famous last words


It has been a long time since I watched any kind of news on television.

Neither Ginger nor I make a practice of watching the news before we go to bed, but last night Ginger had it on for a minute and heard the story of Debra Stevens’ drowning somewhere in Arkansas and her interaction with the 911 operator who shamed her for driving into the flooded area. When I came into the room, the news report was just finishing up. Ginger was deeply troubled by the fact that the harsh words of the dispatcher were the last thing Debra Stevens heard before she died.

Her pastor said she worked with children at the church and wanted to make sure the knew they were welcome, loved, and that they mattered.

I heard part of the conversation during the 911 call and it was terrible. Then the news anchor switched stories without any change in tone or demeanor and went on to something else. He gave no context; he just played the tape. Ginger found out later it was the dispatcher’s last day at work. I can’t imagine how Debra Stevens felt. I can’t imagine the pain her family and friends are going through. When I searched for the story tonight to get the name right, I found numerous sites that have posted a picture of the dispatcher. Not one of them was from Arkansas.

I’ve been wondering today why my television station in Connecticut needed to play that tape. As I said, there was no context given; there was no local connection. As best I can tell, it was a sensational story that would get people’s attention. The viral outrage, though warranted, shames the dispatcher much like she did Debra Stevens, it seems to me.

What are we doing to each other?

My response was to post a poem by Ellen Bass on my Facebook. It’s called “If You Knew.”

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

We are a nation at war. The high school seniors who have birthdays after September 11 were all born after the towers fell, which means they have never lived a day as an American that we weren’t fighting . The current administration is bent on fomenting as much of a civil war as possible to consolidate his power. Turning on each other doesn’t help, even when that turning is virtual and venting our rage feels harmless.

I am sorry Debra Stevens died feeling so alone. The dispatcher did a horrible job. No question. Nothing I say, however, will matter in Arkansas. How I speak to my family, my friends, and the people I encounter here in Guilford does matter. How I speak on social media matters. How I respond when I am annoyed or angry or hurt can do damage if I am not paying attention.

I am not saying anything you don’t already know. I get that.

Instead of lashing out, or reposting the 911 call, why not write or call someone you know is hurting tonight and make sure they know they are welcome, loved, and that they matter.

Who knows what might happen next.



  1. …”…make sure they are welcomed, loved, and that they matter.” Thank you, Milton. On the memory card for my sister-in-law, Geraldine Donahue, my brother included her words:
    “Where there is dialogue and trust, rather than fear, and Where there are questions rather than absolutes, there will be freedom, dignity , respect, opportunity and, hopefully, great laughter.”

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