My husband is always running out of gas. All. The. Time. One might assume that it’s because he’s flippant and ignores the fuel gauge that lights up when your car is running on empty. But, see, James is one of the most observant people you’ll ever meet. Did you get a haircut recently? He’ll notice. New pair of shoes? James will mention it. New car? New manicure? Lost some weight? James will see all of those and compliment you. In a sea of unobservant, self-focused, egocentric human beings crawling around the world, my husband is a rare bird. In many ways, James is like a super hero. He can cook like a pro. He can fix anything that breaks. He also knows every facet of the construction industry, because it consumed his every waking moment for so many years…..plumbing, electrical, design, trim, installation, they all come to him with absolute ease. And there’s nothing the guy doesn’t know. You should see James watching Jeopardy. I’ve never seen him lift weights with any regularity, but my husband carries around these gigantic guns and calls them arms. I’m telling you, super hero.
And it’s this mindset of I-can-do-anything that leads me to believe that the gas light gets noticed every single time. He doesn’t miss it. No, I think James sees a gas light in the car and wants to see how far he can go on what few fumes the car has left. It’s a challenge. Every super hero thrives on challenge, y’all.
So it didn’t surprise me when I saw our car sitting on the side of the road the other morning. I drove right past it and didn’t flinch. James had left the house early to take Olivia to a meeting for student council at school. I followed behind him about half an hour later, our youngest daughter in tow. Since our daughters go to the same building where I work, we end up at the same place, just 30 minutes apart. As I passed by the middle school and prepared to make the turn that takes me to Lifegate Church, there it sat. Our little yellow Chevy Aveo. We acquired it a while back from a neighbor as a super cheap, no frills, great-gas-mileage offset to the new Jeep we call our primary vehicle. The perfect second car. So small and inexpensive that you barely notice it’s there, but it comes in handy when you need another set of wheels. So my husband, with those big ‘ole arms, often crams himself into the teeny Aveo to go from here to there. He is often accompanied by other random items: a tool for the odd job, a suitcase if he’s traveling, the gigantic saxophone case if Olivia is with him. All stuffed in there. And there the trusty Aveo sat, in all its sunny yellow and dependable glory, on the side of 156th Street that morning.
I knew immediately it had run out of gas. I called James from the comfort of my fancy schmancy Jeep and skipped right past the greetings: “Ran out of gas again, huh?” Turns out, he was at the gas station with the portable container he always keeps on hand (see, told you it happened a bunch) and I had to head to Bakers to grab snacks for a work meeting. I swung by the gas station and he hopped in the car, so I could drive him two minutes down the road to the Aveo. As I sat there, watching him filling up the tank enough to get the car to start, I saw lights pull up behind me. A sheriff.
It was the first time in almost two years that my heart didn’t jump out of my chest, that my palms didn’t start to sweat. I was doing nothing wrong, just hanging out while we fed fuel to our vehicle. It happens to people all over the world all the time. No big deal. But there was a time when the sight of a police car could bring me to near panic. I’m talking full on anxiety with sharp, choppy breaths pierced by sobs, flushed cheeks and soaked hands gripping the steering wheel. It wasn’t always this way. I’ve spent almost my entire life assuming that the police are my friends. Safe, caring individuals who long to protect and bring justice when necessary. I’m sure that’s true for most officers. I’m a rule follower who rarely finds herself in hot water and I’d never had a reason to assume the police were seeking me out. But that changed on June 15th.
The summer that our daughters spent in foster care began with a phone call and led to a knock on our door. The knock would probably sound innocent enough to any other ears, but to me it sounded ominous. The thuds of the gentleman’s fist on my burnt-red painted door shook the frame of my body and reverberated in my head for weeks to come. At the time, I was sure the walls shook too, but when I look back, I suppose that was only in my head. A knock is just a knock unless it isn’t.
On my front stoop stood two male police officers, middle aged and clean cut. They were polite when we answered the door, our tiny five pound Pomeranian greeting them with a friendly bark, not knowing that these men came bearing a request that caused my stomach to sink. They wanted to question us, all four of us, and asked us to get into their cars. We had no idea at the time that we could refuse. We had no reason to think otherwise. Surely a quick trip downtown for questioning would clear this whole mess up.
The sight of soft chocolate brown hair from Olivia and Natalee’s heads, peeking above the seats of the police car in front of me, as we made our way down Q Street, is seared into my mind’s eye. Those babies of mine, precious gifts I never expected to receive, were traveling in the same car that had held criminals. They saw the bars separating the front from the back, the worn fabric of the seats, the equipment attached to the dashboard, communicating through beeps and blips and short messages. “10-4. Over.” In all my prayers for these daughters, I never once asked for them to have the worldly knowledge they obtained that night in that car. I had prayed for the opposite. I begged for the opposite. But even a mama’s desperate pleas can go unanswered.
