The Star

When I was a little girl, I wondered where the stars went on rainy nights.  I thought there was some kind of weather switch that turned on their lights when the skies were clear, and shut them off when drops of rain pattered against the window of my upstairs bedroom.  I remember being quite surprised when I realized that the stars remained where they were, but were just temporarily blocked by the churning clouds that brought rain and snow.

Last week, I was reminded of this as I watched my brother Kevin.  I was at the hospital with my mother when he strode in.  Kevin is hard to miss.  He is huge- 6’5”, with large shoulders, huge hands and a huger smile.  When he arrived, I had just begun to give my mother a sponge bath, and rather than staying outside until we were finished, he rolled up his sleeves to help.

I watched as my younger brother gently and carefully helped bathe and dry my mother, and as he brought her to the bathroom and back.  She leaned on him, confident that his strength would compensate for her weakness and he responded with a grace and ease that left no room for embarrassment or humiliation.  He enveloped her shaking hand in his firm one, and supported her weight as we got her settled again in her bed.

I had never seen this side of my brother.  I know his training as a firefighter/EMT has taught him how to help the sick and injured.  But I had never seen how gentle, how kind, how graceful he is.  He knew when to speak, when to smile, and when to move.  His silent strength filled the room, easing my mother’s discomfort and my anxiety.

Initially, I had been frustrated that the hospital staff had not been as responsive to my mother’s needs as I would have liked.  I know that they were doing the best they could with the staff they had, but I was angry that she had to wait so long for responses to her calls for help.  I was frustrated that nobody had taken the time to help clean her body and comb her hair.  I wanted to point out that she was not just the woman in Room 4030, but she was somebody’s mother, somebody’s teacher, somebody’s friend.

But now, I see that I was given an opportunity to see my brother at his best.  Had my mother’s needs been met by a stranger on the fourth floor, I would not have observed how my brother shines. For a brief moment, the dark was split by his light and I was privileged to witness it. I should have known all along, the star had always been there, just waiting for the clouds to part so he could fill the dark with his silver light. 

Thank you, Kevin.  You are a shining star, and I love you.

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.

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