Only Twenty

Image by Eric Norberg

Twenty years ago I thought I would do this job forever. I had a dream; work in Providence till I was sixty and they threw me out, then move to somewhere where they have a volunteer fire department and put my experience to good use. The department offered a 50% pension after twenty years, we contribute 9 1/2 % of our pay toward the fund, the city contributes the rest. “That’s nice,” I thought, never considering I would actually leave after twenty.

Time marches on, and twenty years passed in the blink of an eye. The person I was when I started is long gone, a different, more somber, at times cynical person has taken his place. People who walked in my shoes fought for the twenty year pension deal, knowing from experience that twenty years in firefighter time is a long, long time. They knew, as only one who lived the life will ever know, that for some, twenty years is enough. They knew that at forty-five or fifty, starting a new career is not that easy, or starting a business when everybody else had a twenty year head start challenging to say the least.

I remember sitting in at a critical incident debriefing a few hours after I held two dead infants in my arms. My latex gloves melted into their skin their bodies were so hot as I tried unsuccessfully to revive them with my new CPR skills. I bagged the one year old – Savannah was her name I found out later, while doing compressions on the other, John. It was rough, but it was what I had signed on for. The guy that brought the babies from the fire to me was a twenty year veteran firefighter, a tough guy by all accounts. When it was his turn to speak he filled with tears, and couldn’t. He hung his head and valiantly tried to express his feelings, but couldn’t. He left the room. A few months later he was gone. Retired. He told me much later that it wasn’t necessarily that call that did it, it was all the calls leading up to and including that one that finished him. He simply could not do it again.

I should have learned a lesson that day, but mired in the arrogance of youth I hadn’t lived enough to sense my own frailty. I was invincible. I thought of him the other day, as I drove home from what I thought was an unremarkable tour. As I neared my street, I thought of the little girl who claimed to have injured her knee and refused to move from the gymnasium floor. Her mother looked on from a distance, annoyed as I tried to figure out what was wrong. No bleeding or deformity, swelling or anything really. She showed me her other knee as a comparison, and I noticed bruises, weeks old on both legs, and both arms, and a haunted look on her face. I let it go, we can’t save everybody, and she probably is just an active kid who bruises easily.

Or not.

I turned onto my street, and had to stop the car. Where was the little girl now? Was she home, in her room, reading or watching TV, or was she being punished for being a crybaby, like the kid a few weeks ago whose mother called us because her son “fell” from his bed. Fell and had severe head trauma and curling iron burns on his legs.  It took ten minutes for me to pull myself together before I could walk in my door and not bring twenty years worth of memories with me.

I haven’t been sleeping. It’s been going on for months now, every night that I’m home I’ll go into a fitful slumber around midnight, only to be fully awake at around two. I toss and turn for hours, finally getting some relief from my spinning mind at sunrise, only to be back up an hour later. I grab an hour here and there as time permits but have no idea what a full nights sleep feels like, unless it is drug induced, but I try to avoid that.

What runs through my mind is probably similar to every other person my age; are the kids really okay, will the bills get paid, am I truly happy or is this just an illusion, is that spot on my back the cancer that will kill me or just a mole. Then I get the ghosts.

-the baby that was run over by the eighteen wheeler as it turned the corner on North Main and Doyle, dead in the middle of the street, the baby carriage twisted and crushed one hundred feet from the body

-the guy that was buried alive at sunset on Dorothy, and his lifeless arm that was the first thing we dug up

-the twenty year old guy and his twenty year old friend, dead in the front seat of their Mustang at the Atwells Ave off ramp

-the fifty-five year old guy who was new at motorcycle riding who tapped a rear view mirror, lost control on 195, flipped over the jersey barrier and was crushed by a Toyota Camry full of kids. We found his foot later, still in his boot

-the eighteen year old tattoo artist found hanging in his basement by his roomate

-my friends brother found hanging in his bedroom closet

-a RISD student found hanging from the wrought iron fence at Prospect Park

-the kid found hanging off the side of his house on New Years Eve

-the fifty-five year old who told his wife he was going golfing, started his car, didn’t open the garage door and died next to his clubs

-the forty year old who held up traffic while he considered jumping from the overpass, then did as the crowd that had formed cheered

-the college kid who fell eighty feet to his death the week before Christmas

-the baby who rolled himself into his blanket and suffocated, while his dad was napping on the couch

-my friend Kenny who had a heart attack at his third building fire of the day, and had to be defibrillated, and came back to life but not the job

-the seventeen year old girl who bled to death in the front seat of a car that had struck a tree while eluding police as her friends picked her pockets of the crack vials they were selling

-the baby born dead and put into a hefty bag

-the woman dead in her kitchen with a bullet hole in her forehead and her three children sitting on a couch in the next room

-the two babies that broke the veteran firefighter

-the eight year old deaf girl who broke my heart when I learned she had been prostituting for her foster parents

–the twenty-year old dancer dead in her car after taking all of her pills, and the vomit covered note on her lap

-the family dead behind the front door as the fire burned out of control behind them

-delivering a baby in the back of the rescue and having the mother yell get that thing away from me when I handed it to her

-watching blood gush from a hole in a man’s head while doing compressions

There are dozens, hundreds more, all waiting for that delicate twilight between sleep and consciousness to come uninvited into my mind. More join the parade every day that I come to work. Just this week a twenty three year old hit and killed while waking home from a nightclub, a thirty year old guy shot in the head, back and legs who walked to the rescue then collapsed.

I am not a machine. I am a simple person who signed on to do a job, and have done it well. If I choose to leave this year, I will do so with my head held high, regardless of what people say about how lucky I am to get to retire after only twenty years 

1 Comment

  • Pam pipicz says:

    I spent 20 years In EMS in south jersey (Camden bridgeton then in Gloucester Twp. I currently had my career ended by a stroke from a disease called moyamoya that I was dx in 2010 I had a total of 8 strokes but this took my everything away from EMS I enjoyed and relate to story’s thank you

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