We filed in, the last visitors in uniform of the day. There is no good news on this floor of the hospital; people here often aren’t going home. Family members stand teary-eyed and solemn, holding vigil over their loved ones as they slip loose these earthly shackles and transition to whatever lies on the other side.
One of our own is in here, and his time drawing nigh. And he is family and we’re losing him and no one knows what to say to comfort his actual family except to offer our shoulders for them, and to hold his gaze for some stolen moments, recalling our friend so big and strong at one time, reduced to a frail shadow of so long ago. Suddenly he snaps awake for a moment, my eyes catch his, and an old grin breaks out between us. We’ve been through a lot in the fire service, in our personal lives and in ways that are unique to our brotherhood. He whispers an inside joke, and I answer with one of my own, both of us bonded again. Our eyes lock, and he gazes down. I don’t care if my crew is here, his family surrounding the bed, I’m here for him and him alone:
“I love you, man.”
“I know….I love you too.”
“No one else is gonna tell you this, but your hair is white and I don’t think you’re in any shape to run another Tough Mudder with me right now.”
“I forgot to pay my registration, anyways.”
“You cheap bastard.”
More smiles. Then he nods off, and I feel like I’ve lost him for a moment. The other boys take turns chatting for a second when he comes to, but no one seems to know what to say. So I did what I do: I shot the bull. I fired off a story or two about our adventures and he’s grinning with his eyes closed and his family is laughing and I remember why we’re here: to honor our friend and surround him with all the love we can give. Our eyes meet again, and he knows, and I know. This might be our last meeting.
He needs his rest, and we need to respect the family’s wishes, and now we all have tears in our eyes. I hold his tired hand in mine and tell him, again, that I love him. That I’m here, that that part never ends, this world or the next. And we leave, crying. Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you for taking my friend from his family and all of us.
The rest of the night is fitful, random 911 calls interrupting my catnaps as I ponder the loss of my friend, the one guy who would give it all to ride a fire rig again, to be healthy enough to see his daughters graduate high school, to slide gracefully into old age with his wife and a something resembling normalcy. This has been robbed of him, in front of our very eyes, and I hate myself for not appreciating the grace I’ve been given to serve, still.
Today, in the gym, we were told to push to failure on this or that. And it dawns upon me that failure is how we view things. We push to the point of exhaustion, then we drop the weights. We advance the hoseline into the house fire until it is out or we start getting burned up. We look at our kids and hold their gaze tightly as they get a booster shot and don’t break until it’s over. So it is not failure, really. When the weights become too much, when we can’t push deeper into the house, when we can’t bear the sight of our brother gracefully taking his exit from his earthly host, we lean back and we’re pushed forward. We rally for one another, and in that light, we do not fail. We become human. We become that which we were meant for: creatures seeking grace. Amazing grace, even.
So as I fought my own stupid demons in a relatively unimportant endeavor, I thought of pushing to failure. I thought of what I owe my friend, in terms of living life in the now, of wrapping it up in my wingspan and holding tight through the storms, protecting my people. I thought of my business partner, struggling to keep her head high as her family faces an uncertain future, but never wavering in her conviction that they will make it as one, and I am inspired. We all open up our arms to take care of those who need it, for that is what makes us human at the end of the day.
I’m not ready to say goodbye. I have so many more conversations with him that need to take place. I need him to know his memory will not be dimmed, not while I’m still around. I need him to know that his was not a life lived in vain, for he gave hope to so many when there was little hope to be had. We started the Fire Department Pipe & Drum Corps, four silly bastards with a dream of making music to honor our fallen, and he was our biggest advocate, and in a twist of fate, I met with another founder tonight on my front porch to prepare for the toughest performance we’ll likely ever know. We’re getting ready to let go of one of our own, and the pain is so very searing, there’s not a firefighter among us that wouldn’t take a scorching in the worst house fire to relieve his pain for just a moment, to give him a chance to embrace his own family for one more day. We hurt as one, and we’ll mourn as one.
Our lead piper will do it right, and honor him through the tears and devastating pain. We’ll cry a thousand tears as one as we honor the very best of a man standing tall among us all, even in his final moments. This is not failure. This is not the end, for we know not what lies beyond.
What we do know is love for one another. Through all the filthy jokes, successes and tribulations that marks us all as scarred beings, we love each other from end to end. Tears falling freely across my desk, I write this knowing that my brothers and sisters in the service are rallying around the clock right now so that not an hour passes without one of us by his side. And we will not abandon his side, no matter the cause.
I love you brother. I love you until my own last breath and then ever after. I can’t wait to see you on the other side, knowing grin and loving embrace as we reunite over a cold pint and tales taller than ourselves. I’ll be here.