“There’s a man who walks beside me/
He is who I used to be/
And I wonder if she sees him/
And confuses him with me”
-Jason Isbell, “Live Oak”


“I’m so sorry….” my voice never murmurs the words, but I’m sure she saw it in my eyes.

I just realized where we were. This wasn’t a regular party in the park. No.

The gaze is only locked for a snapshot in time, but I know she knows. I refocus on the task at hand, and within a few more compressions, I feel the ribs break, as I’ve broken so many in so many years.

I know where this is headed, I recognize the signs, and I am powerless to stop the ritual. Once begun, it will continue until we reach the hospital, both by law and by protocol.

Our fire department runs nearly 15,000 calls per year. That averages out to be about 41 per day, every day, split unevenly between 12 firehouses. You go south, you get slow, it’s just a rule. Out of our central station, that is not the rule, certainly not after dark when our people get extra itchy to dial 911 over every.single.thing. In this environment, it’s easy to get jaded. And after 15 years on, it takes a lot to rattle my cage on a medical call. As once told to me by an old salt, “Son, if you treat every death like it’s your own fathers’, you’ll never make it in this business.” Death is a fact of our life, and it takes a while, but you get used to the notion that often, you will be called to be the last people to make a last ditch effort to stave off the inevitable. Inevitably, you lose more often than not.

The call came in as a possible heart attack. Lots of people experience heartburn and are convinced they’re having a heart attack. Lots of people convince themselves of lots of things, helped by a healthy dose of hypochondria and WebMD. But once in a while the real deal appears on the radar, and it’s time to go to work. As we approached the park near the station, near my own house, we saw a party that was in progress and that the cops were hunched over someone on the ground. Funny how the mask slips over your eyes, and your training takes over to the point where movement is measured, precise, each member of the crew moving in labored coordination. Quick vitals, scissors cutting away clothing and dignity, pads on, compressions begun, oxygen hooked up to the ambu-bag, airway lubed and prepped, each of us with a role in the dance. Sweat rolls and urgency murmurs your tasks into your ears. The defibrillator talks to you, tells you “shock advised” and you clear your patient while anxiously waiting for her to ride the lightning and hopefully have her heart electrified back into a normal rhythm. Back to compressions, rotating positions, because if you’ve never seen or participated in the ritual, it is labor-intensive and ugly and brutal and all in the name of holding on to your patient for just a while longer.

And then I looked up.

And I noticed that the plates and flower arrangements on tables and finely dressed people weren’t there to have a neighborhood block picnic.

We were at a wedding.

We were the guests, uninvited.

And that’s when our eyes locked, she and I. The bride, clutching her flowers, tears rolling freely, her empty hand covering her mouth.

Other guests were picking up on what was happening, and the crying increased in crescendo. And the world fell silent around me for a nanosecond, while our eyeballs spoke volumes. And in that moment, I got rattled. My world, my worries met her eyes. No matter my financial worries. I couldn’t explain trying to navigate loving someone unconditionally while simultaneously being kept at arms’ length. My concerns as to my boys well-being and their obsession with YouTube videos didn’t matter. All of my past mistakes, my selfish, selfish ways and crazy heart, none of those things mattered. I was here, we were here, called to make someones’ worst day slightly better; called to salvage the day that was supposed to be a brides’ best, and failing in the effort. And I knew we were failing.

I knew as I broke her ribs that the odds were stacked. I knew as each minute passed that salvation was eluding us, again. As we loaded the patient on the cot and as our brutal, bloody ritual continued at high speeds all the way to the south side hospital, I knew. And I could not forget the gaze, the pleading in the eyes of a bride as her guest slipped loose her earthly shackles. The medics, the firefighters, the police, the park police, the well-intentioned bystanders, no one could prevent the outcome. It was her time, and I was just so very sorry.

I wanted to go back and apologize to the bride, but knew we wouldn’t. It wasn’t our fault, but I wanted to, anyways. Her day, forever marred by such a horrible specter. The son, who watched his mother die before him. The rest of the family, her friends, all left to grieve on what was supposed to be a joyous day in the very same park where my own close friends and neighbors had been married ten years previous. These are the losses that mount up in your psyche, so when the politicians and local newspaper commentators claim we’re a bunch of overpaid union-type losers, you want to drag them into your mind and show them the toll you’re paying every time this happens.

I check my guys, see how they’re holding up. One lost an aunt recently, I can tell it’s gnawing at him as we ride in silence home. We’ll make it, over several cups of coffee, each of us bonded over an unspoken grief. I want to invite the bride and groom to our kitchen table and offer them our shoulders and a cup, too. Sounds crazy, but we’re now bonded with them, too, albeit in a tragic way. I’m just so sorry and I don’t know what to do.

So I call her up, the one person who knows my own hearts’ rhythm better than any. She listens, patiently, from a distance. I confess my heartbreak over the broken bride, over being the uninvited agents of mortality. I confess that I’m rattled, and the only thing I want to do at this point is let her know that we never know, and if that’s the case, then she needs to know just how much she means to my own heart. That I don’t ever want to lose my life’s light having not let those around me know what they mean. She knows this, she keeps her cards close and even then, for a sweet moment, the walls come down, and her own heart warms mine.

Hanging up, I tell my boys on the Engine to talk to me, if they will, when they’re haunted by the ghost of this call. The gaze between the bride and I will never have resolution, but I hope she knows we tried, we tried, and we’ll try again. I wish her some peace, but know enough to know that won’t be here for a long, long time. I call my own sons, just to say I love them once again, and dutifully, they respond in kind. They know Dad doesn’t mess around about that; our bonds are the most important thing in my life.

I hope to never lose sight of the precious gift that is this life. I hope people in my world know I love them fiercely. I hope to make a difference, still, after all these years. I hope to know peace in my own heart again some day.

I hope.