Working in a small town provides a glimpse at some truly beautiful, near-poetic things. There are the smiles and friendly waves of townspeople as you walk around downtown in your uniform. There’s the warm food, donated by generous local restaurants that volunteered to open in the middle of cold, brutal nights; provided to the victims and responders of a local tragedy. There are the “Thank you” cards that are proudly and thoughtfully tacked to the station cork boards. There’s that pristine hour after clearing an end-of-shift call, where new morning sun filters through the mist, and reflects softly off still ponds. There’s the privilege of being allowed inside of those small, sleepy townhouses and cabins; the same ones that seep curly plumes of sweet woodsmoke into crisp morning air. There’s the sanctity of caring for the people we see every day; those we grew up with and know well, and those who are familiar strangers.
That familiarity–that close-knit bond unique to those who work and live in a small town–can provide for the most inspiring, speechless joy; and unfortunately brilliant sorrow. Sometimes, you are called into those small, sleepy townhouses and cabins, and you witness and participate in the recovery of not just an illness, but a life that weaves frequently into yours within this little town. Other times, you are called around the stoves’ hearths that seep those curly plumes of sweet woodsmoke, and you are asked, demanded, begged to fix something that cannot be fixed; cure something that cannot be cured. Then, that particular thread of life is missing from the usual, comfortable tapestry of every day.
It’s hard to tell a family, “I’m sorry, but she’s passed away.” It’s hard to stop pushing on the chest of someone you’d known, either close or from afar. It’s hard when a family member cries into your uniform as you try to console them with a hug. It’s hard when they watch you pick up the trash, pack up the equipment; and leave them with their sorrow, the whirlwind of funeral directors and arrangements, and the shell of their loved one. What’s harder is when you can’t put the call to the back of your mind, filed away somewhere along with the other codes and unfortunate calls you’d been a part of–when you are forced to face the aftermath of what you couldn’t help. When you are required to attend this person’s funeral.
I was uncomfortable as we waited for the services to start. I kept my head down, chin tucked against the lump in my throat. Part of me hoped I wouldn’t be recognized by the survived who were there on that day my partner and I were called to try. I prayed I wouldn’t be asked once again by a distraught family member, “Why didn’t you save her?” Because it was too late. Because the odds were astronomical. Because it was her time. Because I couldn’t. I would never say those out loud. They wouldn’t alleviate the pain. What’s more, it doesn’t answer question they really want answered: Why did she have to go now?
I focused so intently on trying to find comfort in this awkward, sad situation; trying to be both present and invisible. I was focused so intently, I almost didn’t recognize the man who had taken the seat beside me. He turned and chatted with a friend and coworker of mine. Then, my shoulder was tapped.
“Do you remember that code a while back?” My friend started. I squinted my eyes and thought as he described the house, the room, the circumstances. It all flooded back to me, back from the corner of my mind where the code that resulted in this funeral should be. I nodded. “This is him. This was your patient.”
I looked into those bright, sea-glass green eyes. The last time I looked into them, I was breathing for him. He was cool, gray, limp. Now, his handshake was strong and warm. There was such a life about him. Every blink, every smile, every word out of his mouth seemed so completely miraculous and wonderful. I wanted to talk to him all day, if for no other reason that to truly be in awe of life and every little thing we take for granted.
We sat next to each other during the ceremony. I sat beside a man whose life I helped save, whose thread I helped preserve; while mourning the loss of a life I couldn’t save, the newest uneasy void in our local community’s tapestry. The juxtaposition was beautifully, inspiringly, sadly, uniquely poetic; leaving me with a deeper, greater appreciation for my life and work in this small town.