It takes you to hell and back, year after year, in snow and rain and heat. One hundred-percent dependable. Babies and bicycles, cordwood and canoes. Dates and dirt.
And then one day it just leaves you on the side of the road.
I thought of that last night, watching the line of uniformed firefighters and medics pass through the funeral home.
Sometimes you just get left on the side of the road.
And what you have to do then is walk. Just walk. Just keep going where you were going.
I thought of that last night, looking into the eyes of the young man whose “Assistant Chief” badge had the black band around it.
He had known the man in the box since he was a boy. The man had been his first employer, giving him a teen-aged job driving a tow truck. Picking him to be his assistant when he made chief. Years of fellowship and shared service.
They were on the mass-casualty incident together that morning, the bus of handicapped people head-on into a Jeep driven by a friend of the chief. And he had been on the call that night, to the chief’s house, where they discovered him, dead, at his own hand.
And he stood there last night in his uniform outside the funeral home, the new chief of a heartbroken department, the burden of his responsibility showing in the red of his eyes and the quiver of his voice.
It’s a hard thing to be a hero.
Because you know you’re not.
Because you know that, underneath it all, you are just a frightened child behind a façade. And if you don’t know it, you sometimes suspect it, in moments of doubt and fear and loneliness.
Life is a tough row to hoe, and it’s a fake-it-til-you-make-it business. Except that nobody ever actually makes it.
Though life continues to call on them, and make demands on them. And some rise magnificently to the challenge.
Many of them come in firetrucks, or ambulances, or squad cars.
They are heroes. But they are human. With all the weaknesses and failings to which our kind are susceptible. Sometimes they lie and sometimes they cheat and sometimes they smell of alcohol. But when the tones are heard or the call comes, they stand and deliver. They do what needs to be done. They do the work of the Lord, they answer the prayers of the afflicted, they fight the dragons that need to be fought. In the moment of someone’s greatest need, they answer that need. They can be counted on. No matter what.
But you can’t go to war without getting scarred.
And the biggest hearts have the deepest wounds.
And that’s the price you pay for being your brother’s keeper.
It is a process of tempering that builds strength through heat and pressure. It makes the strongest people, and refines them in psyche and soul.
But sometimes the blade snaps in the forge. And you are left with questions that cannot be answered and pains that cannot be eased.
You are left angry at a brother who has betrayed you, afraid of a fate that may befall you. Confusion on top of grief on top of upset. You, and everybody around you.
I don’t understand suicide, but I’ve looked it in the face.
My uncle the trooper who killed himself in the garage. My mother the depressive who tried repeatedly through life. That time I was 13 and lay down in the snow, thinking it would be like falling asleep.
I don’t understand suicide, and neither does anyone else. The people to whom it made sense are not here to explain it.
But it doesn’t make any difference. There will be no fix. There will be no magic answer or perfect healing. You will be sad and angry and hurt, and it won’t make any sense. And it never will. It just is, and you just are, and life has to be lived.
So you get out, on the side of the road, and you just start walking.
You stand tall, and you march forward. And you remember that when you wear a uniform, you are never alone. There is a brotherhood of the blouse. Your patch, your badge, your soul are like those of the heroes around you. And you never walk alone. You always have your teammates, and you always have the God whose work you truly do.
There may be temptation or confusion that leave you feeling hopeless. There may be clouds of darkness that will not part. There may be the mistaken belief that you are alone and there is no way forward.
Those things are symptoms. Signs of a poisoning for which there is no detector. And if we are wise, when we are amidst these dangers, we will recognize them, and call the mayday, and summon the help of our brothers and sisters.
If you are a first responder, you are part of something bigger, it is you and you are it.
And flaws and fears and foibles are natural parts of it. And all you are asked to do is to run as far as you can. And when you can’t run anymore, then you can’t run anymore. There is no weakness or shame, there is only the reality of life, and our only judge is God.
And our prayer is that it doesn’t end this way.
But sometimes it does.
And you are in the line outside the funeral home. And it is your badge with the black band on it. And you are wondering what to learn and what to say and what to do.
(Bob Lonsberry is an award-winning newspaper, radio and television reporter, broadcaster and columnist. He is an Army veteran and lives in Livingston County. He can be heard each midday on WHAM AM 1180 in Rochester. You can email him at [email protected])