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

On swimming with sharks

I spent the week in another murder trial — this time a poor young man so mentally ill, so paranoid and delusional that he killed at least two people. The men he killed could not have been more innocent, more worthy of life and love. One, a building inspector on his way to his daughter’s softball game, his county car full of equipment for a happy time with family. As he stopped to inspect the concrete work at a new home under construction, this other man ran to him, stabbing him four times in the chest, taking his life.

Just days before, this same young man who has visions of demon faces and messages in garage sale signs, saw a red spot on a garage door and took that as some kind of indicator, a message that he was to do something. So he hid in a garage, one of those neat-as-a-pin garages belonging to the elderly, and pounced upon an 85-year-old widower as he stooped to get a scoop of birdseed for his birds before heading to morning Mass.

Two lives in three or four days in the summer of 2002. Now, two convictions. Three families grieving. And he did all this with knives.

While I sat in the courtroom, watching more sadness, families in Connecticut heard the worst, saw the worst, lived the worst. I cannot even begin to understand, to articulate, to even contemplate. I once covered the sentencing of a man who senselessly shot a 4-year-old in a careless act of rage with a mis-aimed rifle. It is an experience I’d like never to repeat. I found myself glad I was far away from this one, that I didn’t have to press for answers, watch the terror, the horror of realization and the relentless persistence of sorrow. I’m glad that my fiance was not the one through the door in that classroom to see those precious ones, bloody and lifeless on the floor. I close my eyes this week and see the old man, bleeding out in the birdseed and that is enough for me.

I am drifting left on gun control, I guess, seeing all the crazy, the senseless, and worrying that the man I love, that I want to grow old with, will pull over the wrong car, walk into the wrong house… I tend to think no reasonable person needs an extended capacity magazine. But a tactical shotgun was stolen from my house a week ago, so there’s that. 

This much I know: we’ve lost our minds. As a culture, as a society, as a country. We have no right to stand in judgement of any other society ever, in the history of time or in the future. It’s because crazy people have guns. It’s because God isn’t in our homes, our families. It’s because our children aren’t raised with empathy. It’s because children are raised in homes where parents slave away for companies who find new ways to screw over their workforce. It’s because of video games and violent television. It’s because of Jersey Shore and Honey Boo Boo. It’s because of hormones in our food and e. coli in our peanut butter. It’s because of child abuse, and mortgage foreclosures, and divorce.

We’re all prey now, kids. We’re all old men reaching for birdseed, oblivious to what lurks behind us. We’re kindergarteners in classrooms at the start of the school day. 

Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.Image