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.

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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