The Rain that Brings Us Together

This morning it was pouring outside- coming down in buckets.  I looked out my bedroom window and watched the rain wash down the pavement and soak the faded brown leaves, and all I could think of was dodging raindrops during final exams.

I went to college in southern Massachusetts.  It was not unusual for it to rain the whole week of exams  before Christmas break.  I still remember pulling up the hood of my snorkel jacket while I ran from the dorms to the classroom, and dripping onto my blue book while I took the Abnormal Psych exam.  All that week I’d run to take an exam, stopping off at the cafeteria for a quick coffee-milk, and after the exam, run back to the dorms to peel off my wet jeans and hop between the sheets for a nap.

The college was comprised of several futuristic buildings formed from concrete and steel.  In the rain, the concrete darkened from dove white to seagull gray.  The campus was dismal and depressing- outside.  But inside was totally different.  Perhaps because of the gray outside, during the rain the inside became bright, warm and cozy.  We who lived in the dorms would push cafeteria tables together, sitting in large, family style groups.  We often lingered over meals on rainy days, choosing to sit close to one another, laughing and teasing, instead of trekking across the large expanse of soggy grass and puddled pavement.  It was as if there were an unspoken rule that if it rained outside, we had to be doubly cheerful inside.

It is not only in college that rain brings people together.  We huddle together under umbrellas and run in synchronized steps to escape a deluge from above.  We snuggle our children under fuzzy blankets and read to them as the rain patters against the windowpane.  We crowd around the dining room table in front of steaming bowls of soup and home baked bread.  We discuss the weather with strangers in the elevator, instead of standing in silent solitude.  We smile to each other in commiseration, while we wait in line for a cup of coffee at the corner cafe.

A friend once noted that when God first created Eden, there was no rain.  The plants and trees were nourished by the morning dew, and rain didn’t occur until they were cast out of the Garden.  I don’t know if that is true, but I wonder.  When Adam and Eve first sinned, they each blamed the other.  That must have caused a rift between them.   But we all know that people need each other. We need to warm each other, to soothe each others’ broken hearts, to blend notes together in harmony rather than lonely unrelated lines of melody.  Maybe a fresh motivation to draw close and face the harshness of the world together was started with a drop of rain.

Last evening I had a phone conversation with my daughter that didn’t go well.  Perhaps it is the generational gap that I pretend doesn’t exist.  Perhaps it was because I had a headache.  Perhaps it was because we just disagree.  Whatever the reason, it wasn’t good enough to justify hurt feelings and a damaged relationship.  I sulked for the rest of the evening and woke this morning still feeling grouchy and out of sorts.  But then I saw that it was raining, and remembered how in college, rain brought us together.  She is the same age now as I was then.  She probably dodges raindrops on her way back to the dorms and slips into bed to grab a nap after her exams.  She probably migrates to her friends in the dining hall when it is cold and gray outside. 

She flies home from school tonight and you can bet I’ll wrap my arms around her, pull her close and shield her from the wet drops that pour from the sky and dribble from my eyes.  Then we’ll  go home where it is warm and dry.  Because rain brings us together.

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My brother Eric

It’s a cold October evening in western Massachusetts, and it’s late.  I’m sitting across the room from my brother, Rick.  He’s settled his six-foot-four-inch frame into his favorite leather recliner, telling me about working a house fire as if he’s relating the plot line of a situation comedy.

It was several years ago, when he was a captain.  He and another fire fighter, Mike, went to the second floor of a cape style home to try to contain an attic fire.  Although they were less than an arm’s length from each other, the smoke was so thick and black they were unable to see each other.  Mike fumbled for the ceiling hatch, and realizing the heat had quickly reached an unbearable intensity, Rick radioed his chief to send crews to ventilate.

