This is an intensely personal story, and I have written and rewritten this article about 100 times. Putting pen to paper has been very difficult, awash in so many emotions.
I have decided to publish this, then not to publish, then to publish, also about 100 times. I am revising one final time (again), but I am leaving the content much as I wrote earlier. It has an authentic voice, that of a mother, me, and I want to leave it that way and not infuse it (too much) with my “author-editor-self.”
It’s a long article too, so get a cup of tea and find a cozy place, maybe beside a nice warm fireplace.
I’d like to introduce you to my son as I honor his walk through the valley of the shadow…
The Final Ten Days
The final ten days of what, you’re probably wondering.
Early promise, perhaps, that blossomed into a flower whose time has come.
The final ten days actually began years ago.
In Native American culture, a child is often named when a family member or elder is inspired with an appropriate name. The child may also be renamed, or take different names at various critical points in their life – often as rites of passage.
We didn’t realize we were following tradition, but as it turns out, we did.
I hemmed and hawed and agonized about my son’s name, finally selecting one, but my mom, not so much.
She walked in to the hospital nursery and after looking at my son, announced his name, “Butch.”
“What???”, I gasped. “I think not!”
“Butch it is,” she said and smiled contentedly.
Criminy. That battle was won before it even started.
And Butch it was until the day she died.
I didn’t have the money for the hospital “first baby” photographs offered, nor did I own a camera. Those days were long before selfies and the world-wide fascination with preserving everyday life in photos.
Thankfully, Mom did have a camera and after we came home from the hospital, my first photos of my son are with Mom and (step) Dad holding my firstborn. He was looking at mom adoringly in this photo and they had a uniquely special relationship from then forward. It’s like they had always known each other and she was just waiting for him to be born.
This little yellow sleeper is the outfit he wore home from the hospital. I still have it tucked safely away in my memory box.
In spite of his nickname, he grew up to be a relatively normal child.
He loved life on the farm, participated in sports in school and became a Boy Scout.
The Youngest Volunteer
My son was but 16 years old when he joined the local volunteer fire department.
However, that wasn’t really the beginning of his exposure to public service, because his father, before him, had also been a volunteer firefighter and my son had grown up listening to the shrill wake-me-from-the-dead Plectron tone that summoned firefighters (and their families) from their sleep, invariably from meals and even from Christmas Day.
Christmas Day Accident
That horrible Christmas day accident was unspeakably devastating for everyone. It was already difficult enough that the weather was terrible, preventing us from traveling to my parents on Christmas Eve. Then, in the early morning hours, the fire tone – shrill and piercing woke the house. We hoped it was nothing, a false alarm, but it was an accident on the expressway. My husband threw on his clothes running out the door, as firefighters do, hoping to be back by breakfast.
Instead, shorthanded with not enough first responders due to the holiday, I was summoned to help and of course could not leave children alone, so we all dressed and arrived to help. I knew it had to be bad, really bad.
It wasn’t just the early morning roll-over accident, but the 5-year-old whose mother and uncle were trapped under the overturned car, and her puppy who was lost, missing from the scene. We distracted the little girl as the firefighters used their equipment to lift the vehicle and extract her mother and then her uncle, only to confirm the horrible truth. They were gone, forever. The only consolation for some of us was that they hadn’t suffered.
The puppy that the little girl would so desperately need when she would be told about her mother and her uncle needed to be found.
The rest of Christmas Day was spent by my family in a desperate search in the snow up and down the expressway and in neighboring subdivisions for the family puppy. We could see our warm home beckoning from across some of the snow-covered fields, but no one made a peep about going home as we continued the search – not even the youngest grade-school-age child. Our hands were numb and so were our faces and toes when we finally gave up as darkness began to fall on a horrible day.
By late evening, the puppy had been located, thankfully safe, picked up by another driver as it ran terrified. The child’s family members had arrived at the hospital, bearing their own grief, to shelter the little girl and explain something a five-year-old should never have had to understand.
I was 7 when my mother had that talk with me about my father and a car accident. I knew what she was facing, and would face the rest of her life every Christmas. Just like I do each year at Labor Day.
