Being Thankful-One year and seven days later

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. I browsed briefly through many blogs this afternoon all touting the importance of being thankful and although I hate jumping on any blog bandwagon (Ferguson), I find that this evening in particular thankfulness shall abound and with good reason.

One year and seven days ago I stood in an arena, working a cute grey mare, getting her in shape to practice hard during the off-season. At 11:40 am my phone rang and through trembling voice my wife informed me she needed to head towards Vallejo Kaiser immediately or she might die.

Think about that for a moment.

A seemingly perfect day, slightly overcast and a little chilly brought to a screeching halt, turned upside down because of one single phone call and the words “I might die”. I have been dealt this card before so my recollection powers are incredibly strong and as I type the smell of cold wet sand and winter eucalyptus trees fill my senses. A moment captured forever deep within my brain.

One year and seven days ago our world changed forever. Although we try, it’s like the ghost in the closet, the elephant in the room, the fat lady who hasn’t sung yet. It is just there.

One year and seven days ago, I didn’t know if there was going to be a forever for her and me. I cried, hard, then did what I always do; Sat down, absorbed all the information, shut my mouth for a while, and developed a plan.

One year and seven days ago my friends, people I have known and cared about knocked on my door, called me, walked into my home and said nothing more than: how can we help? I have never been good at accepting help, I am a helper by nature not a recipient, but all that changed and they assured me with love that I had no say in the matter.

One year and seven days ago my children sat dumbfounded, confused, and unable to comprehend exactly what was going on. Words like chemotherapy, drugs, cancer, Leukemia, blood cells, and sick all became a staple of conversation in their worlds. They never quite knew how to take it all, the thought that their mother might die, but they did in their own ways. It changed them a little, I am not sure what the lasting effect will be, only time will tell.

One year and seven days ago a six month odyssey began with month-long stays in the hospital, missing most of our high schoolers senior year, juggling a family with the help of friends, multiple midnight runs to the emergency room, nights alone wondering if she was going to die, nights in bed with her wondering if she was going to die. Days knowing she would be alright only to be slapped in the face with another trip to the hospital. Days of triumph and love, nights of cursing our life and the strain it was bringing to our family and to her. Nights of praising God for the reprieves, and slowly understanding things were going to get better.

One year ago today we had Thanksgiving in our house. The meal was completely prepared by friends, family and strangers. It was amazing that so many people cared about us, our family and our children to the extent of ensuring we had a thanksgiving meal. We Facetimed with Jacy that night and before desert could be dished I was back on the road, heading to Kaiser to sit with my wife, thankful to be able to do so thanks to a rapid diagnosis by an extraordinary young doctor and a myriad of family and friends watching my children.

Tonight, my wife lies next to me asleep from a long day of travel and family. She is not perfect, she may never be the same as she was before, although it won’t be for a lack of trying. Her emotions are still raw from 6 months of chemo-hell, her brain struggles with the after effects of chemotherapy at times which leaves her frustrated and her body is always doing strange things. We don’t know how long chemo-brain will last, we don’t know how long her body will continue to hold her down when it comes to strenuous activities and we don’t know if the leukemia will come back in one year, five years or never. But put all that aside and what you’re left with is one mother of four who can hug and kiss her children and to date is cancer free.

For that, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful….

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The Fire Service saved my life/The Fire service is slowly killing me….

fire 13

The Fire service saved my life.

The Fire service is slowly killing me…

When becoming a firefighter in 1995 it was clear to me this choice would forever change the course of my life. No longer would my family wonder when daddy would be home, no longer would stressing about paychecks, health care, retirement, and the ability to actually take a vacation fall upon my shoulders with such weight. There would always be adventure, excitement and the repeated knowledge of a job well done for me to submerge my inner ego or satisfy the adrenaline junkie long hidden deep inside.

Constant education, growth (both inner and professionally) a career tailor made for a lost soul looking for something, anything to help define who he is, what he is, while allowing his search to encompass a life with honesty and compassion. Two emotions he knew he possessed but could never quite get to emerge.

You have not truly lived until deaths hand has been held. I know that sounds hard and cruel but looking into deaths seething eyes while your team members rip away a life chosen, robbing deaths intentions, handing life back to the living, one cannot help but leave feeling a tad bit invincible. This euphoric high comes from helping someone on the “verge” and it must be ten times more potent than any other drug. There are different levels of euphoria achieved through a job well done. Whether it be a successful extrication, saving a life, any life from fire or re-starting a heart then witnessing a human being trying their hardest to breathe again; to feel the warm soft touch of an elderly persons hand in thanks for helping them back into bed after spending an unwanted night on the floor, or calming a new mother who has called 911 for nothing more than cough, or sniffle. Changing a smoke alarm battery at 2 in the morning because the occupants are scared there may be a fire somewhere in the residence, or simply smiling and waving to a kid on the street as their eyes light up watching us drive by. This job has saved me, it took a man filled with pride, and no idea how to harness an energy created by his abrasive personality and shaped me into what those who love me, hoped I would or could always become. Yes this job saved me, from no one person or anything other than myself.

