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This Writer’s Fire

June 18, 2011

There’s a story I’ve been prepping to write about fathers for about a week now: a celebration of my dad’s dedication and service in the fire department for 30 years.  The tragic death of a local volunteer firefighter, though, makes this much harder to do, both personally and professionally. No matter how hard I try to keep these two stories separate, they keep merging, blending in a way I can’t stop.

So, as I continue typing, I find myself asking the sensitive questions about how far I can go with this story, how much should I hold back, and what’s appropriate, tactful, and respectful given the fact this hero died just 72 hours ago.

Should I scrap the piece entirely? Or is it a very timely piece that needs to be written and published—the celebration of dads and now a memorial to a father who lost his life in the line of duty?

Maybe my struggles come from the angst buried many years ago, comprehending my own father’s passing related to a medical call that killed both him and his shift partner.

What was just a simple ode to my father’s commitment to fighting fire and saving lives is now a resurfacing of the emotions tied to loved ones making the ultimate sacrifice.

I think of the volunteer firefighter’s small sons as they make sacrifices of their own, mourning the loss of their father while taking on the responsibility of caring for their grieving mother. These last few days have shaved concurrent years from their childhood. None of it seems fair, but there’s a reason why they call it civil service, answering the call of duty, and putting your life on the line so others might live.

I won’t stop myself from writing this piece. I can’t.

This is for two reasons. Journalists and writers, much like surgeons or police officers or fire fighters, know there comes a time when they need to click into “professional” mode and deal with the emotions later. Photojournalists are the same way. If it’s their job to document the tragedy, so be it. They cannot worry themselves with the magnitude of what is happening before them.

Paramedics who arrive at the scene of a disaster have to shelve the reality they face long enough to triage the situation and do everything in their power to save lives. If they let themselves think too much about the disaster suddenly enveloping them, they will never be able to do their job and save lives.

Not like I’m saving lives with my pen, but writers have a similar role as the journalists and photojournalists. The story needs to be written, and we do not disrespect the victims and their families by pushing through to write it.

The other reason the story needs to be written is personal. I have to work through this inexplicable and incessant need to write about my father’s death. I was so close to my mother, yet it is my father I continue to think about. My mother died four years ago, just days after Mother’s Day; my father passed away 18 years before her. To this day, I continue to write of his life and his death, and of our father/son relationship.

Why don’t I have the desire to write about my mother? We were so close right up to the day she died. Is it because our relationship ran the natural course, right into her eighties, and there was (dare I say) closure?

No closure with Dad. He died when I was 24. And the mystique of his life as a firefighter continues to grip me in all ways, thus the push to write the ode in the first place.

Really, though–and I think this is getting to the heart of the matter–I’ve always thought we never sorted things out: about me, us, pride, disappointment. I wanted desperately for him to be proud of me in his last few years of life, and now I’m stuck wondering if he ever was.

No fault to him. I set myself up for it. But we never had that “natural closure” Mom and I had. We never had the time to transition from Father/Son into Friend/Friend, as my other brothers were able to do. He never got to meet my wife or know our kids; we never got to experience any of it.

So that’s where I am, as a writer, looking at this piece in front of me about the fathers and firefighters, service and sacrifice, life and death.

I am confident I will be able to kick it into professional mode and assemble a respectable assortment of words; it will be filled with sincere, genuine, and authentic praise for those men and women who put their lives on the line every day for you and me.

But behind all that, I’ll still be wondering if my words would have made Dad proud.

The picture above (taken October 1969) shows my father, standing proudly next to the new engine at our local volunteer station 29, Providence. I stand just below my sister, as I hold on to the engine’s railing for dear life.

  1. June 18, 2011 8:41 pm

    Rus, there is no doubt in my mind that Poppy is looking down upon us. He has witnessed every marriage, not to mention the birth of all of our children. He knows them all, as well as knowing who we are today. I know he is very proud of you and who you have become! Please do not doubt that. You are doing great things, helping others, sharing love, and are a blessing to all. I am very proud of you and know that he would be too! Love you! Wendi

  2. June 20, 2011 11:05 am

    Catherine Drinker Bowen wrotein the Atlantic in 1957: “Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.”

    To live everything twice can seem like a curse, but it’s also a blessing. As you mentioned, it’s a chance to “work through this inexplicable and incessant need to write about (your) father’s death.” Writing honestly about our life experiences is helpful in two ways: 1) it infuses our writing with reality: passion, suffering, joy — everything. It (hopefully) grips our readers. 2) it helps us see events as they truly are and more importantly, how and why we see them as we do.

    I’m sure your piece on firefighters was real, gripping and respectful of the utlimate sacrifice both your father and the other firefighter made. Please let us know how it turned out. Thanks for sharing the backstory.

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