Memoir

I Was a Cop for 31 Years. This Is the One Night That Still Haunts Me.

...It was the first and last time I cried on the job.

I Was a Cop for 31 Years. This Is the One Night That Still Haunts Me.

It was a slow, late-winter Sunday night in 1991; the cold, drizzling rain making the shift seem endless. My partner, Bosko, was ten years younger than I, and had been on the street for about five years. His cherubic face and sparse, dark mustache somehow didn’t fit his stocky but bull-strong form. Boz, as we called him, had an easygoing manner and was very good at the job; I always enjoyed riding in a two-man cruiser with him.

On this night we were cruising a high-crime neighborhood of Mansfield, Ohio with plenty of public housing, hoping to catch a drug dealer plying his trade on a street corner at three in the morning.

I wish that’s what would have happened.

Our cruiser’s police radio, which also monitored the city fire frequency, came to life: a rescue squad was being dispatched to an address right around the corner from where we were, for a “person choking.” As we weren’t handling any calls, Bosco and I decided to respond also, since the firehouse was a good three minutes away.

Just as we stopped in front of the home, which seemed to have light blazing from every window, the call was updated: it was an infant in trouble.

I was out the passenger-side door in a heartbeat, bypassing the two steps up to the porch. As I reached for the door it flew open and I was met by a chunky middle-aged woman, a well-worn robe draped over her long, pink nightgown. She was screaming hysterically. A mixture of tears and mascara streaked her face.

“Do something! Please do something!” she screamed, as she thrust an infant, wrapped in a blanket, into my arms. “He’s not breathing!”

I looked down into that little innocent face, dried formula around his mouth whitish against the gray pallor of his skin. I’d seen eyes like his a hundred times before: half closed, staring at nothing. The baby was gone.

Pressure bands gripped my chest as I went through the motions of infant CPR, knowing it would do no good but doing it anyway, more for the woman’s sake than anything. Shortly the paramedics arrived and took control of the baby’s lifeless form; I could hear Bosko’s voice, which seemed distant as if he were at the far end of a long tunnel, as he questioned the woman who’d met me at the door. My partner had been right behind me onto the porch, but after seeing that tiny face in the blanket I’d become disconnected to events around me. Nothing else existed but that vacant face.

I had a baby boy at home the same age.

Tyler had been born two months premature, his little lungs not fully developed; he had started to show that same gray pallor as they’d worked on him in the delivery room. A life-flight helicopter had been called and Tyler was loaded aboard. I would later learn he’d stopped breathing five times during the twenty-five-minute flight to Akron Children’s Hospital.

I felt very alone as I stood in the parking lot, watching that helicopter ascend skyward with my youngest son. I’d gotten to hold Tyler for thirty seconds before the medical team had realized there was something wrong with his respiration, that he was having to work too hard to breathe. Just as they were taking him out to the helipad, a doctor informed me that Tyler’s condition was “very unstable.”

Once he arrived at Akron Children’s, an experimental treatment saved his life.

The infant in this house never had that chance.

The little boy had been robbed of life. Robbed because his mother had come home from a bar and fed him, not bothering to burp him afterwards, and then laid him on his back in the crib. The infant had aspirated his formula and choked to death while his mother lay passed out on a bed a few feet away. The screaming woman on the porch was his grandmother.

At the time of this incident, my baby boy had been released from the hospital and was on an apnea monitor at home, one that would alert us if he stopped breathing. It happened a couple of times, the loud squeal of the alarm jarring us when it sounded. Bosko knew I was on the ragged edge while working, worrying about Tyler throughout the nights, and asked about him every shift.

I told Bosko I had to go to the cruiser, his reply unheard. I was getting tunnel vision, my mind’s eye seeing Tyler’s face in that blanket.

I sat heavily in the passenger’s seat, alone, and began sobbing uncontrollably, the woman’s pain and grief becoming my own. I had come perilously close to losing my own infant, and in that moment I knew how she felt.

At some point Bosko got into the cruiser and drove us to a park, where we sat silently until I’d regained my composure, the call we’d just finished having obliterated that hard ‘shell’ that all police officers have to form in order to maintain sanity.

Bosko and I never spoke of my emotional breakdown, an event that had never happened before in my 31- year career, and never did again.

That night left me with scars, emotional wounds that have never quite fully healed. Even now, decades later in retirement, I still think of that little boy, often wondering what would have become of him. I look at Tyler and see the man he has become, sometimes also seeing that baby’s face in the blanket, trying to imagine what he might have looked like or what path he would have taken in life. I imagine, too, that somehow he knows there is an old policeman that keeps a place for him inside.