This job is also killing me…

Every day I hurt, something hurts, my back, my neck, my shoulder and some days my heart. I carry with me the pain of every person I have ever comforted or held, I remember locations in town by the severity or need. I have a job that is very emotional and yet we can show no emotion while on scene, many times stepping outside for just a moment to swallow hard, retain that granite exterior the public expects, then walk back inside to do your best. I know I have spoken of this in the past and it’s no different for any other person who works hard every day, struggles with life’s ups and downs, but it seems that writing it out always makes me feel a little better. This job, this blessed job, with the ability to touch so many lives, garner respect that you often wonder is really deserved, this job is slowly killing me. I stay in shape, both physically and mentally. It is a requirement if you chose this career path. To believe it is not is pure naivety usually held by the young and brash. This entire writing came about due to a realization two days ago while driving home that in fact some days are better than others and some days it just isn’t my fault for the way I feel.

In the fire service we work very hard at creating awareness. Awareness of our surroundings, including people, places, weather, traffic, building size etc… Basically we teach what is known as ‘size up” from the moment we leave the station on a response we are constantly sizing up the situation. So imagine everyday you are at work the captain is preaching size-up, analyze the call, the updates, the appearance once on scene, your immediate surroundings. Now being a good new guy you start sizing up everything throughout your day because well practice makes perfect. Yes? So at lunch you size up the structure, pretend it’s on fire, what is the occupancy load, what time of day is it, who is or is not inside? Now since it’s my fantasy fire there is flames ripping from the A/B side of the structure and in my little fantasy world I need to determine manpower, resources, plan of attack, do we go offensive or defensive? Should I up this alarm or can we handle this fire at the current alarm status? What are my needs and the needs of my men and am I able to adequately relay those needs?

Do you get the picture? Day in and day out we do this as good firefighters sharpening our skills, keeping us ready for any contingency, setting ourselves up for the next promotion. To ultimately become the very best we can be. Then over time practice slowly becomes filled with little doses of reality.

A few days ago while driving home gazing into a perfect beautiful blue sky, a light wind is blowing, temps in the mid 60’s, tail of a slow moving front pushing through (see still sizing up) off in the distance there is a plane banking off to the left or southwest. It looks so serene pressed against such a glorious sky. A sigh of contentment as I stare at this military giant cruising through the sky. Then it happens, all my eyes see is a plane, wing separated, spiraling into the ground with smoke billowing from its fuselage. Explosion, location, the farmland and house it has leveled, people inside the plane screaming as gravity takes hold. A shake of the head, the plane is still aloft, safe as it has been a thousand times before. It is the epitome of size up combined with real life past experiences. Because during this planes imaginary corkscrew into the ground my brain instantly went from size-up mode to reality. Visualizing one of the many plane crashes I have responded to including one where I witnessed the plane fold up and plummet straight to earth! So in my brain the process continues, what would I see, what resources would I need etc..

I feel at times as though I can’t do a thing or listen to any conversation, idea or verbally expressed thought without instantly ruining it with my engrained fear. Every car crash, house fire, CPR that was unsuccessful, suicide, fall victim, shooting victim and person assaulted or raped have all left an indelible mark upon my heart, mind and soul. It has created a better firefighter, it has created a person who can share their experiences freely, openly with others in our ranks, but it has taken a toll.

My children can’t do anything without me overanalyzing, my poor wife, no matter what fantastic idea she comes up with gets shot down immediately because in seconds I see the tragedy associated with whatever her plan held if something were to go horribly wrong. Odds are something will never happen, but for me the responses are always the same and hurtful. My parents are aging and somedays I wonder if their passing will affect me? Not that I won’t be sad, but am I so callous towards the face of death that I fear I will be the one comforting others instead of allowing others to comfort me?

Driving my family anywhere is reserved solely for me; the fear of relinquishing the steering wheel is too great. While driving down the road my mind visualizes every guardrail, ditch, narrow road, blind intersection, car alongside and where we would go in a collision. It is hell, a 2-3 hour family trip feels like an eternity in my mind.

Over the years there have been many coping processes but in the end just being quiet although irritating to those who care about me, has been the best. Writing about my experiences has helped immensely as has drinking copious amounts of alcohol. (Just kidding, couldn’t write this whole piece without one smart ass comment) Humor has saved me as well, although some of my humor is not fit for the public as we need to laugh at times at the public’s expense. It is not as though we are heartless, but there are things we see as funny and if we can’t laugh at them or our own stupid responses then this job would quickly become unbearable.

