New York's Firefighters Know Life Is Fleeting, but Family Endures
Their commitment, I have learned, means not only showing up in hard times but living life more fully all of the time.
I’ve thought a lot about why being up close to the department could make this so. We all know the stories of firefighters’ heroism that day, about the thousands they saved and the 343 of their own they lost as a result — and many more since.
What becomes more apparent up close is how much they are not an agency but a family. And not just any family – a profoundly loving, committed, close, gigantic family. As they have allowed me to be a part of this family, I’ve developed a more profound understanding of the hole left by that day 20 years ago.
A sacred vow for members of the FDNY is to never forget those lost in service to the city. This explicitly means showing up to the funeral, and the memorial, and providing for families’ financial needs. But it also means celebrating birthdays and graduations, standing in as the soccer coach, and sharing stories so vivid and colorful you will feel like you were there, like you know people you never met. Their commitment to never forget, I have learned, means not only showing up in hard times but living life more fully all of the time.
As an outsider arriving in their world, it can feel like madness. They hug you like they haven’t seen you for years. They fight with you like siblings. Personal space and alone time are not in their vocabulary. They're first to dance or sing at every party. They laugh at death but cry at birthdays. If something great happens in your life, they all show up, as quiet and gentle as a herd of elephants. And if something bad happens in your life, they show up then, too.
It’s an approach to life built from a raw understanding of how fleeting life is.
Most of us approach life more cautiously. We view most tragedies through a news camera and do most of our grieving from a distance. The members of the FDNY do not have that choice. Every day they show up knowing they might not make it home. They are able to do so because they know if they can’t make it home, someone else will show up to pick up the pieces. Someone – actually, many people – will ensure love and memories remain, and that life keeps going.
Much of the world is stumbling onto this lesson in the wake of COVID. They are beginning to learn what the FDNY has taught me in the time they’ve let me spend with them. That when everything else is stripped away, it is only our bonds to one another that really matter, that get us through.
In a homily he gave on September 10th of 2001, not knowing it would be his last, FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge said, “That’s the way it is. Good days. And bad days. Up days. Down days. Sad days. Happy days. But never a boring day on this job. You do what God has called you to do. You show up.”
The FDNY always shows up. It was true on 9/11. It was true in the hours and days after 9/11. It has been true all through COVID. No matter what happens, they keep showing up where they are needed most—for New Yorkers and for one another.
It is what makes them the bravest and the best, running in when everyone else runs out. New Yorkers past, present and future owe them a debt of gratitude for their service. I also owe them one for letting me be a part of their family and in turn, teaching me how to show up for others.