Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Blue Bloods and Birthdays...

In the chaos of life these days I don't think I realized just how close it was until I looked at my screen and saw "June 7, 2017." One month.

One month until the day I used to count down to with an excited smile growing up. 
One month until the day written on every legal document I own. 
One month until the day I wish I could remove from the calendar. 
One month until my birthday. 
One month until July 7th. 

We all sat around a big table at a restaurant eating chicken and chugging cold tea. Everyone that was important to me was seated in a circle. Parents. Siblings. A nephew. A friend. And a love. It was a sweltering Thursday night and for once no one was working. We were all gathered to celebrate the big day... my birthday. I don't know why I was more adamant that most years to get everyone together for one night with no excuses. When dinner was over we took a group photo. Eight adults smiling and one baby in a bow tie. A peaceful moment encapsulated in time. We walked to our cars. And we began the drive home. The sunset over the water tower was countless shades of pink and you could feel the heat on the passenger window. Just another Texas summer night. Then my phone went off.... His phone went off... and both continued to go off. I looked down, saw the message and told him to park the car and get into the house immediately. We needed the news because whatever texts we were receiving were obviously wrong. 

A shooting. 
A sniper. 
Dallas Police officers down. 
Active situation. 

The only access to television we had was a social media live stream of a local news station on a 70 inch television. There was no delay in the feed. The screen was so large it was like watching a movie in a theater. But the images on the screen were not a scene from a movie. It was real. It was the culmination of worst nightmares and biggest fears coming together and unfolding right in front of us. The phones would not stop sounding with alerts. I looked at my brother who had his hands on his head. I looked at my sister on the floor with a confused expression on her face. I clutched the hand of the man I loved and tears streamed down my face. And I looked back at the huge screen. And as I looked up I saw an officer fall to the ground. You didn't need narration to know what had happened. I gasped out loud. I heard my brother swear under his breath. And I felt the hand holding mine let go. I looked at his face after he let go and the color was gone. There was just a blank stare in his eyes. I was sitting on the floor in a room filled with police officers as they watched their brothers and sisters in blue gunned down in the streets of Dallas. 

Numbers scrolled across the screen. 3 officers shot. No. 7 officers shot. No. 12 officers possibly shot. I reached for his hand. I tried desperately to hold his hand. But he wouldn't take it. And I had no idea at that moment, as chaos and fear and disgust and helplessness took over, that he would never hold my hand again. 

Time stopped as the magnitude of what was unraveling in Dallas become more and more clear. And the reality that these men- the men that I love and desperately wanted to somehow protect- needed to put their uniforms on and head out into this world that I no longer understood. Nothing made sense. There were more questions than answers. There was more confusion than any clarity. The only thing I knew for certain was that the most important men in my life were police officers and they were walking out the door into a war zone. 

The hours blurred together and the messages on my phone continued to pour in. But one message caught me by surprise. It was from a friend, who like every year, was a day late in wishing me a "Happy Birthday." In the midst of "Are they ok?" and "Any updates?" messages was a lone message that just read, "Happy Birthday" on my phone screen. And at that moment it struck me that this massacre had happened on my birthday. And I made the decision that I would never celebrate that day again. 

Minutes felt like hours and hours felt like days. I was curled up in bed because the sadness and the fear and the confusion were somehow easier to physically handle if I was curled in a ball. I knew facts now though. I knew that 5 officers were dead and more than a half dozen injured. I knew that my loved ones were now working their shift with targets on their back wearing a vest that wasn't strong enough to protect them. And I knew I would never walk down the aisle with the man I loved because when he let go of my hand... I lost him. 

I didn't want to get out of bed. I didn't want to go anywhere or do anything. But I had received a message asking for help from the Red Cross. They needed me to volunteer outside the Dallas Police Department. A memorial had been set up and given the extreme heat we needed to hand out water. I pulled together whatever energy I had reserved inside of me and put my vest on. It wasn't the bullet proof kind but for some reason I felt safer with it on. I had never said "no" to the Red Cross before and I couldn't do it this time. So I got in my car and I drove.

I drove through streets barricaded with police tape and Texas Rangers standing guard. There were tarps on the ground and stone columns covered in bullet holes now colored orange. There were news vehicles as far as the eye could see and there were officers every where. I don't remember parking. I don't remember walking up to the building. But I remember seeing the flowers, balloons, police cruisers and teddy bears when I got there. And I remember getting down on my knees in front of this sea of blue and crying.

