What Can Be Saved
by Sakeenah El-Amin
I remember the weight of metal handcuffs clamped around my tiny wrists. The way my skirt, with my hands pulled tight behind my back, lifted and folded in the wind. The sound of scrambled walkie talkies. The silver handle on the door as they opened the wagon and pushed me in.
I was all alone, and in a police car. Spontaneously my body began to rock back and forth — something I had only seen my grandmother do while kneeling at church altar call, her slip peeking out from underneath her starched white dress. I remember the smooth black of the back of the officers’ heads. The coldness of the seat pressed against my thighs. I was cargo—locked in a moving cage with a wire divider.
You should have seen my mother’s face when she ran into the station and found me chained to a wooden bench. The look of panic, rage, finally opening to desperation. I was the perfect child. The one who followed all the rules. The girl with the gift who had come to save our family.
“Do you know who she is?” She screamed, waving her hands frantically at the man with blank eyes. “What have you done?”
That night my mother was extra gentle with me. She sat on the side of my bed as I cried and rubbed my head until I fell asleep. What happened that day stayed between us— her helplessness, my deep sadness and shame—untethered into the dark of night. The next day, I pretended as if I was normal. I got up, ate breakfast and boarded the bus for school.
My grandfather told me about meanness. The kind of meanness that singed your eyebrows and bore holes into the soft tissues of your mouth. The kind of meanness that would take your eyes.
He and my grandmother were sharecroppers in the deep south. My grandfather had a third grade education, and my grandmother picked cotton with a baby strapped to her back. They fled to the North packed into blue greyhound buses. An escape away from mouths gathered full of saliva to spit at them. An escape to the promised land.
I’ve never known the kind of meanness my grandfather told me of, but I do know of emptiness. I saw emptiness when I looked into the officers eyes that day. Not a stirring. Not a moment of recognition. Not a single moment of empathy.
There could have been another way. I was a fourteen year old girl reading magazines in a store, waiting for my mother to finish running errands downtown. In another world, a simple phone call asking her to come pick me up quickly would have left me whole. Instead, the store owners called the police. Officers escorted me outside and demanded that I leave the area. And when I sat against the side of the building crying in silence, they pulled me up by the arms.
I am convinced that we do not die of hatred — but of slow emotional decay, the atrophy of worlds, the inability to sense connection. The store owners, the police officers, couldn’t see that I was their little girl in handcuffs, too.
For years, I carried a deep sense of vulnerability in my body. Although my mother and I buried the image of my hands shackled to the wooden bench, the trauma remained. And every time I saw another blurry cellphone video or heard the sound of sirens, it would take a little piece of me: a sliver of my spleen, a collection of fluids along my spine, a swatch of cilia from my nasal cavity.
Sometimes, I’d imagine what people would have said about me if they had found me dead that day. What if my heart burst? Or if they stopped my lungs from breathing. What would they have written?
There are no known causes for autoimmune diseases. Women are more than four times as likely to develop them than men. Our precious immune system — the one that catches all the germs, filters bacteria, protects us from disease and infection—begins to attack the body’s own tissues. The body doesn’t understand that in killing those cells, it is destroying itself.
“Who is she?” Shereen whispered as we walked into the classroom.
Ms. Whelan, my second grade teacher, died of lupus in the middle of the school year. One day we came in to find a new teacher at the blackboard. I cried almost every night for an entire year. I had loved Ms. Whelan. She didn’t punish me when I got distracted. Instead, she let me color in the corner with my favorite crayons. And she always let me sit next to her after school and cut out leaves from construction paper to decorate the blackboard. I couldn’t comprehend how her system could turn against her—how her body could kill something so beautiful.
I think a lot about souls these days. Souls that pull guns out on souls in cars. Souls that detain souls at borders. Souls that leave little souls to die in makeshift prisons. Souls that poison the water.
There is a bug in the system — a miscode in the network.
I pull out my red pen and scratch the words into my arm.
At few winters ago, my partner and I drove up to Wisconsin—the sound of snow and bramble crunching underneath our achy SUV. She had rented a beautiful house with heated stone floors and made entirely of glass. It was magnificent. In the morning, we’d wake to fire warming our toes.
One afternoon, snuggled on the couch, we heard a long thump clear against the window. When we got up to see what happened, we saw it—a tiny bird fallen to the ground. We watched it flap its wings for a moment, and then the baby bird stopped. I screamed.
We ran into the bedroom, pulled out our laptops and researched how to care for an injured bird. I had heard somewhere that if you picked a baby bird up with your bare hands, the mother would abandon the bird sensing the scent of humans. A few minutes later, we made a plan. We swung the kitchen drawer open, grabbed a brown paper bag and slowly walked back toward the window. I closed my eyes tightly and held on to her hand.
“It’s gone!” she yelled.
“What?!” I responded in disbelief. I opened my eyes to see a perfect imprint in fresh snow where the tiny bird had been. It had simply gotten up and flown away.
The brain is one of the most fragile organs in the human body, and the heart is one of the strongest. Once the heart heals, it can take our brains several years to catch up.
In a few months, I will welcome a class of little black and brown girls into a program that creates space for them to care for both their brains and their hearts. A place where they can be their full selves. In between selecting guided meditations and the perfect aromatherapy scents for them, I pause to think about what I want for their lives. And I have to admit, I get scared sometimes. I fear that one day they will come to know emptiness, too.
The country in which they must grow in and survive still hasn’t matured enough yet to
understand that we are all inextricably linked. Our destinies, bound together in one stunning, cascading tapestry.
But I want them to know that even though the world may foolishly question their sacredness—may flare up and turn against them, knock them down because it believes they are not enough, or knock them down precisely because it is scared that they are too much—
You will get up again.
About the Author
Sakeenah has had her work published in Full Grown People and on the On Being blog.