“All of a sudden, the room turned bright red and I could see Mike’s face, clear as day, in front of me.  The line went dead- there was no water coming out of it at all.  Mike yelled for me to run, and we both bolted down the stairs.  I remember hitting the cement steps to the enclosed porch and Mike pushing my back, yelling for me to keep going.  The next thing I knew, I was on my knees on the pavement, and the cops were dragging me across the road.  I remember looking back at the house. There was fire coming out from every direction.  We never were able to find out if it was a methane explosion or a flash over, or what it was. We know it wasn’t a back draft,” he adds.

“I looked at Mike and he was all black, with smoke coming off of his clothes and his helmet.  He was rubbing snow on his ears, and I could see that they were already starting to bubble.  I remember thinking, “Wow, Mike almost bought it!” and then people were asking if I was okay.”

He leans forward in his chair.  His grin hasn’t changed since he was a little kid.

“I looked down and realized that my clothes were black and smoking, too.  We ended up having to trash our bunker gear and helmets.”

“When I took off my mask there was this searing pain on the underside of my chin.  That’s when I realized I was burned.  Still, all the way to the hospital, I kept thinking everyone was making an awful big deal of this.  It wasn’t until I got back to the station and my chief had me in a bear hug that I realized how close a call it was.  He told me he was sure he had lost two fire fighters with that house.”

“Anyway, I had a long drive home that night, and then the reality sank in.  I had a huge bruise on my hip that was really starting to ache. My chin was a mess.  I finally got home, and the first thing I did was kiss Colleen and the kids.”

He pauses, his face growing uncharacteristically serious.

“It changed how quickly I send men into a building.  I’m a little more cautious since then.  A little more reluctant to trade lives for somebody’s house.”

I study my brother.  He is in his forties now, his short blond hair sprinkled with gray.  When I look at him, I don’t see Chief Eric Madison.  I see my baby brother, Ricky.  The seventh of eight children.  As a youngster, he had a low flash point.  My father called him “Eric the Red” because when he lost his temper, he would rush headlong at his victim, fearless of consequences.  Now here he is, telling me about rushing headlong into burning buildings.

When he was a little boy, I would sneak him out of his bunk bed and into my room so he could watch late night TV with me.  I drove him to his hockey practices and came home from college to watch his games.   I gave him haircuts and yelled at him for burning rubber with my car.  Who would have thought that this skinny little kid we called “albino spider” would grow up to be the man in front of me whom I so much admire?

I ask him why he never told me this story before.  He grins and shrugs.  This is typical Rick.  He feeds snippets on a “need to know” basis.  He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t volunteer information about himself.  He dwarfs me, not only in size, but in accomplishments, and yet I have never in my life heard him brag.

He shares stories of going to Ground Zero in the aftermath of 911, and of visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, and his eyes betray the kindness and sensitivity hidden behind the professionalism necessary for his position.  As I listen to him, I realize that there is a lot about this man I don’t know. Somehow, we both got caught up in the busyness of our lives and forgot to nurture the friendship we had when we were young.  Tonight I can see that the essence of my brother has not changed.  We still share the same absurd sense of humor, often finding ourselves squelching a burst of laughter at an inopportune moment. We both have a keen dedication to community service, determined to give back and make the world a little better.  And although it is I who has the degree in English, he writes with passion and simple eloquence.

In a moment of bravery, I share with him a writing project I have been secretly considering.  As I wait for him to answer, my stomach churns with anticipation. I trust him to be honest with me, but I’m afraid to hear his response.  Hard as it is to admit, his approval means everything to me.  

His reaction is one of enthusiasm and support; more positive than I dared hope. He offers ideas to augment mine and volunteers to advocate for me. I should have known.

I should have known because whenever I call or email him, he makes time for me.  I should have known because he drove four hours in one day so he could help me move to a new apartment.   I should have known because he spends every day making sure that other people are safe and taken care of.   I should have known because his life has been a series of selfless acts about which most people will never know. 

Will Rogers said, “We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and applaud when they go by.”

I’ll sit on the curb and applaud for my brother any day.

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