The Gift

I had been dreading my birthday.  Somehow, after fifty, every milestone is a little less welcome.  However, this year I was going to celebrate by doing something special.  I was to do a ride along.

By way of explanation, I am working on a book about fire fighters.  I have conducted multiple one-on-one interviews, and am still in the process of arranging others.  I have had the privilege of sharing meals with a couple of engine companies.  This is something very special, not only because someone else cooks for me, but because it is around the firehouse kitchen table that much informal decompression takes place, and to be privy to that is indeed an honor.

Still, I was still lacking the flavor of day-to-day operations within a firehouse.  As with most work, showing is much better than telling.  I needed some up close and personal experience, and was able to arrange for this to take place on my birthday.

The day began with single digit temperature readings, and clear skies.  Layered in wool and apprehension, I headed to the station where I met the five-man crew.  I had mixed feelings, for to hope that something exciting would happen is also hoping that somebody else has possibly the worst day of his life. 

The morning was quiet, the bell hitting only a couple of times.  One was an automatic sprinkler set off by pipes that burst from the frigid January temperatures.  The second was a transport from a rehab hospital to the emergency room.  Finally, after lunch there was a 911 call for an ambulance to assist another engine.  I rode with Mark, a paramedic and Chris, an EMT.

On the way to the house, Mark told me that he is very familiar with this family. The patient, a brittle diabetic with Hepatitis C, can get nasty and difficult, and has been known to bite and spit.  “The house,” he warned, “is filthy. Don’t touch anything.”

I know these people. I’ve met them before, in the clinic where I work.  These are the people who demand narcotics. These are the people who demand appointments and don’t show up.  These are the people who don’t follow their medical plans, and then blame the doctor.  Or the nurse.  Or the secretary.

The walls inside the apartment reeked of cigarette smoke, and from behind closed doors came the insistent yips of a small dog.  The patient’s wife led us into the living room, where three fire fighters from another engine company were huddled around an easy chair.  They stepped back, making way for Mark.

In the chair slouched the victim.  His chin rested on his chest, his eyes shut.  His skin was gray, his long stringy hair fallen over his face.  And his knees, so painfully thin, jutted beneath his jeans like pyramids under a blanket of denim sand.   

As Mark and Chris prepared an IV, I glanced around the room.  It was filled with horses- pictures, posters and statues of horses- on the furniture, on the walls, on every flat surface.  A caged canary squawked from its perch on top of the television.  Layers of red textiles hung across the windows and over the sofa.  A cat walked by me, brushing my leg with its tail, while the dog persistently scratched from behind the bedroom door. 

The apartment was stifling.  I was dying under my ski parka, wool sweater and turtleneck.  I stood across from the patient, silently watching Mark and Chris push an IV of fluids into the man’s arm, until he began to rouse. 

The wife chattered incessantly; her voice sounded like she has smoked since she was six.  She paced between Mark and Chris, rasping to the bird to make him squawk and yelling at the dog, held prisoner in the bedroom.  I felt a trickle of sweat run down my back, and shifted my weight back and forth, wishing I could sit down and take off my jacket.

“There.  Feeling better?” Mark asked. 

The man mumbled a bit, and answered, “I’m cold.  Can somebody get me a blanket?”

Mark remarked to the wife, “You’ve done a fine job cleaning up here.  I’ve never seen the place look so good.”  She grinned in response, obviously pleased that somebody noticed. 

I looked at her again, noticing that underneath the sallow skin was a woman who was probably ten years younger than I.  Her husband, now more coherent, shivered, and again asked for a blanket.  She brought an afghan and tucked it around his thin shoulders.  “You scared me, Babe.” Her rasp was a mere whisper.

I know these people.  They struggle with their addictions.  They struggle to pay their bills.  They struggle because they live the lives of their parents, and see only walls, never doors.

At last the IV was empty and the patient was alert- his blood sugar now at an acceptable level.  He declined a trip to the hospital.  My heart ached at the sight of his skeletal arms as he reached out to sign the release.  He nodded his thanks at Mark, who commended him for being so well-behaved, and suggested he eat a sandwich.

We trudged down the stairs into the crisp January air, grateful for the icy breeze.

I know these people.  They used to be vibrant and full of promise, but years that passed too quickly and the consequences of their choices now define their days and choke their futures. 

I sat quietly on the ride to the firehouse, deep in reflection.  The lump in my throat reminded me that the years have taken their toll on me, too. Had I allowed the events of my life to become an obstacle on my soul’s journey?   I hadn’t realized that my heart had become so cold until I felt it begin to thaw.

I know this person. She weeps for strangers.  She sees the child inside the adult. The child who needs love, compassion, a smile, and a warm touch.  I remember her.

 Sometimes the gifts we get are the gifts we didn’t even know we needed. Happy birthday to me.

Leave a comment


  1. Good gift, Boo. They are God’s children, too. We often forget that. I love you because you do remember.


  2. Elaine Dube

     /  April 3, 2010


    First of all, Happy Belated Birthday. Your story touched my heart because I pray for compasion every day. I guess because of my own health problems I find it hard to feel compasion for anyone else going through something. Shame on me!! Thank you for sharing your stories. I know they come from the heart because I know you and you have always been an inspiration to me. You were always such a wonderful and loving mother and friend and I know you still are.

    Your friend forever,
    Elaine Dube


  3. Well written Garrie!! I daily go through a very similar thought process when seeing my patients. I always stop and and try to see and listen to the person behind the illness; one can always find something to empathize with, always…


  4. Hi G: Congrats on writing through the block. How wonderful it is on the other side. Beautiful writing. You know how to tell a story that someone wants to read. And you make them want to read more. Thank you for your stories, my friend.



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