As a firefighter’s wife, you learn to accept certain things as part of the job. When he was a volunteer for two different fire departments, sliding out from under warm covers in brutal Michigan winters to get to the scene of another person with difficulty breathing or another structure fire, I learned how to go right back to sleep before he had even finished putting on his boots. When he came home with bandaged hands and told me he could not wear his wedding ring anymore because 100 pullups made his hands bleed while in the Fire Academy, I learned how to apply antibacterial ointment without adding the salt of my tears. When he got held over because he was force-hired when another paramedic was ill, I learned how to rearrange schedules for pick-up for dance class, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and soccer without even a change in heart rate.
As a physician assistant, I thought perhaps I had an advantage over other firefighter’s wives. I’ve been trained on how to react in emergencies, explained to wide-eyed patients that the chest pain they felt was not indigestion, sutured gunshot wounds, bloodied numerous pairs of gloves in procedures and surgery, and so thought I was prepared for the life as the wife of a firefighter. And then, in one moment, this illusion which I clung to was swept away.
It was a simple photo. Taken by his partner in a candid moment after a house fire, then posted to Facebook. When he first became a firefighter, he would call me on his way home, just to let me know he was still alive, and this habit continued at his new department, after he got off from his shift. Frequently, his calls come while I am with a patient, so the conversation consists of only a few reassuring words, but it is enough to let me know the world is as it should be. He is safe for another day.
Like most couples, at the end of the day, we share work stories. Since he is a paramedic/firefighter, we discuss Patient X, treatments, and transports, and our children are used to dinner table stories of crashes and fires, though most stories have to be edited for little ears. He will say only “It was a bad one,” and I know it will be a conversation for later after bedtime stories, nighttime prayers, and goodnight kisses. I have heard so many variations of cases, and somehow this has lulled me into thinking of them as routine, part of the job, just another fire.
On this day, I am between patients, checking Facebook, this picture of him, so unlike most I’ve seen pops up on my screen. My son has inherited his daddy’s smile, all cheeks and teeth, full of life and laughter, infectious and enthusiastic for all the blessings we are surrounded by, and pictures of my men are lit by these smiles. But not this picture.
In this picture, he is tired. The house smolders behind him. The air is thick with the haze of smoke. The ground in this desert city in which we now live is wet with the efforts of hours, and criss-crossed by hoses. The uniform which I’ve seen hanging in his locker, is smudged with soot. The helmet with his name emblazoned across the front is held in one hand, and I can see that he is trying to muster up the energy for that brilliant smile, but he can’t quite manage it.
I have visited each of his fire stations, trying to nod knowledgeably as he points out gleaming rows of knobs and levers on the fire trucks, listened to explanations of all the safety equipment and training, shook hands with his station mates, but, of course, I’ve never been on scene.
Never seen the fires raging, smoke billowing, men and women moving in concert to save lives and homes. Never seen this man, who gave up a lucrative position to go back to school for his 3rd career finally doing what he loves, look like this. This man whom I met as a boy, who asked to hold my hand 3 babies ago, who loves being a firefighter because he can help people, looks out at the camera, and I finally see him, in his element, and my heart contracts in fear.
I am a firefighter’s wife. I thought I knew what that meant until this photo. And later, when I get that call, that tells me he is home, and safe. . .I know it is only for today. And I pray, with renewed urgency for strength to a merciful God and His blessed mother, that I and all the other partners of firefighters, continue to receive that call.