The tones ring out, again, at 3am. People seem to have a lot of emergencies, real or imagined, at 3am. Conversely, my tolerance for people who abuse the 911 system is at an all time low when you’ve roused me from a two hour catnap because you’ve stubbed your toe and somehow convinced the dispatcher that this means you’re having chest pains, too. And then when I see you, with your bags packed, a grin on your face while you smoke a cigarette and complain of breathing problems, my professionalism gets tested to a whole new level. But professional we must be, so I ask you to put out the cigarette and please tell me what event generated a call to summon us from our fitful bouts of rest.
But this night, last night, was different. A young wannabe thug was most likely trying to impress someone and from some rudimentary guessing, pulled a piece from his waistband and proceeded to shoot himself in the groin. Painful and embarrassing, he still felt the compunction to posture tough in front of the cops, medics and us, cussing us out as we cut away his blood-soaked shorts, claiming we were embarrassing him. No one had the lack of decorum to inform the young gentleman that it was far more embarrassing to shoot off a piece of your junk, maybe, in an attempt to look tough. He’s 18, wearing a hat cocked sideways with a flat bill and a fire in his eyes. He’s poor, living in a poor neighborhood and the overwhelming emotion I got from him was one of abject loneliness. He might be trying damn hard to be important, but in the end, he about blew his reproductive capabilities away, endangering his life in an attempt to fit in.
On some weird level, I got it. The jump to lieutenant has been one where you careen off the cliff and realize on the way down that you’re jumping into this wide open ocean very much alone. Firefighters run in pairs and the engineer may be high up on the enlisted list, but he/she is still one of the guys. Rescue guys are a prime example of evolved and advanced groupthink, too smart to be caught alone, too clever to be outmaneuvered around the kitchen table. But the officer? There’s only one of those per rig. The officer sleeps alone, downstairs. The officer stays up late writing endless reports. The officer is no longer welcome upstairs in the firehouse, that most sacred domain where shenanigans play out and camaraderie is forged. But when the shit comes rolling, and it will, it is the officer with whom it must stop, upon whom it must lay when those with crossed bugles see deficiencies. And for an emotional bastard like me, you gotta throw up your thickest skin because the rest of your tribe will devour you in the absence of leadership.
These last few months have been a lonely journey, both from the right hand seat of the fire engine and in my own home. My kids are like my firefighters…..they look to me for answers when the bills come due. It’s far easier to criticize from the outside looking in, and I’d be lying if I said that many a walk home post-shift hasn’t been mired in a replaying of the calls, the banter, the chaos, wondering if I did the right thing. I wear all of my emotions on my sleeve, and when I try to bottle that up, only chaos emerges. I’ve learned to embrace it, to let my people know that when I’m hurting, I hurt, when I’m loving, there will be no fiercer, loyal love, when I’m 6 pots of coffee in, I’m the most productive, if not loud, motherlover you’ve ever met.
I’ve had to learn to keep leading despite the continued setbacks on my heart. Rejection is a bitter pill to swallow, but I often think that I’m too stubborn to give up; more accurately, my heart will not yield to conventional wisdom, even when the odds and facts point out that, indeed, I should give up and subscribe to aforementioned convention. This makes me an oddity, and like a kid in a flat-bill hat creating an exit wound out of an ass cheek, it is an uncomfortable place to find yourself. The one your heart yearns for no longer seeks your company, every choice you’ve made is in question, the people around you seemingly having their own shit together while you look in the mirror and wonder just who in the hell is staring back…..all these things make it tough to put one foot in front of the other, even though that is EXACTLY what we must do.
And one day a message out of the blue appears. An old friend, from more than twenty years back, is now living relatively close by and is going through the breakup of their own family. This person tells you, randomly, that by putting your damn heart on your sleeve and owning it, you’ve given them hope that maybe there’s still a chance to pull through, after all. Maybe this won’t be another false alarm. Maybe this won’t be exactly a person trying to murder their junk in a show of bravado, but rather, a person who seeks a connection to the world around them. Another friend is about to journey into the life of a single parent, and above all, I want to put my arm around them and say, “oh, hell, this is gonna suck, my friend, but you’ll survive it. Somehow you will. And I’ll laugh alongside you at the stupid mistakes we all make.”
And despite the prospect of another broken hearted middle-aged soul wondering just what in God’s name has happened, we’ll find reason to smile again at the thought that we’re not really all that alone, after all. We have each other, friends old and new. We are the chaotic, those of us with wild hearts and wandering souls. Our journeys are lonely, but we are not alone.