Alyssa Royse, whose husband is a firefighter who used to be on a Hot Shot crew, grieves the loss of 19 firefighters in a deadly Arizona wild fire.
We spent much of last week helping my mother-in-law move. Amongst 70 years worth of treasure and trinkets, I came to covet a series of photographs of my husband in his early 20’s, when he was a Hot Shot and a Smoke Jumper. The Hot Shots have been in the news a lot lately, as 19 of them died a tragic death fighting a fire in Arizona.
My mother-in-law offered me the photos, and I couldn’t take them. I know what they mean. The one of him with the ashes smudged all over his face, and the satisfied smile of a man whose soul is both filled and on fire, all at once. The one of him in the plane, ready to jump, grinning from ear to ear. The one of him lying in the grass, exhausted and smiling. The one of him with a chainsaw. I don’t know if it’s one of the chainsaws that nearly cut off one of his fingers. I also can’t see his face, but I know he’s smiling. That smile that let’s you know it’s all going to be okay.
I see that smile on a daily basis. I see it when he’s helping one of our daughters perform a task that we adults take as mundane, but challenges her and she needs his steady patience to learn it. I see it when he’s training someone in the gym we own, and they get a lift they didn’t think they could get, but they do, because he taught them and encouraged them. I see that look after we make love, as we both drift off to sleep. And when we talk about the land we will someday have in the country.
I joke that I can spot a firefighter in a crowded room. But it’s not a joke, I pretty much can. There is something about them. They really do make you feel safe. They will do anything to keep you safe.
I know what it’s like to build a life with a firefighter.
I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what it’s like to lose that.
We were having dinner when he got an email from someone that 19 HotShots died. I think it was from a former HotShot Crew mate, or a listserv that they’re all on. And his normally smiling face just dropped.
He knows what it’s like to be in that kind of fire.
He can imagine what it would be like in the moments before the fire consumes you.
All I know is what it’s like to worry about it. And it’s paralyzing. Like many of us who love firefighters, I try not to think about it much. When he’s on shift now, as a member of the Seattle Fire Department, I just focus on the big stuff. He is one of the people who help the homeless, who soothe those who have been in an accident, who bring the dead back to life with the power in their hands, and who go running into burning buildings to save people, pets and property. And I know he loves it. When I check the website on his duty days, and I see he’s on a fire, I just think about that smile, how happy it makes him.
He talks about is wildland fire days with a romantic nostalgia normally reserved for discussing your first love. But it’s grueling work, with little reward, really, at least not compared to the risk and the sacrifice. Weeks on end without knowing where you’re going to be, without being able to contact those who love you, without knowing what’s coming next. And if it can kill you.
These men and women are saving entire towns.
No capes and tights, no hammers with magic powers, no robot parts to make them impervious to pain and fear, no fancy cars with sensors and arms to grasp you from the grip of danger, or jaws of death. They are just people.
I have asked him if he was ever afraid. “All the time,” he usually responds. “So how do you do it?” “You just do.” It’s that matter of fact to him. Why wouldn’t you go diving into burning buildings, cut people out of cars on busy freeways, stop the bleeding in gunshot victims, teach homeless people how to make fires that are big enough to keep you warm, but small and contained enough to be safe. “I mean,” he seems to say, without saying it, “what else would you do?”
I have asked him what his favorite part is. “Knowing I made a difference.”
Seriously. That’s the reward. If you ask any of them, you’re going to get some variation of that as an answer.
When we lose men and women like this, we don’t just get a pathetic statement of what we as a society value, we lose heroes. Actual heroes. And I know that’s been said, but think about what it really means.
We lose role models. None of us can be Iron Man – we’ve neither the resources nor the reality to allow that. But any of us could, really, set aside ourselves to make the world around us better. We just don’t. We don’t choose to. At least in part because it isn’t modeled for us, it isn’t really celebrated. Not in the same way star athletes are, or bajillionare tech entrepreneurs. Sure, kids look up to firefighters, but we don’t look beyond the flash and flame to look at what these people really do.
How they soothe the terrified, how they conquer fear, how they risk themselves to help people they don’t even know. And for what? Really?
Because they love what they do. They teach us, above all, honor and integrity. Not just because what they do helps others, but because every firefighter I know does what they do because they love it. Not because they will be rich, or famous, but because it’s who they are.
We should all be so lucky to find careers that make us happy. That reflect who we truly are. We need to teach people that that’s success. Feeling fulfilled, being happy, making the world better than you found it.
And we should all be so lucky to have a world filled with more people who are less selfish, and more selfless.
When we lost these 19 men, we lost all the impressions they still had to make on those around them. The examples they set.
We need to look not just at the job they did, but who they were, besides firefighters, when they were alive.
I love my husband’s job. I love the people he does it with. I have never felt as safe in my life as I do, knowing that all of them have his back, and mine, and our daughters’. And the whole city of Seattle’s. You don’t even have to ask, they’re just there.
And then I walk by the calendar on our wall and see all the days when the people of Seattle get him, instead of me. It is so hard even to make plans. And then I see the sticky note that says, “Cancer Screenings,” and think of the battery of tests he has to get, that people with safer jobs don’t need, because even if he comes home to me alive a the end of his shift, who knows what he has inhaled in more than 20 years of fighting fires that will take him from me. Slowly, not with the swift fury of a fire. And I feel like I’m tempting fate making long-term plans.
Every now and then I ask him if he would consider another line of work. And he says, “no” every time. And when he does, that smile creeps back on his face.
To all of you who lost loved ones in that fire, I can’t even imagine. Though I do imagine it, often. And it makes me cry. For what it’s worth, I cried real tears over the loss of your loved ones. And my husband held me. And that made it even worse.
You, the ones who offer your loved ones to the world so that they can protect it, I thank you. I know what you have lost.
I wish everyone knew what we have. What we share with them. What we need to not lose. And what we need to find in ourselves.
Lead photo: AP