I looked around me and was overwhelmed at the outpouring of support for law enforcement officers. There were tears but there were also hugs and thank-you's. And out of the corner of my eye I saw a teenage girl. And from the look on her face it was obvious that she wasn't visiting the Dallas Police Department to pay her respects. She was a cop's daughter. I saw it in her eyes because the expression on her face was all too familiar for this kid cop herself. 

I knew if I did nothing else while at this memorial in that red vest that I needed to talk to that girl. So I reached deep within me to find whatever smile I could possibly have hidden inside and I walked up to this girl and introduced myself. Her name was Peyton. She was 16. And that man in uniform with the shield to my right... was her Dad.  I talked at length to this sweet girl about the benefits of being a "cop kid" and the downfalls. I told her about the immense pressure put on us and how quickly we have to grow up because there are only a handful of other kids that say goodbye to a parent as they go off to work and know the chance of welcoming them home is not a given. I got her to laugh when I told about the joys of dating when your Dad is a cop and how that immediately means you have about 20 other Dads interrogating your date. And I tried to help make sense, what little I could, of the nightmare she had just lived through. I realized the words I spoke to her were the words I desperately needed to hear myself. I noticed the entire time we talked though she would look over my shoulder at her Dad behind me as if to check that he was ok. And every time she looked over at him, I looked down at my phone... doing the same exact thing. 

Peyton's mom asked to take a photo of us because she thought it was a sweet encounter between two cop kids. I didn't feel like smiling but I gave it my best effort and posed for a photo with a teenage girl I knew I wouldn't see again. As I walked away from her I hoped I had made just a small difference in her ability to understand what had happened and prepared her for what's to come. This was the new normal now and things would never be the same when our loved ones put on that uniform and walked out that door. 

I spent the next week working the memorial and the funerals. I don't remember all the details but I remember finding strength in volunteering. In knowing that I could do something, no matter how small, to help offset the heartache and helplessness I felt. I couldn't protect my dad or brothers or the man I loved from harm while they were out doing their job. But I could do my part to help others. And as the summer dragged on and I adjusted to the new normal that the July 7th Dallas Police Shooting had created in my life, I found myself at crossroads. 

I had been presented with the opportunity to leave a museum position and work full time for the Red Cross... and I took it. I had drawn so much strength from wearing that red vest in the wake of tragedy and I wanted the opportunity to serve my community. My family are all first responders- generations of them. So I decided being a disaster responder would be my way of wearing the family crest. While they wore their vests... I would wear mine. And I would do exactly what I had done after the July 7th shooting: help people I knew I would never see again. 

So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email my third week of work from a woman who wanted to thank me. She had met me two months prior outside the Dallas Police Department when I approached her daughter Peyton. She wanted me to know that I had touched her daughter's heart and made a difference. She wanted to reintroduce herself as not only Peyton's mom but also a new employee of the Red Cross herself, Marni. And she wanted me to know that there was more to the story of Peyton that I didn't know: that July 7th was her 16th birthday and she was adamant about never celebrating it again. And she attached a photo to her email. 

Marni had no way of knowing that July 7th was my birthday. But she learned in my reply. She also learned of all the ways that Peyton and I were alike in more than just height, hair and Cop Dads. I told her that I too would never celebrate July 7th as a birthday again because it would never feel like the right thing to do. Second only to September 11th, our birthday was now the day of the deadliest attack on law enforcement in American history and it was our home that it took place in... and our loved ones that wore the uniform. 

But then we remembered that special thing about Cop Kids and Blue Bloods... they don't give up. No matter what. If the men and women we love are brave enough to do what they do every day by putting their life on the line to serve and protect then we must be brave enough to not only let them but support them. And there is power and strength in that realization. So Peyton and I will join together one month from today on July 7th. We will come together to have "A Birthday with a Purpose" and we will give the day back to our heroes in blue. A birthday "celebration": a celebration of heroism, remembrance, perseverance, appreciation and the promise to Never Forget. 

We may be but two brunette girls but our blood runs blue. And for that we are honored and proud. On July 7th we'll give our birthday back to law enforcement... and you're cordially invited to attend. All of you.