I knew there was something wrong when my right leg turned purple after standing for three minutes, but I never guessed it was life threatening. The triage nurse at the emergency room pressed her fingers against my shin and began counting. When she reached 12, she grabbed her phone, pressed a button, and said, “We have a level two here. Gotta get her to Ward E immediately.” She then looked at me and said, “You might lose that leg.”
What was supposed to be a healthy recovery from a routine arthroscopic knee surgery a few weeks earlier quickly devolved into doctors rushing past me, ultrasound technicians scanning my veins, and nurses plunging needles in and drawing blood out. When they found the blood clot deep in my right calf, everyone’s pace slowed. With proper elevation, subcutaneous shots in the belly twice a day, and a six-month regimen of a blood thinning pill, I will most likely be fine.
Though I didn’t lose a leg that night, I did lose something else: a naïve belief that my body was somehow exempt from death. My time as a student chaplain in the hospitals of Oxford taught me to cognitively recognize the universal mortality of the human condition, but it was not until two weeks ago when the needles were taped to my skin, the doctors were reading my charts, and the purple, atrophied leg was my own that it hit me. If not now, then some day, I will die.
Yesterday at 11:08 PM someone did die. A needle was plunged into his arm and taped to his skin, and after minutes of poison trickling through the intricate venous system that we all share, he breathed his last. Troy Davis, who was convicted of murdering Officer Mark MacPhail in 1989, was executed by the state of Georgia despite witness and jury member recantations, numerous appeals, and international pleas everywhere from the former United States president Jimmy Carter to Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Davis case has quickly become a platform for advocates of judicial reform as it reveals the deep-seated race-based discrimination prevalent in our judicial system. For example, 98% of all prosecutors responsible for death penalty decisions are ..., and black individuals comprise nearly 42% of the population presently on death row in the United States (deathpenaltyinfo.org). That is an incredibly high percentage considering black individuals only account for 12.6% of the total United States population according to the 2010 Census.
Others have used the case as an opportunity to call for social and religious justice. This morning my newsfeed on facebook has been lit up with quotes from Mahatmas Gandhi, Ezekiel, Bobby Kennedy, Sister Helen Prejean, Desmond Tutu, and others. The profound words of love and pain from these wise leaders humble me as I continue to type. I am moved to grieve.
In concluding I must be careful to make clear that while I am strongly against the death penalty and do believe our judicial system is functionally racist, it is not my ambition to sway a reader’s political opinions to my own, to argue that Davis was innocent, or to provide reform suggestions. I mean only to grieve. As I write now my leg is strapped into a mobility machine where it lays for 6-8 hours a day. My jeans sag off my shrunken flesh, and I cannot help but think of how unbelievably delicate life is. Poet Mary Oliver once asked, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Some wild and precious lives are cut short for reasons we may never understand and even intimately disagree with, and for that today I will grieve.