“I can’t breathe”, he gasps beside me in bed. “Can I? Am I breathing? Ashley, I’m okay? I’m…I’m not breathing. Why can’t I breathe? I can’t breathe.”
The sharp intake of air is what woke me. I strained my eyes in the dark to see the outline of his chest, full of held air. “BREATHE.”, the punctuated word sped out of my parched lips even as my hand found his chest and pressed firmly, briefly, down in an attempt to startle his body back into rhythm. Jesse holds his breath in his sleep, sometimes, the result of the seizures which plague his body. The behavior wakes only a part of him in the night and confusion and terror rule him while I work to bring him into awareness. I have a system now, because I’ve been living this life with him a long while. I work rapidly to restore air to his lungs. I have never stood by and watched him suffocate.
And that is why, as I’ve read the reports and watched the video clips, the ones where the man I do not know pleads the words “I can’t breathe”, my mind has moved swiftly into bed beside a gasping Jesse, and that is why I have let the panic and the pain wash over me for someone’s person made needlessly breathless.
“Let him BREATHE!”, I shouted silently to the screen. But he did not. One man did not work to give another soul’s frame the life’s breath he needed. Other men stood by, not one stepping in to rescue the dying beside them. I cannot fathom the horror of doing nothing. I cannot.
I am a white female. I live with someone who steps out into public with slumped shoulder and dragging leg and draws the prying gaze of onlookers. I live with one full arm and one half arm on my own body. I am used to the stares, to the jeers, to the slow-talkers who assume I am mentally slow and incapable, and now to those who assume my husband is the same. But I am also used to people stepping in-overstepping, even-to rescue me at every turn from my own “incapabilities” as a vulnerable-looking white female with a visible disability. No matter what place I find myself in in life, on the ground with another person’s knee on my throat having the life choked out of me is not a place I will likely be. My physical difference makes me vulnerable, somehow, when darker skin makes another person a threat. Never mind the heavy robot arm I wear around, a veritable weapon in its own right. No sense can be made of this. None.
I have no answers on a Thursday morning sitting comfortably in my home because my skin is pale. I do not know what to do or what to say or how to help. But I am here, watching my darker skinned neighbors move in a panic into their homes because maybe today it will be they who are made breathless because they are black. I am seeking answers, seeking knowledge, seeking wisdom from the people around me who live a life I do not. I can do those things because I have breath in my lungs, you see. I am privileged to be breathing easily because I am privileged to be white, and I am furious with the ache of injustice at the thought.
I have been gasping for air as I have heaved sobs over another life lost. I have been thinking of our dear friend Edna and a thousand others. Faces of people I know run through my mind and I have wept at the pain and fear they live out. I have been sitting on my couch, broken and confused, grappling with the reality that I, as a white woman by no cause of my own, have a stupidly unfair and unjust advantage in America. I am embarrassed to be white, angry at the terror others are being subjected to just trying to pick up a meal or take a jog, sickened to see so many measuring the worth of a person by the color of their skin. And I am sorry-deeply, profoundly, unrelentingly sorry that you in the black community have lived with such weight on your shoulders. I have not known what to say or do or how to not sound awkward and make a mess of everything. Please forgive me for my silence. I know how the quiet screams.
I am white. I am a woman. I am disabled. And I am privileged. I am grieving a dying husband. I am waking up in the night to force air into his lungs. When he says “I can’t breathe”, I move to give him breath. Never have I ever considered placing my knee on his neck to silence the sound of his voice. Never have I ever. I am holding my breath with my brown and black brothers and sisters, today, all of us made breathless by the wrongdoing of one man to another. I don’t know what to do or how to do it, but I’m here. I want better. I can’t be black, but I can be a white woman willing~to speak out, to speak up, to sit in ache beside the grieving and the grieved, to use what I’ve been given to help end the devastation of racism, to slam my fist down onto the chest of a society squeezing its eyes shut and holding its breath in hopes this will just pass over someday and shout out –“BREATHE!”- in an attempt to startle us into alertness of our real reality. BREATHE! Just breathe. Please. Please breathe…