Last Tuesday my son Joe and I sprang my aging and still feisty mother from her assisted living cell and took her to IHOP for their “all you can eat” pancakes. My mom has special needs—says they don’t feed her enough and was never one to pass up an “all you can eat” anything. Mom hit the separator strip in the entrance doorway with her walker. She wobbled a bit. As Joe grabbed one elbow, and I grabbed the other, I thought to myself, We don’t have time for this. One of the waitresses moved to help but astutely recognized that the situation was basically under control and backed off. A minor tragedy was prevented. Joe and I enjoyed a light lunch, and watched my mom have a few pancakes to go with about a gallon of syrup.
After Joe and I returned Mom to her so-called cell in plenty of time for dinner, we had a déjà vu experience at the grocery store. Someone else’s aging mother hit the deck hard about 20 feet in front of us. Like my mom, she couldn’t have weighed more than 100 pounds. I saw her hit the deck before Joe did, so I was there first. Her gray-haired impatient son actually said, “We don’t have time for this, Mom.”
His feisty mom snapped: “Would it kill you to wait?”
After a bit of a struggle, we got the woman to her feet. The store manager and a few others quickly came to clutter the scene, nearly causing a second fall; an accident of good intentions.
As the aging woman and her son moved down the coffee aisle, I asked Joe why he didn’t help. He said, “You guys had it. If you had a heart attack trying to help her, I’d have helped you. Well, I would have called for help.”
“Love you too, champ,” I said.
“Three’s a crowd, Dad,” Joe smirked.
Joe had a point. Three’s a crowd. In a crisis, say, when a family calls for help for a special-needs teen holding a screwdriver, unless a triad has worked together and is very clear about their roles, three can become an unholy trinity.
On January 5th three public servants from three different law-enforcement agencies responded to a call for help from a Brunswick County family with a special-needs teenager. A call that should have resulted in a tiny teen with schizophrenia, safely gaining access to mental health-care, resulted in the death of 18-year-old Keith Vidal. As of this writing, two of the three public servants have been cleared, while the shooter awaits the results of an internal investigation. At this writing, as the family begins a lifelong grieving process, and the rest of us move on to the Super Bowl, no charges have been filed.
Eventually, it may be determined that Keith Vidal’s death was merely another accident of good intentions. Three well-intentioned public servants, from three different agencies, entered a home to defuse an emergency situation. The situation became life threatening and lethal force justifiably was used. Or charges may be filed, and a court will determine the extent of the crime, if any.
In my opinion, if there’s a crime, impatience is at the very least a co-conspirator. But death isn’t swayed by our opinions about its cause, its justifiability, its preventability, or where we place blame. Near as I can tell, death’s only response to our opinions is to remind us it is a fact. Keith Vidal will remain dead through all investigations and arguments, and any potential positive changes we make as a community in how we treat those with severe illness or value our public servants.
I hope we remember that. And I hope we do more than look for answers. It seems after every tragedy we go “looking for answers.” I hope we also look for better questions. How do we justify consistently cutting funding for mental health yet complain about lack of services leading to tragedy on the other? Why do folks from every political persuasion fear a “police state” yet arm local police like SEAL Team 6, and expect them to provide discipline in schools, stop gang violence, stop cyber-crime, gather surveillance on terrorists, assist in mental-health commitments, and fold the laundry? (All for slightly more salary than a manager of a McDonald’s.) In situations such as mental-health commitments, where law enforcement presence seems a necessary evil, what stops us from investing in a mental health unit of patient law-enforcement public servants who are willing to de-weaponize and coordinate with the highly valued public servants of a resurgent and well-funded community mental health system?
Death doesn’t give a damn. Do we?