The same week my son spoke his first real words, something happened in America for which there are no words. A mother and father in Missouri were told their teenage son had been killed. Tanks and tear gas filled the streets. Michael Brown became a household name.
The world is wonder and chaos and sadness, all in one brush stroke. On Sunday, Colleen and I marveled as we heard our little boy–just a few weeks shy of his first birthday– point directly at the toy car that looks like a crocodile and recite the name we’d given it: “Croc car.” This was no fluke. For the rest of the night, he kept pointing to and naming the toy with his still-developing tongue: Craaa caaa, Craaa caa. As if he was a Bostonian allergic to the letter r. When he’d say it, he’d look first at the car, then at us. His face lighting up in a smile as he connected sound with object, then saw us nodding our heads and repeating the phrase back to him. The moment, as inevitable as it was, also seemed so out of left field (Why today? Why that toy?) that we just shook our heads and laughed. And then we pointed again to the car and listened. The novelty not yet worn off. The pride almost all-consuming.
That night, 1,500 miles away, protesters furious over the shooting of Michael Brown clashed with police for the ninth night in a row. The air filled with smoke. Protesters ignored a curfew ordered by the Governor. Police officers carried around weapons of war. The National Guard was called in.
There are hundreds of stories that should be and have been written about the shooting and subsequent protests and police action. But I keep thinking about Michael Brown’s parents.
In the hours after learning her teenage son had been shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer, Lesley McSpadden found herself staring into a collection of TV cameras. Answering questions when she probably just wanted to collapse alone or yell at the sky or curl up into a ball and cry heavier tears than she had ever cried before. But instead she gave interviews. She told the world her son, Michael, was just days away from going college. He’d been one credit shy of graduating high school in the spring. But over the summer, he’d done the work and gotten his diploma. He was going to a technical college. Friends say he wanted to start his own business. McSpadden told the media, “You didn’t have to tell him ‘Make sure you get to school.’ He was ready.” She’d spent 18 years working, worrying, sacrificing to get her son to that point. And like that, he was gone.
The morning after “croc car” became Declan’s official first word(s), I couldn’t wait for him to wake up. To pick him up from his crib. To hear what he had to say next. So when he stirred, I rushed into his room. I saw him recoil from the sudden brightness surrounding him, and then smile and point. At me. Maybe, I thought, I’ll get a definitive “Dada.” He has, after all, danced around the word before, babbling Da sounds toward me. And then, just when I think he is saying my name, he’ll say the same thing to the dog or the microwave or the chicken on his high chair tray.
So I was hoping for Dada. Instead, he kneeled silently and waited for me to pick him up. Then as I walked toward the door and turned the knob, he flapped his arms and said two words: “Craaa caaa.” And when he saw his croc car sitting right where he’d left it, he smiled. Proudly and knowingly.
It’ll be 17 more years before I send Declan off to college, assuming he wants to go. There are still hundreds of milestones to mark before then. Walking and potty training. Day care and kindergarten. Driving and dating. And the everyday stuff in between. The moments that come out of left field, like the croc car. I can’t imagine missing a single one of them. I can’t imagine someone calling to tell me my son is gone, that there will be no more milestones, no more moments.
The world is wonder and chaos and sadness, all mixed together. At work today, I stayed late to watch the growing unrest in Ferguson. The removal of media members. The silhouettes atop armored vehicles. Portable toilets dragged across a street. Small fires. Handcuffs and raised hands. It was unreal and depressing. Before I went into work, my son said another word: “book.” I couldn’t have been more proud.
Lesley McSpadden’s son was shot by a police officer a week and a half ago. He’s not coming back. He’s not going to college. There are no words for it. What’s happening in Ferguson is personal.