Clara slowly walked up to me and laid a hand on my arm. “I know why the flowers are there.”
I placed my hand over her’s and turned to face her. “Why are the flowers there, Clara?” I asked. But I knew why the flowers were there. I knew why we had driven back into our neighborhood that evening and found flowers on the curve of the road at the end of our driveway. I had read the news reports. I had seen the pictures. I had recognized the names of my neighbors as they were listed as “witnesses”.
Shortly after we left the house a few days prior, police were called to our neighborhood to confront an upset man who was standing in the street wielding a knife. He was angry. He was emotional and aggressive. His wife was telling him to get into a car. He refused. He held a knife up to his own neck. He refused to comply with the trooper’s orders and eventually rushed at them with the knife. He was shot multiple times by several officers. He remained there, in the street, until a rescue helicopter came and took him to the hospital. He died the following morning.
I didn’t know the man. I didn’t recognize his name. When I found out that he lived just two houses away, I was surprised. I had no memory of ever seeing anyone at that house before. Sure, someone obviously lived there, but I didn’t ever consider who they might be. Who was this man that lived so many years just a few houses away?
The news reports called him “a Palmer man”, “a knife-wielding man”, “a disturbed man”. The comment sections of these reports were far less considerate, adding to the list, “moron”, “idiot”, and a much longer list of names I can’t repeat. There was a ripple emanating from that point on the pavement where his body had lain, and the further away it got, the less meaning it had, the less human this man became, and disturbingly, the more judgement the observers became.
Even my first reaction to the news was to consider my own safety. I thanked God that my family wasn’t there, that my children didn’t have to witness something like that out the window from our living room, I was embarrassed about my unmowed lawn. This man was probably on drugs, or out of his mind. He had been shot and then later died, but I was the real subject of the story. How did this affect me? That was the real question.
I thought about those ripples. Where did I fall in the proximity to this man whose house I could see from my driveway?
So, I placed my hand over Clara’s hand on my arm and I turned to face her. “Why are the flowers there?” I asked.
She hesitated a moment, “That’s where Jenna’s Dad died.”
And suddenly I was struck in the chest with it. Jenna’s Dad. Jenna’s Dad. Somehow, it is perfectly reasonable for me to be so far removed that I do not even know the name or the face of a man that lives two houses away from me. But it is absolutely impossible to comprehend that a child wouldn’t know that man’s children.
We close ourselves up in our homes and respectfully look away when neighbors walk by on the street. Perhaps we wave a hand as we mow our lawns and share a look of mutual exhaustion. But it is our children that rush across that great expanse of pavement and fearless thrust themselves into each other’s lives. They are the ones that grab the hands of strangers and an hour later they are included on their list of “best friends”. It is innocence that desires to know and be known by the people next door. Adults are not like that. We don’t need each other any more. We are too old to need people. People are a nuisance. And then suddenly we are reminded that we actually do need them. And they need us.
I stepped out onto the porch with her and she pointed to the collection of flowers arranged together on the curve of the road.
I nodded and then looked down at my unkempt lawn, the scattering of discarded toys and bicycles, the colorful chalk drawings of purple sunshines and bright orange flowers, clutter which I so often am irritated by. My eyes traveled beyond all of this, to the street, where there were more chalk drawings. A hopscotch field of notes and symbols, bright orange circles marking the location of bullet casings. A joyless mural. And within all of this were numbers, lines, ripples spreading out from the place where Jenna’s dad had been. Ripples recording distance. The distance from which shots were fired. The distance from which his wife had been standing. The distance from which each car had been parked. Ripples. They extended out, from the street. Out past my driveway. They passed through me. Through my heart. Through my home. Beyond my home. Disappearing off into the crowded oblivion.
Jenna’s Dad. I thought to myself. Jenna’s Dad.
I placed a hand on my daughter’s shoulder. “Never grow up,” I told her softly.