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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