He Said He Can’t Breathe, Mama

Last night, I was glued to the local news, when my son came paddling down the stairs in his pajamas. His hair was crazy messed and his skin tan from the sun already, even though it is still only May.

It was 10:17 pm. He should have been sleeping. He knew that. I knew that. But he also knew that there was some sort of flashy light noise thingy keeping him awake. At least that is what he tried to convince me of.

I was tired of bedtime negotiations and opened my arms for him to crawl into.

When he saw my worn-down outstretched arms, he knew he had earned bonus time. He practically leapt into my lap. Once situated, he turned his face towards the television, the only sound in the room.

I watched his eye grow big as he tried to absorb what was happening.

‘Are you watching a rated R movie mama?’

‘No Sawyer, this is the news. This is happening in Minneapolis.’

‘Where Uncle Jon used to live?’

‘Yup, where Uncle Jon used to live.’

The screen was filled with fire and smoke, an auto shop being burned. Men and women were running from a Target, their hands and carts filled with televisions and other items. Police officers stood guard in a line with guns and face shields.

Sawyer screamed, ‘That man has a television on his back!’

It was mass chaos. We both sat there for a few minutes, just watching. I noticed he was squeezing my knee with his hand every few seconds.

It did look like a scene from a movie.

The noises coming from the television were equally disturbing. What sounded like gunshots, screaming, even fireworks. And a man, the Mayor actually, asking for peace. And for justice for a man.

Finally Sawyer spoke again.

‘What happened mama?’

I knew I had a choice to make. I could sugarcoat or even lie. I could tell myself that he was too young to understand. Or that he would have nightmares from the truth. Or I suppose I could even convince myself that it wasn’t my story to tell.

But. No. He needed to know what had happened because it matters. The truth needs to be told in all of our homes. We need to do our best as parents to explain and teach and raise good children.

‘A black man was killed by a police officer honey. It was really bad. And wrong.’

His eyes stayed glued to the television. ‘Killed?’

I nodded yes with my head rested on his.

‘What was his name?’

‘His name is George, Sawyer.’

As I told him more, the footage came on the screen. The footage that all of us have seen. The footage of a man kneeling on another man’s neck for far too long. And the words that we all heard…

And may never forget…

‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’

Sawyer sat silent for a long time studying what was happening on the screen, as the clip played.

Sawyer turned his body into me and asked me why the police officer didn’t listen to him. ‘He said it mama, I heard him. He said I can’t breathe. You heard it right?’

‘I don’t know Sawyer. I don’t know why he didn’t stop.’

And then my insightful 7-year-old said something that I had been thinking since this man’s life was taken. Because, we go to what we know. I do not know what it is like to be a black man in 2020 but I do know nonverbal autism.

I know the hardships in that and raising a big, soon to be bigger, male who I may not always be able to keep safe. A son who cannot speak and who most wouldn’t listen to anyways.

‘Mama, how will the police know if Cooper can’t breathe? He can’t talk.’

‘I don’t know buddy.’ Because honestly, I don’t know anymore.

‘I would tell them mom. I would speak for him. Why did no one speak for that man?’

‘Again buddy, I don’t know.’

And then he whispered, ‘I would have…I would have spoken.’

I keep thinking about that man, asking for help. And everyone watching, but no one helping. Not even knowing if they could I guess. What would I have done? What if it was my child? My son?

See, me, my husband, my kids, we live a life of privilege and ignorance. We try not too but I know we do. And one thing I always foolishly assumed, was that if a person was able to say, ‘I can’t breathe’ that people would listen. That being able to speak gave you an extra chance.

How foolish was I.

I spent the next ten minutes talking to my son about race and privilege and differences, how 99% of people are good, and disability. We spoke about speaking out and standing up for what is right, even when it’s uncomfortable. And how important it is to listen to people.

But mostly we spoke about George Floyd. And how no one listened to him. And how his life mattered.

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Finding Cooper's Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you're never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village....all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier. Welcome to my page!

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