Published on April 23rd, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein


Only One Can Cry: Adam Toledo, Subjectivity, and Riding Shotgun

My eyebrows always give me away. They’re silly, sparse things, sloping downward without that beauty-magazine arch over the bone. But they have a lot to say, rising and furrowing, and even when my voice is performing the role of Calm Mom, my son always knows when I’m upset.

Maybe it was because he’d colored on our couch cushions with a red marker during Zoom class. Maybe he and the neighbor girls had spent their whole playdate fighting. Maybe Dash and I were arguing about his math homework, an app called IXL that lobs fractions at six-year-olds.

“Remember?” he said, sobbing and flailing on his dinosaur bedspread. “Only one can cry.”

“I’m not crying,” I said. But my eyebrows told him I was close.

I’m a cryer by nature, and I had a mom who climbed into my emotional cyclones, wringing her hands and making her despair visible and, by extension, another thing for me to worry about. Therapists call it enmeshment. 

I try to give Dash space for his feelings, but I must be pretty bad at it, because at some point he issued a rule: Only one person can cry at a time. It’s always his turn. 

“He’s right,” my therapist said. “It is his turn.” My turn, I suppose, is therapy.


The day that the Civilian Office of Police Accountability released body-cam footage of Chicago police officers shooting 13-year-old Adam Toledo, I witnessed it thirdhand, as I often do, in the reactions of people in my social media feeds. There might be something to be gained from watching a child murdered on video, but until I know what it is, I’m not watching. 

But I’ve seen his face in photos, and it could be my son’s in a few years. The brown skin, the jug ears, the wide smile and straight dark hair. 

Toward the end of day they released the video I didn’t watch—Adam’s hands up and empty in the stills, his hoodie commanding Just Do It—Dash asked to go for a drive, his favorite way to fall asleep. His other mom and I buckled him into the car seat he is almost too big for and drove into the dark.

He took his toothbrush with him. From the back seat, it blinked in red staccato to let him know how long to brush, and I thought of police cars. 

My partner drove. I wondered if it was foolish to drive around for no real reason. She’s Brown and he’s Brown. I brought my phone, thinking just in case. Thinking about how Daunte Wright’s mom called him repeatedly while he was being pulled over.

Photo by Huzeyfe Turan on Unsplash

We were two middle-aged women in a Kia Soul going the speed limit, one of us white, and my worries seemed as ridiculous as they were muted. 

I rode in the passenger seat. The word shotgun comes from stagecoach days, when the person not manning the reins would be on the lookout for robbers. I watched the exits roll by as we headed east, going nowhere in particular. In a year of long days and too much responsibility, a place to cry silently in the dark while someone else drives is a gift. 

Somehow the seat meant for vigilance has given way to passivity, which is a kind of freedom.

Dash pointed to the crescent moon, playing hide and seek in the trees. “It’s really a full moon,” he said, “but you can’t see some of it because of the shadows.” 

I thought about Adam Toledo’s mom and Daunte Wright’s mom and Daunte’s grandmother, whom I heard on my car radio the day before, saying, “He wasn’t an angel, but he was our angel. He belonged to us.”

I think she was trying to articulate subjectivity. His name has been swept into the public sphere, used for the purposes of justice and lies, misspelled by well meaning people and disparaged by the same types that said Emmett Till whistled at a white woman. But real justice is letting him remain a person, and we are the only ones who can do that. That’s what I heard her say.

But for that to happen, police have to cede subjectivity—hand over the reins, so to speak—and they’re not likely to do that without massive pressure at many levels. Which requires those of us riding shotgun to shake ourselves out of our dream states.

Black lives matter is a call for a shift in subjectivity. The concept is as simple and slippery as a half-shadowed moon. Do not let the police be the sun. Remember that the moon is full even without its light.


Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

I wondered if my sadness was cheap, somehow. Just a mom relating to other moms. When George Floyd was killed a year ago, I didn’t feel this way, although I felt a lot of ways. When he called out for his mama, she’d already been dead a year. Maybe she was lucky that way. Maybe my imagination is limited: I am a white woman who can almost but not quite imagine losing my light brown son—because if I really believed it possible, would I ever do anything but scream?—but my imagination fails when it tries to inhabit the body and mind of a full grown Black man. 

Maybe it’s for the best; Black people don’t need white people enmeshing with them, like the creepy old family in Get Out. 

There’s also this: When George Floyd was murdered, the small educational nonprofit I work for was reeling from the pandemic shut-downs. It’s an organization staffed largely by Brown people supporting Brown kids who live in poverty. Every day, my coworkers’ grief and rage and helplessness penetrated Zoom screens and saturated emails. Only one can cry, and it wasn’t me.

I couldn’t find a place for myself in all of it. I definitely wasn’t the victim, so I supposed I was the perpetrator. I rattled around in my guilt. 

My cousin’s husband sent me a link to a video of George Floyd being suffocated beneath Derek Chauvin’s polyester pant leg. Till then, I’d avoided watching, but my cousin’s husband is Black, and I felt like I owed him this, at least. I watched through my fingers.

“We’re at the scene of the crime,” said comic Hasan Minaj of Asian-Americans in his commentary on the video. He pointed to a Hmong-American officer standing by, and spoke about the Arab-American store owner who employed the clerk that called the police. “We have to be the ones who pull that cop off his neck.”

I’m trying to remember that there are roles beyond victim and perpetrator, beyond helpless witness and hero. I want to believe in another kind of witnessing, one that helps to reposition the camera, but I’m still figuring it out.


On the day Chauvin was convicted, I told Dash that a white police officer was headed to jail for killing a Black man. We were driving home from gymnastics class, where he’d worked on his cartwheels and colored a picture of the Lakers. The sun that Tuesday was bright and promising and not yet summer-hot. Schools had just reopened.

Dash wanted to know how far Minneapolis was from Los Angeles, where we live. “Is he going to shoot Mama?”

No no no, I said, he was going to jail, so he would no longer be able to hurt anyone. And most police officers were nice and followed the rules, I assured him. A white lie, so to speak? I want him to have just the right amount of fear, the amount that produces deference, not the panic-inducing, world-crushing fear that makes people run.

“When I’m a police officer, I’m not even going to use guns,” he declared. I suppose it was more appealing for him to imagine himself as the one with the power. We talked about what deescalation means, about how his great Uncle Robin was very good at that when he was a police officer years ago. How he talked calmly when people wanted to hurt themselves or someone else.

“Is that something you’re worried about, though?” I probed. “That a police officer will shoot Mama?”

No, he said breezily. He could see I was worried about him worrying. Only one can cry. He changed the subject, and we went home and watched Netflix and ate grilled cheese sandwiches, and somewhere during those hours, police in Ohio killed a 16-year-old who had called them for help.

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About the Author

Cheryl Klein’s column, “Hold it Lightly,” appears monthly(ish) in MUTHA. She is the author of Crybaby (out in 2022 from Brown Paper Press), a memoir about wanting a baby and getting cancer instead. She also wrote a story collection, The Commuters (City Works Press) and a novel, Lilac Mines (Manic D Press). Her stories and essays have appeared in Blunderbuss, The Normal School, Razorcake, Literary Mama, and several anthologies. Her MUTHA column “Onesie, Never Worn” was selected as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2022. She blogs about the intersection of art, life and carbohydrates at breadandbread.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @cherylekleinla.

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