In your city, it’s been eleven years since a firefighter was killed in the line of duty. Your department is busy, but you are good at what you do and it’s rare to see one of your own die in service.
A week ago, the unthinkable happened. Now you’re burying your brother.
You aren’t used to standing at attention for long periods. It’s been a long time since you did that. Three minutes doesn’t sound like much until you have to hold a sharp salute for that long. You didn’t even want to think about it because you didn’t want to face reality.
You’re called to attention. You snap to. Heels together. Feet planted at a 45-degree angle. Knees slightly bent. Shoulders back. Chest out. Hands closed, thumbs lined up with the seams of your trousers. You’ve been trained by the military, so you can assume that position without thinking.
Four-count up; open your right hand as you bring it to your eyebrow. Keep your hand perfectly bladed. Straight line from your elbow to the tips of your fingers. Upper arm at a 90-degree angle to your body. Don’t waver, no matter how tired your arm may be. If, God forbid, a tear makes its way down your face, it must go unattended. Your muscles are screaming. Do not break your salute.
Four-count. Drop your hand slowly, closing it again when it returns to your side. Hike to your rig, already parked in position for the procession. When you get in, you talk and joke a little bit to try and take your mind off of the gravity of what you’re doing; you do it every day after rough calls so it’s second nature by now. This isn’t the movies – you sit and wait 45 minutes for the procession to begin. After 20 minutes you thank God that the techs fixed your air conditioning yesterday.
The procession winds its way through the city. The entire route is lined with people. It seems as if the city has emptied to pay their respects. You didn’t know that so many still cared. This isn’t a parade, they told you, but you can’t help it. There are kids in the crowd. You wave back. At every intersection closed to make way there is a fire unit, its members lined up beside their rigs. Police squads, even the ones normally off duty during daylight hours, are crisply lined up along the route, standing and saluting your brother.
At the end of his final tour, you line up with your brothers and sisters for a long time, patiently waiting for everyone in the procession to arrive. His flag-draped casket is lowered from the engine. The captain calls everyone to attention.
Four-count up. Hold it. God, it’s hot. My buddy would be laughing and calling me an pansy right now if he were with me.
The bell tolls 333 – three rings of the bell three times.
You relax. The honor guard folds the flag. You see his young wife stunned to the point of being nearly expressionless. You think about how brutally unfair it is to her. You think about what an amazing father he would have made. You silently berate God as the flag is presented. Why him? Why now? He’s too young!
Then you realize: there is never an acceptable time. Ten years? Twenty years? It would still hurt in ways that you don’t even want to imagine. Why him? Because he was a good man willing to put himself in harm’s way to try to make the world a better place.
It’s going to hurt. There is no way to stop that, but you know that your hurt is nothing compared to his wife, parents, and family. There is no way to stop the pain. You know that death is a part of life, but you can’t stop it from hurting – and you know you shouldn’t try.
A lone bagpiper begins the strains of “Amazing Grace.” After one verse, the full pipes and drums join in. Don’t cry, you tell yourself. When the full corps falls silent the lone piper, still playing, walks away, the fading cry of a familiar hymn echoing through the silence.
You hear the last call. You pretend you aren’t affected. The dispatcher – whom you know personally – calls him by name three times, then calls his final resting place by its address, and you wonder how he does it without losing his vocal cadence. The dispatcher calls the address of the cemetery and announces that your brother’s resting place is exactly where you are standing.
Four-count up. The bugler plays Taps. This is where you always lose it – at every military and police memorial you have attended in uniform, tears always begin spilling down your face at this part. Today is no exception. Don’t move. Hold your salute, no matter what.
As you walk back to the rig to return to the station, you suddenly feel a pang of desperation. You’re leaving him here. The finality hits you in a way it hadn’t before. You remember when you tripped over your own two feet one night and bit gravel, then heard his voice behind you chuckling just before he ran to your side and playfully did a mock patient assessment, saying, “don’t worry, I’m here to help!” Then he pulled you to your feet and clapped you on the shoulder. He didn’t have to ask if you were okay, because he knew from experience that even if you were hurt, you wouldn’t have admitted it.
With that happy memory, you walk to the rig without looking back. In 48 hours you’ll be back, and you’ll wish he was there. You still have all your other brothers and sisters with you. You’ll carry each other. You’ll never forget his promise, no matter what the cost, to pay the price. You silently make the same promise.