I’d ever covered and the worst I hope I ever cover. It’s not over, so it will continue to aggravate the #*$(& out of me, but whatever. The bad choices of that guy spread out like so many ripples in a shallow pond after a boulder falls into it. The cops missed their Christmas with their families searching for that little girl. Normal people throughout the community prayed and hoped beyond reason for her safe return. And I sat and listened on the scanner to the fruitless hunt, lit a candle, had a good cry and knew in my heart she was dead. But all that work, hours and hours of chronicling the madness (I told one of my judges I felt like a carnival barker in hell…step right up and see the freak show), left me without the time and the emotional energy to engage in my own joy.

Thank God, seriously, I realized that was happening. It only took a day or two to figure out how to deal with it, put it aside for the time being and join in the celebration of so many recent blessings in my life and the lives of my sisters. I sit here now, on the tail end of a week off, nearly ready to go back to work. I know, though, that that one choice made by that mom to put her child in the care of that one guy, who made the choice to do what he did will continue to ripple throughout my own life, professionally and personally. I know it’s going to wear me out, make me cry, make me pissed off and make me spend time in the basement with my heavy bag, hitting the only thing I can.

The little princess didn’t come back from this one. I give thanks knowing that my sister is raising that little boy to understand that bad choices have consequences. And in spite of the resurrection of Leia and the rehabilitation of the tauntaun, L knows some things aren’t made right.

 

How would sorrow find a home?

If we lived in a world without tears, how would heartbeats know when to stop? How would blood know which body to flow outside of? How would bullets find the gun? —Lucinda Williams

The court cases I cover almost always force me to ask myself what I think about repentance, forgiveness, grace and mercy. Some days it’s pretty clear –a victim behaves in a way that is totally atypical, offering forgiveness and hope to the guilty; or the guilty makes a truly genuine gesture of repentance, having clearly turned around and forsaken the former action.

But most times, it’s just a muddled mess — pride and denial waging a battle on one side of the courtroom while anger and betrayal war on the other. Somewhere in the middle is a judge trying to sort it out and craft some kind of thing that will resemble justice in the end, whatever the hell that is.

Today was one of those days, I guess, where things were less clear, at least at the end. A particularly difficult defendant to see as a soul (he lured a pizza deliveryman to a robbery and then shot him to death) and a victim’s family worn out by all the drama and pain of the past few years.  The case had more than its fair share of twists and turns on the way until today, and it kept it up right up until the end.

The defendant’s family characterized him throughout the hearing, and much of the case, as a generally respectful person raised in church and someone with a call on his life. The victim’s family begged to differ, knowing him only as the one who left their son and brother dying in a gutter.

Again, I was amazed at the callousness with which we treat each other, astonished at the blinders we wear in regards to our own behavior and that of those we love, and just generally saddened at the state of things in this place where the default is to grief.

I’m always glad I’m not the one on the bench. And it’s a good thing I’m not God.

The remembered

I was originally going to write about this on Saturday, but it was so beautiful outside, I couldn’t bring myself to darken the day. But it’s still on my mind, so here we are.

The mother who killed her son and then kept her dead baby in the plastic tub received a 62 year prison sentence Friday. She got a few extra years for beating her older daughter, a beautiful and precocious 10-year-old.

The judge wondered aloud before passing sentence what damage was done to that girl, how ever will she build something resembling a normal life and view of the world. She watched the crime occur. So did two other children.

This was the second case so far this year in which children witnessed their parents killing or beating soon-to-be-dead children.

It’s chilling when you think about it: how their little brains have been rewired before they even start out, opening the door to struggles most of us can’t even begin to imagine. There are those who will condemn them for those struggles, the choices they will make in the future, the lives they will lead and the situations in which they will find themselves. But I am giving them up to God. He knows where they started out and He will see where they end up.

My brain struggled with the contrast, though, on Sunday when we baptized yet another baby. (We’ve had a baby boom of sorts at church, so it’s been nearly every Sunday for the past few months. It’s cute.) This little girl was so happy, so adorable. She sat, mostly naked in her godmother’s arms, chubby hand stuffed in her grinning mouth while Fr. Andrew anointed her with the blessed oil.

So here we have these two stark realities:  a child protected and loved, prayed over from the beginning and hopefully safer within the community of believers of which she is now a part; and then these children in the care of mad people, crazy from anger or drugs or mental illness, who see that which most of us never see and then have to match that reality to the rest of their lives.

I may have to start lighting candles for all these kids. I already light one for my friends on the blog, the ones that fight on. I could turn the back of the church into a forest fire, though, with candles for all the children, living and dead, I’ve written about over my dozen years in this business.

For the ones that died: McKinzie, Jezaih, Ariona, Kweli, Alyssa, Kelsie, the list goes on and on, names I don’t even remember, there have been so many.

For the ones that live: most of those names I never know, the ones that survived, or the siblings of the condemned who saw or heard or knew.

Lord, have mercy.