Everyone loves a fireman – and I should know. I’m the daughter of one and the wife of another. My two favorite men in the world are heroes, and not just to me. Being courageous is actually part of their job description. I still remember how people fawned over my husband John after 911. They baked him cookies and wrote him thank you notes (never mind that he was 3,000 miles away in Orange County when the twin towers fell). Like most firemen I know, he was humble about his work. He didn’t do it for the praise, and he wasn’t comfortable on a pedestal.
At the age of 48, John was diagnosed with cancer. When he received the devastating news that it had metastasized to his brain, I saw his usual strength. He faced 18 months of multiple brain surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and more. His decline was gradual. First he lost his memory, then his balance. Mobility was next to go and finally even speech. Through it all, he never complained. Knowing him as I do, I wasn’t surprised at all.
I also wasn’t surprised by the overwhelming love and support we received from our friends and family. They cooked. They stacked wood. They shoveled snow. They drove my kids all over town. John and I had dozens of doctor’s appointments and exhausting medical treatments that took us away from home for days at a time. Our friends and family always came through.
Bill, Joe, and Drew were all retired firefighters who had known John for more than 20 years. Although they didn’t live nearby, their shared love of flying and the fire service, and elaborate practical jokes kept them close. One time, Bill and Drew hid John’s single-engine plane at another airport, making his “Dude, where’s my plane?” t-shirt that much funnier. Another time, John scrawled an offensive epithet on the inside of the plane’s propeller, knowing that Bill was planning to fly that day. Would he have done the same if he had known Bill’s pastor was coming along for the ride? Probably.
When John became bedbound, there was no way I could move him. Without being asked, Bill, Joe, and Drew stepped up their visits. They came three times a week, traveling up to two hours each way (and sometimes through snowy conditions). When they arrived, they would lift John out of bed for a bath, and gently carry him to the living room recliner for a much-needed change of scenery.
Their tender caregiving was full service too. It included a shave, a foot massage, leg exercises, feeding, and prayer. They even bundled him into the car for a taco fundraiser for another friend who was also fighting cancer. They weren’t uncomfortable showing physical affection either, often dropping a kiss on John’s forehead when he became too ill to move or speak. They even squeezed into that twin hospital bed with him. When they weren’t seeing to John’s needs, I often found them changing light bulbs or fixing the chicken coop. Firefighters often talk about their brotherhood, but what I saw took my breath away. It still does.
“I’ve spent my whole life taking care of people I don’t know,” said Bill every time I tried to thank him. “Now I’ve been given a chance to do it for someone I love.”
Picture a firefighter in your mind. I bet you conjured an image of a strong, invincible man willing to risk his life for the safety of others. Maybe the figure in your mind is fighting a wildfire on a hot, windy day, searching a collapsed building for earthquake survivors, or pulling a child from a car wreck. Firefighters do all those things. But I’ve seen a quieter side of their courage these past few months.
Bill, Joe, and Drew lightened the darkest hours of my life and preserved my husband’s dignity. They were compassionate enough to bathe John when he couldn’t do it himself, gentle enough to coax him to take one more bite of dinner when he wasn’t hungry, and brave enough to face a brutal disease day in and day out when they really didn’t have to. These men are my real heroes.
I’ve written this essay as a tribute to my husband’s firefighter brothers, but changed their names. They’re heroes, but it’s not their style to advertise.