I happen to know a police officer. He’s forty two years old, and he is six feet, four inches tall. He has blue eyes and sandy brown hair that he keeps very, very short. His name is John.
One morning when John was about two, he was walking with his mother in the vegetable garden they had in their back yard. She warned him not to eat one of the ripe red peppers because they were spicy, but when she turned her back to him, he was overcome with temptation and took a bite of the shockingly hot flesh. He cried.
He was a terribly shy boy. He hated having his picture taken, and in every school photo I have ever seen of him, he is tearstained.
He didn’t love guns as a kid. He wasn’t a boy who fashioned everything he got his hands on—sticks or rolls of paper towels or Legos–into a homemade weapon. He was gentle and kind, watchful and quiet.
He loved basketball. After school he stood in his driveway, dribbling and jumping and making shot after shot in the hoop that hung above his garage.
He was about eight when his parents’ marriage disintegrated. Or, more accurately, exploded. It changed his life forever because both his mother and father expected so much more from him. Somehow, even though there were three children in the family, it was John who was caught in the crosshairs of their vicious divorce.
They were hard on him, this young boy who was tall for his age.
When he was about fifteen, he got a job bagging groceries at the store down the street, and later on, he worked as a groundskeeper in a cemetery. For some reason, the men he worked with called him Clarence.
How do I know all of this about a 42-year old police officer?
Well, I know because he is my brother.
I wasn’t there for the pepper. I wasn’t born yet. It is a timeworn story my mother has retold over the years. I hadn’t thought about it in the longest time—decades, even—and I remembered it one morning last spring, when I was walking through the wet, dewy yard with my 5-year old son, Henry, and our new puppy, Wolfie.
Slowly, the three of us made our way around the house and onto our front porch. I sat on the porch swing, and Henry plopped down next to me and piled the pillows on his lap.
“Come here,” I said, pulling Henry’s chubby body closer to mine. “I want to tell you a story, about a little boy named John. One morning, he was walking with his mother in the garden, and he saw a pepper that looked so delicious.”
From that point on, it became sort of our routine, walking the puppy through the grass after my older kids got on the bus. And each time, Henry insisted we sit on the porch and share “stories”. Like me, he adopted the pepper memory as his own.
“Mommy, wisten. I want to tell you a story. About the boy and his hottest pepper.”
And like a moth to a sizzling hot fire, my mind is drawn to other memories; deeper, darker childhood scenes of humiliation and shame and rage. But just before I reach out a finger to touch the flame, my subconscious shrinks bank, and I’m left with only the smoky remnants of a spicy pepper.
John went on to play varsity basketball. He played for the Dover Dragons, and his uniform was black and orange. Although he was never the most aggressive player, his height made him a natural at the sport.
As a teenager, he made all of our birthday cakes; Duncan Hines golden vanilla with chocolate frosting.
We were so surprised when our gentle giant of a brother decided on a career in law enforcement after college. Mild-mannered and calm, it was hard to picture him fighting driving a patrol car and chasing criminals.
But the day he crossed the stage and accepted his diploma from the Police Academy, I noticed something in his tender blue eyes. I noticed the way the memories of a father who accused him of being weak and a mother who begged for him to be stronger swirled together like a snowstorm, until the flakes settled into a combination of power and pride and love and commitment.
I noticed how something that could have easily set him back instead propelled him forward.
John is married now, and he has two tiny daughters—one blonde and one dark—and every night after work he dances with them and sings to them and laughs with them. He searches for the lost stuffed animal and coaxes them to bed with a book.
He calls our younger sister Gertie, even though her name is Sarah.
And our second son—our unusual boy on the autism spectrum—is named for my brother, although we’ve nicknamed him Jack in order to avoid confusion between nephew and uncle.
We both have the same long, slender fingers.
Despite his shyness, John is one of the funniest people you will ever meet. He can imitate our parents with perfect timing, and he will surprise you with a joke so shocking–so wicked–that you almost fall out of your chair laughing.
These days, his uniform is navy pants with a white shirt. He is one of the youngest to make Captain, and every once in a while you can see him on television, giving an interview on behalf of the department.
His favorite meal is spaghetti and meatballs, and he loves Halloween.
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you all this; random stories about vegetable gardens and nicknames and vanilla cakes.
I am telling you as a way to honor the men and women who wear a uniform and serve; who put our lives and our safety ahead of their own. I pray for their safe return home every night and renewed strength every morning.
I am telling you because to me, the message in this story is so strong. It is a message of rage and fear, compassion and change. I offer it to a nation that is divided and confused and maybe a little bit lost. It is all I have to give.
But mostly, I am telling you because I want you to be able to put a name to the face of “cop”. His name is John. He has blue eyes and sandy brown hair that he keeps very, very short.
He is a two-year old who is biting into a fiery pepper on a warm summer morning, his eyes watering.
He is the gangly boy in high school who grips an orange ball between his sweaty palms, closes his eyes, and takes a shot.
He is a tall, reserved man who is gentle and kind and watchful and quiet. He is a husband and father, brother and son. He is patriotism and loyalty and security and freedom.
He is a police officer.
These days, it’s too cold to sit outside on our front porch. On Sunday morning the sky was cloudy, and sparkly snow flurries drifted in and around the swing’s faded cushions. So I sat on our red couch instead. I pulled my 5-year old close to me and whispered in his ear, “I want to tell you a story. About a boy who played basketball. He is so brave.”