Once we arrived for questioning, a different officer stood guard in the TV room, keeping us separated and preventing us from speaking to one another. She was a young female. She chatted kindly without showing too much emotion, but I kept noticing the beads of sweat gathering on her forehead, despite our air conditioned surroundings. Eventually, via casual conversation, she mentioned that she was on ‘desk duty’ with the police force because she was in the midst of chemo treatments for cancer. She couldn’t have been more than 30 years old and knowing her health was poor pricked my rapidly beating heart, even as I sat panicked in that lounge with the tv playing softly. Hearing her confession made me realize her hair was a wig. The sweat came from her inability to self-regulate her temperature. I should have offered to pray for her right then. I have no idea why I didn’t. I regret it.
In the days that followed, the anxiety set in and tried hard to take root. The sight of a police car – the bright blinking lights, the blaring sirens, the blue uniforms – they all brought on an odd form of déjà vu, the memories rotating on a track in my mind. Each time I would approach our home in my car, I’d slow down before turning onto my street. What if a police car was sitting in the driveway, waiting for me? One day stretched into the next, so I worked mostly from home during the day, to avoid the confused glances and questions that would surely come from my sweet co-workers. But there were times when a task had to be done at the building I called my work home. I’d wait until the sun fell underneath the horizon and drive over to work. The building was always oddly quiet and dark, void of the normal bustle it sees in the daylight. Occasionally I’d hear the sound of vacuum cleaners off in the far hallways, but otherwise I was alone at my little desk, working into the night. Since sleep evaded me, the distraction was welcomed. But all the creeping around struck me as so unlike my nature, so out of my ordinary. Normally an early-to-bed kind of girl and honest to a fault, the shadows in the night soon became my friends.
The problem with nighttime is that it’s also often when crime occurs. Through the large windows of the building as I worked the night away, I’d see the cop cars sweep through our expansive parking lot. Just doing their jobs, watching for break-ins and other unsavory behavior, as they have done for years. But now, with a lawyer preparing a case against me, those cars with the looming black and white markings felt oppressive. Were they looking for me? What if they waited by my car? What if they called me outside? I’m all alone, a woman, in an empty building in the evening. What would I do?
How had this happened? I’m a good girl who follows the rules. How could this have unraveled so far so quickly? I thought of all the times I had sat and watched the tv show Cops with my family. Inevitably, the police would be on the hunt for a suspected criminal and a chase ensues. People try to run but it’s fruitless; between cars and helicopters, the person is always found and arrested. Once detained, the person usually says something like “But officer I didn’t do anything wrong!” All those years I had watched that show and snickered, assuming they were trying to escape punishment. But my predicament made me wonder: if this could happen to me, why not some other innocent? I sat in the stillness of the offices, my trusty space heater running on the floor behind me, and watched those cars with a lump in my throat, sweat dripping down my back and my stomach twisting like a boa constrictor around my other organs. I longed to scream from the anguish, the frustration, the injustice. But fear paralyzed me. When the car turned out of the parking lot and got swallowed up by the darkness, I would put my head down on the coolness of my desk, let the tears fall freely and then get back to work.
The good news is that some things are predictable, even in the chaos of everyday living. Time is one of them. It keeps coming like clockwork, second by second and minute by minute. With time comes the healing over of open wounds, the shiny white scars covering the places that once stung from the swoosh of open air and touch. It’s been nearly two years since the day with that knock on the door. When the knocks happen now, I don’t immediately assume I’m about to be arrested. And when the cop cars pass me by on the road, or even pull up behind me as my husband pumps gas into our little Aveo, I don’t free-fall into panic. For a season in my life, this good girl who has never seen the inside of a jail cell, smoked a cigarette or committed a crime, navigated a complicated relationship with the law. But then I rebounded. Because that’s how Father has designed us. To take the hits that will inevitably come our way, and then bring us up from the depths. Even more than that, He increases honor and comforts us. He restores.
That morning, I watched the sheriff walk back to his car, now confident that we needed no help from him. Just a couple filling up their vehicle with fuel. Nothing to see here, folks. He put on his turn signal, eased his way onto 156th Street in the rush of morning traffic and gave a friendly wave as he passed me. I have no idea what his name is. I don’t know anything about him. But that wave, a run-of-the-mill wave, reminded me that my relationship with police, while once complicated, was now just as it should be. Boring. Painless. Ordinary.