A Call to Listen

On a day, not unlike today, many years ago, I went to the pharmacy.

My younger sister, a severe asthmatic with nasty allergies, was out of her asthma medication, and needed a refill. She was having more trouble than usual that day, I remember. I think it’s because she was sick. Sickness, even a cold, always make her asthma worse.

I haven’t thought about this day in years, so my memories of the details of when and why all of this happened are a bit fuzzy. But I think my parents were out of town and that’s why I went to the pharmacy. Whatever the reason was, because I was her sister, I wasn’t allowed by the person working the pharmacy desk to pick up her meds.

I argued, pleaded with the person to just let me pay for and take the meds home to my sister. She needed them, I said. She needed them to breathe.

“Tell her to just breathe.”

That was the response.
As if she could.

“Tell her to just breathe.”

Throughout my sister’s short life, people vastly underestimated her asthma and allergies. She was making it up, they would claim. She was a drama queen just wanting attention, they laughed. She was exaggerating, it couldn’t be that bad, they would tsk. I had asthma once, I grew out of it, it’s not that bad, they would lecture.

Time after time. Classmates, teachers, strangers, friends…they all would belittle her claims and her needs. They had never seen asthma do to a person what she said it did to her, so even when they witnessed one of her attacks, they thought that she was putting on a show and so they ignored it.

Then, one day, on a day not unlike today, she had one final asthma attack. The paramedics tried…but there was nothing they could do. She wanted to breathe, she really did…she just couldn’t.

After all was said and done, so many people expressed shock that her asthma had been life threatening.

She knew. But no one listened.

How often we do that. Not listen when someone is trying to tell us their lived experience. They try to tell us, but we laugh it off. It’s not in my experience, we say, so you must be exaggerating, making it up. I’ve never seen it happen, we tsk, you must not be telling us the whole story, because there’s no way that’s real. If they would just [_______], then it wouldn’t happen… “Tell her to just breathe”.

Time after time. Classmates, teachers, strangers, friends…we discount and belittle the claims of our sisters and brothers because we’ve never seen or experienced such a thing in our lives. And so, when we do see something, we diminish it. Write it off. Discount it. Cast it as a one off, an anomaly.

And then something happens.

Like on a day not unlike today, when a man, with a concealed carry permit willfully disclosed to a police officer during a routine traffic stop, gets shot for having a weapon…the one he legally had and willfully disclosed.

And then we express shock that such a thing could happen to a good guy, from a good family, with a good job, who was forthcoming and compliant, with a small child in the backseat.

But he knew. And he knew. And he knew. And she knew. And zhe knew. We just didn’t listen.

We need to start listening. When people tell us their lived experience, we need to listen. Not diminish, not excuse, not explain, not express disbelief because it’s not our own lived experience. Just listen.

And then, when we’re done listening, we need to take that knowledge and do something. Change something. Do better. Be better.

Lives are at stake.