“‘I can’t breathe,’ I wanted to tell you a story that started with those very words but had a very different ending.
I was working for a tax accountant. We worked out of her home. Part of my responsibilities was to go to the post office every day and get the mail from her P.O. Box. I usually did this late in the day, and this particular day was no exception. When I got to the Post Office, it was closed, and the parking lot was almost completely empty. There was one very old, beat-up, blue pick-up truck there. I went in and went directly to the area where the P.O. Boxes are.
In this particular Post Office, the Boxes are completely separated from the rest of the building, even closed off with doors. When I opened the door to that area, I saw a lone person, sitting on the window seat. He was a black man. You can see from my picture I am white. He was hunched over. I went to my boss’s P.O. Box and got her mail out. For a completely deserted area, it wasn’t quiet. The old man was wheezing badly. I stopped where I was and listened for a moment.
Finally, I walked over to him. As I approached him, I called out to him. ‘Sir, Sir?’ I got no response. The closer I got to him, the more worried I became. His whole body was shivering. His shoulders were shaking. Against my better judgment, I reached out and touched his shoulder. He lifted his head and looked at me. His eyes were filled with pure terror and a tear was running down his face. ‘Can’t breathe,’ was all he could get out in a whisper. I immediately understood what was going on. One of his hands was clutching his shirt in a death grip. I threw down the mail in my hand and my purse. ‘Do you have an inhaler?’ He shook his head, ‘No.’ He whispered, ‘Tank.’
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to the old blue pick-up.
Me: ‘Is it locked?’
He shook his head no.
Me: ‘Look at me.’
Me: ‘I’m not going to leave you, ok?’
A look of pure relief washed over his face.
Me: ‘I’m going to run out to your truck and get your tank, ok?’
He whispered, ‘Passenger side, tank and tube.’
I ran as fast as I could to his truck. I left my purse on the floor at his feet. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint… so am the most distrustful person in the world, but I never gave it a thought. I went to the passenger side of his truck. I found the tank and cannula, thankfully all attached. I now know what a cannula is because my mother had to use oxygen. Back then, I had no clue.
I ran back into the Post Office and gave it to him. I asked him if this was everything he needed, and he nodded in the affirmative. He put the canula in place around his ears and into his nose and opened the valve on the oxygen tank. I sat down beside him. He reached over and grabbed my hand. I said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. Do I need to call someone?’ He shook his head no. We sat there like that for about 5 minutes. He whispered, ‘I’ll be ok now. I’ll just sit here until I get strong enough to drive home. It isn’t far.’ I asked him not to talk. I sat there with him for another few minutes until he begged me to go. He assured me he was getting stronger and would be fine. He wouldn’t let me call anyone. We never exchanged names, but we hugged our goodbyes.
I’m absolutely NOT writing this to get any accolades or thank yous. I’m writing this because every time I see a story about another black man who has died uttering those words, ‘I can’t breathe,’ I remember. I remember the sheer terror I saw in this stranger’s eyes. I remember the tear running down his face. I remember how it galvanized my NATURAL INSTINCT to help him, even if it meant jeopardizing myself. I remember the adrenaline kicking in. I remember not wanting to leave him.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been fighting back tears. I keep wondering what happened to those police officers to make them lose this natural instinct to protect life, especially after they took an oath to do just that? What happened to the people who were standing around watching and videoing to make them lose it? At least there was once a story one black man could tell that began with ‘I couldn’t breathe,’ and ended with ‘Can you believe that?’
Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be submitting a story to ‘Love What Matters,’ especially when it is about something that happened 15 years ago. But our world has been so undone by 3 simple but powerful words, ‘I can’t breathe.'”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Julie A. Johnson. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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