He’s Peter’s closest cousin. They are just a few years apart in a whole collection of people that span across generations. These two boys grew up spending their summers together, camping together, doing things that fall well under the category of “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” They have war stories and battle scars. They tell tales of racing through the woods late at night until one of them gashed his knee on a boulder in the path. They rolled a giant rock down the hill, not actually expecting that its momentum would carry it right through the wall of the kitchen at the bottom of the hill. The wall exploded in white dust of ancient drywall. They both recall and imitate the deep bellow of Jim’s dad: “Boooys!”
He said it a lot. They were in trouble a lot. They caused trouble a lot.
Now they’re grown men… more than grown. They complain of sore muscles and aching situations, irritated that their doctors won’t prescribe anything except ibuprofen, won’t diagnose anything except o-l-d.
We sat with them on the patio of a restaurant where Peter and I had our first ‘real date.’ He kissed me in that parking lot. And then he pulled back and looked at me, and I said, “Do it again.”
Now these men sit with their wives, and they tease each other about marrying leagues above themselves, only very simply agreeing that they both did.
Jim is the Chief of the fire department in their suburb of Los Angeles. He’s done it for a lot of years, and he’s close to retiring. But retirement won’t mean golf courses and RV travel. It will be Pink Floyd concerts and half-marathons.
I listened to Jim tell some of his stories, a few of them his wife was surprised to hear. He doesn’t come home and talk about his day. A fireman’s day isn’t usually one he wants to recall over the dinner table. It’s not usually one filled with glory and good news and increased profits and successful team meetings. His days are filled with other people’s traumas, that he lets become his own. It’s the nature of his job.
He told us about the ‘brain bucket,’ where they put the brain that’s laying on the sidewalk when a motorcyclist doesn’t wear his helmet.
He told us about the woman who stood high on the fourth floor ledge, how she held out her arms and yelled, “I’m coming to you, baby…” and then she jumped.
He told us a story too difficult for details. Only that he came home that day to see that his little boy was wearing that same white socks as the child he’d tried to rescue that day. His wife remembered his stone cold voice. “Why is he wearing those socks? Take them off. He needs to never wear those socks again.” Trauma takes hold wherever it wants. Sometimes, it holds on the image of stocking feet.
Someone has to be the one to deliver the bad news at the scene of an accident. On Jim’s team, he’s that guy. He’s the one who tells the parent, the partner, the wife, that he’s sorry, that they’ve done all they could do, that the person she loves is gone. He said it never gets easier, and his only goal is to deliver the news without question. As hard as it is to hear, it’s worse to hear something vague, to misunderstand, to question the outcome. He is always direct and clear, out of respect for everyone involved.
I listened to his story, and I remembered the men who made the Wall of Blue in my home more than six years ago, the ones who stood outside my bedroom to protect my children and me from the sights and sounds that don’t go away once you see them, the one who came down to my kitchen to say, “Are you his wife? I’m so sorry, ma’am. We’ve done all we can do.”
They are the faceless heroes of my story. But there before me sat the hero of someone else’s story.
“Jim, on behalf of all the wives who never remember what you look like, all the victims who never get to thank you for doing everything you can, on behalf of all the people who fall apart before they can say anything to you, let me say this: thank you.”
To sit beside this husband, to recall the life and death of that husband, to thank this man for another man’s work, to speak on behalf of those who never will… all I can tell you is that it was sacred.
Sacred words, sacred work, sacred space. Sacred gratitude.