Monday, September 1, 2014
My wife and were married for twelve years- we hadn’t even entertained the notion of kids; those were the limiting things that kept you from possibly, considering the accomplishment of your dreams- in fellow dink company-‘ pariahs”. As we aged and about the twelve year mark we observed the erratically eccentric behavior of a childless Uncle and Aunt; moving about the globe, amassing and dumping collections (once the requisite amassment level was reached) and moving on to the procuring of next said collection—the filling of some void so apparent to my wife and I and so unaware to them. Comparing and contrasting that Uncle and Aunt to every other relation on either side of the families resulted in our decision to get pregnant. We deduced that evidently children must keep you grounded and somewhat relative (not in the familial sense but in the familiar sense).
A year or so later our daughter was born and about four years after we added her brother Powell to her world.
I tucked Powell into bed tonight, reading him a chapter (and he was so bummed it was only one chapter) from ‘Captain Underpants’
I kissed him goodnight and walked out of his room to turn off the tv in the family room and we all overheard a story about an Idaho man and his co-worker drowning or suffocating in the sewers of NY or DC (I missed the exact details). I mentioned “That’s why you guys need to go to college- so you get a good job and don’t drown as a sewer worker or fireman (alluding to my drowning in 2008.)
Powell though quipped up and said, “You went to college and you’re a fireman.”
My slow-witted brain mustered its best response, “If you want to be a fireman there are a lot better places buddy.” I thought of my potential retirement plans, moving to the Washington coast, either Puget Sound or the San Juan Islands. “What if we move? What if Mommy and Daddy and Gabriel move to Washington and live on a boat. You could be a Firefighter out there, maybe even on a fireboat; wouldn’t that be cool?’
He shook his head and said “ I want to do it here.”
“Why here?” I asked.
“This is where I’m from.” He said. There is no clearer ethos than that of a seven year old—they don’t have the biases and the rest, the rest of us have.
“There are places that do it better. How about I help you find the best fire department in the country and you work for them and I move there with Mommy and Gabriel and we can see you all the time?”
"I’m from here Dad.”
“I love you son, but I think you’re going to break my heart every day of my life.” He has that perfect heart—that one that feels—that feels the rest of the hearts around him and hurts when those hearts hurt, that perfect heart—that poet’s heart that has to be protected-that can’t come into contact with all the hurt a firefighter feels—that level of hurt that would break a perfect heart.
I told him about better departments- departments with better staffing—with more firefighters per engine and departments with less politics—with better chief officers, but he wasn’t discouraged and I’ve never been prouder and I’ve never cried for a child as hard. I’m proud of my profession and my ascension to Captain and I’m privileged to work with my two best friends and I love that we help people, and I love that kids wave at us and women wink past their boyfriends and husbands as we drive by; but I want my son to do something else. In the span of a career a firefighter sees a lot; a dozen plus dead people a year equate to hundreds of dead people in a career. The intriguingly ugly side of life: gunshots, suicides, child abuse, rape, loss of home and all sentimental artifacts, drowning, countless other injuries, burn victims, etc… I live with imagery I wish I could lose; I drowned on a training dive—was resuscitated and dealt with PTSD for two years after. Prior to the fire service I hardened my heart in the crucible of the Marine Corps and annealed it in the forge of Force Recon. I’ve spent my lifetime since trying to recover that pure, beautiful boyish heart that was—that heart my son possesses. Many nights I can’t sleep and walk in front of my station, above Boise- I can look out and see most of my district and realize that while I’m on duty I’m responsible for the people of my district—thousands of people—for them and their property. If they fall down the stairs, suffer a heart attack, if their house catches fire or their child chokes or seizes—I am responsible. I want my son to be a dirt-bag, a tramp, to just enjoy life—but I want him to be his own—I hurt for him everyday—he is who I once was and will never be again—and I miss that innocent little boy. I miss the boy with the big dreams and the lack of reality, the one we all need to protect and keep beautiful.
I’ve spoken to him many times about that heart and what a beautiful gift it is and it shouldn’t be squandered. It is the heart most of our little boys are born with and I talked to him about it. I laid my hand on his perfect, athletic, pure seven year old chest and I told him what a beautiful gift resided under my hand. Did I mention the kid can’t wear a shirt outside of school so I had direct contact.
“This heart of yours is so pure and so beautiful buddy- you can feel what other people feel and if you start clogging that up maybe you won’t feel.” But as I talked I realized I was arguing against myself- this is who a firefighter should be—he should be someone who can feel- who experiences the hurt and can therefore render the best aid but he has to disassociate the hurt and compartmentalize it and save it for later and this isn’t addressed- this results in the PTSD, in drinking, in high risk behavior, in too much hockey, in divorce. I want my son to be beautiful and nothing is more beautiful than helping other human beings when they’re suffering and have no options—nothing is more beautiful but I don’t want him to suffer the consequences of sacrificing that beauty for the dark cost that rends the soul. His heart is too perfect, but it is so perfect that regardless of everything he’s seen- Dad drinking too much, railing against one-bullshit policy or another or a fight between Mom and Dad. Whenever he sees a Boise Fire Engine roll by with lights and sirens he sees good and he sees right and he wants to take care of his people, his neighbors—nothing could make a firefighter prouder and nothing could make a father more desolate.
I love you Powell.