Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Tragic Five Degrees of Separation --

Some years ago we received news from a dear cousin living in Southern California that her 21 year-old son, Billy, had died the night before in a horrible gun accident. He was serving in the navy, and while sitting on his bed in conversation with his best friend -- somehow, the gun in the hand of his buddy was discharged and Billy was killed instantly. We mourned. No charges were filed. It was a complete tragedy.

My late sister's son, Thurmon, about a year later ... was shot and killed in his own home under circumstances we never understood. No one was ever charged. His only sibling, Gail, was left alone. My sister and her husband having both died a few years earlier of natural causes. He was a 29 year-old father of three daughters.

Then, about five years ago, the 23 year-old young male cousin was driving home at around midnight on an Oakland freeway when a sniper killed him in a random act of violence. A few weeks later, and after terrorizing late night drivers, he was caught, but before that happened -- several other innocent victims had lost their lives to his rifle aimed from ambush - and all just for the hell of it! He's serving time now in prison.

This weekend was my birthday (or at least a few days prior), and toward late afternoon my son, David, and his two younger daughters arrived with five live crabs purchased in the Pacific Market in El Cerrito. He came prepared to do a crab feed; multiple cloves of garlic, a fragrant bunch of parsley, lemons, and a package of Zatarains Louisiana crab boil fixings. They spent the afternoon with Dorian and me, with David busily in the kitchen doing the honors, and Tamaya and Alayana watching videos while Dorian busily crocheted her latest colorful afghan.

Something was wrong. I could feel it. Within the hour David began to talk. "Kokee was almost killed last night, Mom."

On Saturday night, his eldest daughter -- 22 years old, and her boyfriend were leaving a sports bar in Sacramento and were stopped by two young men with a gun. There was an attempted robbery. They took her cellphone and what they could find in her wallet, and while busy with her they began to get rough. Her boyfriend took on one of the assailants screaming to her to run for the car. A gunshot rang out in the night! She ran as fast as she could -- terrified! In her telling of the story later -- after dinner (she and the other grandchildren joined us after six o'clock), she tearfully told us how she'd run frantically -- hearing footsteps running behind her -- and thinking that she was about to be shot to death (thinking that her friend lay dead). But -- just before reaching the car he overtook her. It was her friend who had survived, and she was safe for the moment.

They drove away without realizing that he'd been shot in the neck. The bullet had entered soft tissue and exited without penetrating any vital organs. He didn't know that he'd been shot until she saw the blood. She took off her t-shirt and applied pressure to the wound as he looked for the nearest hospital. It was in Davis, a few miles out of Sacramento, but they made it safely.

It was a sobering birthday party. We felt particularly close. Rhico (her younger brother) brought his girlfriend for me to meet for the first time. They're both seventeen and in love. Such beautiful and loving kids. It was all so bittersweet. The fragility of life was keenly evident to us all.

After they'd left and I was picking up the gift boxes and tissue paper and absently folding it as if I have some guarantee that we'll all be here this Christmas when much of it will be recycled. I found myself remembering Thurman, Billy, and Christian, all in their graves so young.

Ours is a loving family with little contact with the world of violence. There are no questionable lifestyles to worry over among the young. Nonetheless, how typical is it that four young people in one family will have encountered death or threat of death by gunfire? I truly don't know... .

I thought then of the NRA and of the empty arguments in defense of "The Right To Bear Arms" and it felt so hollow and so meaningless. I recalled those faces of gun advocates smugly chanting their mantra, "guns don't kill people, people kill people!"

I called Kokee earlier this evening to assure myself that she's okay, and that her young friend is recovering well. "He is in a lot of pain, but seems alright considering." She is so young. I am so frightened this night... .

Michele, my co-worker has been visiting her son-in-law for the past nine months. He's been hospitalized after suffering grave gunshot wounds. He was kept alive for weeks on a ventilator. No one knows if he'll survive, eventually, or whether he will ever walk. I'm not sure just why, but I worked all day today without mentioning Kokee's brush with death to her. Got home more tired than usual, I suppose from the effort it took to spare her the confirmation that the world has gone mad.

When did life become so cheap and good people so expendable?

Do you suppose this is in anyway related to our having been in a continuing state of war for such a long time? Or, despite studies to the contrary, does the expression of violence all around us de-sensitize the living so that death becomes no more than the ordinary state of un-being?

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