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“Almost everyone is calling for ‘Mommy’ or ‘Mama’ with the last breath.”
Tyre Nichols called out for his mother as the police beat him to death.
Until the video was released — and you know which one it is, such is the crater it left when it landed — this essay was going to be about Scott Rolen being voted into the baseball Hall of Fame and how greatness can seem ordinary not despite of being right in front of our faces, but because of it. His career was like the time Joshua Bell, one of the world’s greatest violinists, played in a busy Metro station during rush hour and was almost completely ignored. There are pearls in the world, but we are the swine, condemned to blindness to all but the slop.
But then they released the video, and people heard him call for his momma while the police beat him. He was wearing handcuffs, and they kicked him. He called for his momma, who lived nearby. She did not hear him, and he died shortly thereafter. I don’t know how you go on living knowing you didn’t hear your son calling when the police were beating him to death. Every mother I know felt that. “Era el bebé de una mamá,” texted G, a friend and former coworker. He was a mother’s son. Even this 29-year-old man who had a 4-year-old of his own was calling for his momma.
That should have been a clue to the cops. That meant he was dying. When men die, they call out for their mommas. In a 2018 essay in Der Spiegel, Hajo Schumacher wrote, “A nurse from the hospice told me that the last words of dying men often resembled each other. Almost everyone is calling for ‘Mommy’ or ‘Mama’ with the last breath.”
I wonder if Rodney King called out for his momma. No one was in the back of that police van to hear if Freddie Gray called for his. This is the progress wrought by police wearing body cameras. Now, when they beat the hell out of a Black man for no reason, we get to hear their last words.
The Rodney King tape was released shortly after Tipper Gore spearheaded the campaign to slap parental warning stickers on rock albums with naughty words, which is as dumb as banning blue jeans in the 1950s, or for that matter cancelling a children’s book event because the author used the word “fuck” when expressing her outrage at a political system unable to stop school shootings. The purpose of obscenities is to accurately take the measure of the obscene, and the police slapping each other on the back and fist bumping after murdering an unarmed man is a better example than most but by no means unique. Tipper wasn’t completely wrong. The parental advisory stickers were a good idea, but we should have put them on patrol cars instead.
That would have been a good last line. I like the redirection of dumping on Tipper Gore, defending obscenities, and then reviving Tipper for one last slap. And I can stand by the incendiary image of black and white police cars with parental advisory stickers, though I’ll make the police unions a deal: You stop killing unarmed Black people, I’ll stop saying you’re a danger to unarmed Black people. This seems fair.
But I can’t leave you with Tyre Nichols’ plea ringing in your ears. Boys call for their mommas for reasons other than dying. Most often it’s because they need a snack, or can’t find something, or someone’s bothering them, or they need a ride, or it’s their birthday/Mother’s Day/Christmas, or you want to introduce your girlfriend to them, or you’ve got a problem and you need them to listen. There are lots of reasons for a boy to call for his momma other than to invoke the name of the first person to offer him love and comfort as he draws his last breath. I cannot leave you with that.
So, dammit, we’re gonna have to talk about Scott Rolen. Because this wasn’t the first time he was on the ballot for the Hall of Fame. Every other time, he had fallen short and been forced to tell his momma he’d failed. I’m sure she didn’t care about it, but he cared, so it was important to her.
This last time, though, the sportswriters voted him in, and he got to tell his momma the good news.
“What do we know?” she asks as he walks into the kitchen. Her tone is careful. She doesn’t want him to be disappointed again.
“I’m in,” he says.
The family crowded into the kitchen erupts in cheers. We can’t see her face, but can tell from her reaction how glad she is for him. Her little arms shoot up, the tiny, slender woman eager to embrace her broad-shouldered son. She knows it was important to him, and so it was important to her. She was so happy.
* In the version that was emailed out to subscribers, I identified Tyre as Tyre Williams, not Tyre Nichols. I did this even though I checked his name before writing it down. I am sorry for the error.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
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