As a child I would lay in my bed and imagine strange men knocking the door down, dragging my family into the street, murdering us under the streetlamp.
I was afraid of this, but not in the way I fear spiders that dropped silent on their threads in my basement bedroom, or the sound of my father shouting. It was a weary, practiced fear, more preparedness than paranoia. It didn’t matter what I planned, I could hide in the drawer under the bed or climb through the window, I could fight and scream, but it wouldn’t make a difference. When they came for us, if they came for us, it would already be too late. I lay in bed, the imagined sounds of Auschwitz in my ears, and made myself ready to die with dignity if I could not find ways to flee.
To get away, though, would obviously be best. But by the time they’re knocking down your door and dragging your father into the yard to put a bullet in his head, that time has passed. You have to make a hasty exit before you actually need one. That’s the lesson I took from the books I read, the stories I was told, the history of my people’s oppression. You had to get out before you believed the last moment was at your heels. I couldn’t understand how people could wait so long. How they could be so tied to a place that it meant more to them than their lives, their family. Could a house be so important? Could a village? A country?
I am older now, and I no longer lie awake imagining the Gestapo. I lie awake imagining Brionna Taylor, sleeping peacefully in her bed. I imagine her waking at the sound of her door being knocked in, clutching her blanket as her boyfriend leapt from the bed to defend her. I imagine her feet, soles full of bullet holes. I imagine her lying back in the bed and wondering what had happened in the moments before she lost consciousness again, and I wonder what the paramedic dreamed while she waited in vain for the police to attend to her wounds.
She was tied to Louisville. Her family was there. Her boyfriend, who she was waiting to propose any time. She had a home. A job. A life. A black woman in America, in the south, she must have carried the weight of constant implied threats everywhere she went. I do not know if, as a child, she lay awake wondering how close to disaster she would have to come before she fled, if she imagined Nina Simone and James Baldwin in France, free from American oppression but always carrying it with them.
In any other season of my life, I would have spent the summer and fall protesting, carrying signs with Brionna’s name, with George Floyd’s name, with the names of the men who killed them, Derek Chauvin and Brett Harkinson and Jonathan Mattingly and Myles Cosgrove. I would have protested in my suburban town, in downtown Chicago, I would have driven to Minneapolis to and protested there, I would have gone to Kenosha the same night as Kyle Rittenhouse.
But in this season of my life, I can’t. With my husband morbidly ill with brain cancer, pulmonary embolisms, blood clots, a stroke, another new and terrifying complication and condition nearly every other week, I can’t. With my children learning at home, I can’t. All I can do is try to keep them alive and as healthy as possible, and stay awake with my jaw clenched, wishing I could do more, for anyone.
Swastikas appear on synagogues and Jewish graveyards. The president goes to Minnesota and preaches eugenics. People in my local Facebook groups call me a pedophile for calling it that, and then call me a Jew bitch for getting upset at their performance of caring about sex trafficking.
It’s time to leave, I know that. Every fiber of my being knows that. There is still time to get out of the country, to go somewhere that might be safer, to get away from the rising tide of antisemitism, of fascism, of totalitarian violence against protesters, of the bigotry and racism that I watch kill brown and black Americans almost every day. Only I can’t.
I am tied to this place, tied so tight that yes, it means more than my life, my safety. It’s not the house. It’s not the town. It’s not the country. These are meaningless distinctions.
It’s my life, my circumstances. The details of medical care and education, friendships and family. My life is worth less to me than it was thirty years ago, it’s only a life, after all, but it is infinitely more complex, and it is tied to this place.
The voices of my ancestors ring in my ears. Run, they say, because time is short, because I am watching the same patterns I have listened to my whole life, because it is clearly unsafe here. Only where is it safe? What does “safe” even mean, anyway? Where is safe enough?
It’s not too late to leave, I know because we are still here. And if we are, there must be something we can do. Something to make it safer, or something to bring on the reckoning faster.
I say her name to myself, Breonna Taylor, and my skin feels hot with rage over the injustices of her death. I hold my daughters foot in my hand, soft and small, and my stomach lurches as I imagine bullets tearing through, erupting past the perfect, golden skin. I pull my children into my bed and imagine the doors being knocked down, all of us murdered before I can splay my useless arms in front of my children, my blood soaking the bed as it did when I went into labor the first time, my blood bringing them both into the world and out of it.
“No justice, no peace,” I tell my girls, and we light candles for Shabbat.
“Black lives matter,” I say to them, “We have white skin, and that means that because of our society we have been led to believe we are better, that we are more important, and we have to look within ourselves for that belief all the time. All of us. Yes, even me. Yes, even you.”
“Go outside and run,” I tell them. “The world and the weather are changing, my loves. Go run, while you still can.”
Lea Grover is a writer, book coach, and speaker in Chicago. She published her first poem at nine years old, a sonnet inspired by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Her writing is featured in a dozen anthologies and textbooks, including “Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now.” She speaks on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.