The good runs, lives saved, houses saved, humans touched by our service definitely keep things in perspective. I am surrounded by a loving and incredibly forgiving family and a choice group of friends who understand to the very core what we go through. People who I can speak openly with about the real horrors of this job. It is by far still the greatest job in the world, the fire service did truly save my life and I am forever grateful for all it has afforded me. A great career, bountiful memories, wonderful friendships and a feeling of success. But I would love just once, one single solitary moment where I don’t look at something fun and see only the tragedy.

That is how the fire service is slowly killing me..

It’s time to get UP!!!!

 

 

dogs

Every morning starts the same in our little ranch house. My wifes alarm goes off at 5am….

(long pause for effect)

Now having an alarm clock rattle off at 5am is nothing spectacular, it happens in millions of homes across this great nation everyday. Hard working people groping in the dark for a pause button, sliding their feet onto the floor, struggling to find the light switch. Wandering around unfocused they are, until that first cup of jo hits the lips, (ahhh so good) then begrudgingly getting on with  their day. Off it into the land of commuter travels or out to start feeding at the crack of dawn a new day welcomes them all.

What happens in our house though, this morning I found rather amusing. Yes it has been happening forever, and no I have no idea why it took until this particular morning for it to hit my funny bone just right. But this morning it did.

So as most of you know, my wife and I take rescue dogs from the SPCA that need a “final” evaluation before meeting Mr. Doggie Reaper.  It is an amazing thing to handle a dog who has lost their mind living in San Francisco (I know goes without saying huh?) and watching them turn around to become cheerful loving animals after a couple of days running free across 40 acres. Humans do it all the time; leave the city and head out into the country, I believe they call it “camping”? After some work and a specified period of time is even more amazing when they are re-homed and we see them popping up on FB living it up with their new families. It, as can be expected is also sad when they fail and there is no hope for change;  yet we rest easy knowing it would be sadder still if they were never given a chance/a opportunity at life.

Every Morning as I stated earlier my wifes alarm goes off at 5am.  Every morning at 5:01am the dogs, which by the way are almost 50 yards away from the house begin barking like crazy! It drives us nuts and we always worry about it bothering our neighbors. Now we have joked between us that somehow these furry heathens know we get up at 5am, somehow these mutts can sense it is 5 freaking am and we need to get our sorry asses out of bed to come get them.  What the holy hell? Cant they just let it be for 15 minutes so we could at least make a feeble attempt at hitting the snooze button? But ohhhh nooooo; 5am alarm goes off and at 5:01 so do the dogs! BARK-BARK-WOOF FREAKING WOOF!IMG_1186

Until this morning I had no clue what was up. How this could be, I know dogs are smart, but even when it is a fresh lot of new ones this happens.  How on earth do they know?Then like a ton of bricks it hit me. Some mornings when it is new dogs the barking is not that bad, a bark here, a bark there, but right now we have three bird dogs and a cattle dog out there and it is off the freaking hook! It has been since day one!  Hmm three bird dogs and a cattle dog??? What could it be????

Oh yes I failed to mention my wifes alarm is the sound of BIRDS HOLLERING, SQUAWKING, CHIRPING, HONKING, WHINING, SQUEAKING AND EVERY OTHER SOUND A BIRD CAN MAKE!!!! IT SOUNDS LIKE THE FREAKING AMAZON JUNGLE MIXED WITH A DUCK BLIND!

HOLY SWEET MOTHER MARY JOSEPH! THAT’S IT!!!!

It is no wonder these dogs are going crazy at 5:01, it hunting time! Its time to chase the elusive fine feathered friend! Its game time and these mutts are no longer sitting on the bench! Riding the Pine, keeping the kennel warm! No sir, the sound of my wifes alarm reverberating at decibel level 9 through our always open bedroom window which faces the kennels is the starting pistol to their local track race! The green flag has waved and the race is on! It’s no wonder they act like fish in a feeding frenzy, zombies stuck on a fence looking at fresh meat, children 30 seconds before the end of school! These poor thoroughbred bastards are in the starting gate just waiting for a bell, the GO sign! And that is just what they get! Birds! The sounds of Birds! Lots of birds! different kinds of birds, styles of birds, just one full minute of birds, teasing them with every smooth fake synthetic, sound! The most primal of instincts, jarred awake from deep inside every dog that graces our door! Simple recognition for the ever aware bird dog. But for the new dog who has lived its entire life within the confines of an apartment, surrounded by hordes of people even when traversing the wide open spaces (sarcasm) of a city park, these sounds must be like the equivalent of a persons “first” high! That feeling when the buzz sets in from a shot of whiskey or what ever choice of poison your body prefers! (not judging)

cooper

 

Yep it all makes perfect sense now. I can rest at ease every morning no longer feeling anger for their stalwart commitment. It is not the dogs fault for their tuned up crazy behavior, it is ours. Like dangling a donut in front of a group of cops or a bucket of ice cream to a hoard of firemen. There is just no stopping the horrific aftermath.

Birds….