To this day, I shed tears remembering that horrific Christmas Day.
Our own Christmas after that?
I actually remember nothing about it, nada, not one thing. Except being grateful, and crying. I had my family of whom I was so proud. It wasn’t what we wanted to do on Christmas Day, but it’s what we did, as a family, from oldest to youngest. Everyone tromped in the icy cold, searching ditches and fields. We did what needed to be done.
No one in our family would ever have considered doing anything else. Then or now.
I wonder, sitting here more than three decades later, if that day somehow influenced my son’s decision about his eventual career in some small way. Maybe that day and others similar.
Or maybe it was simply that firefighting and volunteer rescue work had been an ingrained part of his life for so long. My father, the grandfather he never knew had been a firefighter in the military. Is it somehow buried in his genes?
Was it the fact that we were once owned by the official fire department Dalmatian, Missy, a dog who we rescued not once, not twice, but three times and who rode in the local parades in the fire truck?
Or maybe it was the red flashing lights and the adrenalin that surges through the veins of every first responder. That’s powerful medicine for a young male.
Regardless of why, the minute he turned 16, my son immediately signed up for the fire department – except there was a hitch. He was only 16 – and the department had a “juniors” division with rules that were somewhat different from the older department members. For example, juniors were forbidden from running “lights and siren” to respond to a call.
Now, of course, when you are driving your father’s sports car to respond to a fire during the day when no one else is home, with the fire light installed permanently on the roof…one might be tempted to use those lights and siren in order to arrive faster. Only for the public good, mind you, not because lights and sirens were cool.
And I’m sure that my son never noticed that the young ladies thought that the fact that he was a firefighter, driving a snazzy fast car, was very attractive. Never!
Adrenaline combined with fast cars and young ladies. It’s no wonder!
Furthermore, I’m equally as sure that the following spring being sent on a grocery errand in his father’s brand-new convertible, becoming “trapped” in the Memorial Day parade and having a half dozen of those young ladies ride on the back of his father’s car was entirely accidental. In fact, we would never have known if the neighbors hadn’t mentioned how nice it was to see him in the parade. That along with the minor detail of the convertible top being permanently sprung from 5 or 6 doting young women sitting on the top above the back seat as he drove proud as a peacock in the parade, waving to the crowds like a smiling Cheshire cat. The neighbors told us it was a lovely parade and how nice of him to drive.
The convertible top was never right after that. I never got the grocery item either. Every single grocery in the county was out of cat litter and there was a nation-wide shortage. Imagine that! All that searching is what took him all afternoon. He tried his level best. Honestly!
Miraculously, a shipment had somehow arrived by the time I went to the store.
He never admitted he didn’t exactly get “trapped” in the parade, either😊
Such fond and funny memories today.
Of course, my son had been exposed to the fire station and the firefighters years before he was old enough to join, so it was no surprise to anyone that he joined as soon as he was eligible.
While in some ways Junior firefighters didn’t quite have the same status as adult firefighters – couldn’t drive the big rigs, for example, in many ways, they excelled.
The Juniors held fundraisers, bake sales and rummage sales to raise money for gear. They contributed wholeheartedly and often much more enthusiastically than older members.
In the photo above, my son is at the far left, his father laying third from left.
You might be aghast at this photo of the firefighters in days before selfies having their photo taken in front of a structure fully engulfed in flames – instead of extinguishing the fire – but rest assured, all is well. This was what is known as a “training burn” where owners contribute a structure that needs to be demolished so that the fire department can hone their skills. The structure is then set on fire so that the firefighters can practice putting the fire out. Eventually, the structure is demolished by fire so that the owners can simply remove the debris instead of an entire structure. Costs less and is less dangerous too.
As a firefighter, you certainly don’t want your first exposure to a fully involved structure fire to be a fully involved structure fire with lives depending on your actions, and reactions. Training burns are a win-win for everyone.
As I look at this photo, taken sometime between 1988 and 1991, I’m acutely aware of the passage of time. Aside from my son, only one of these people is still involved with any fire department. Another then-young firefighter is a pilot, the rest being retired or “gone.” I doubt these men and women (yes, there’s a woman at far right in this photo) had any idea the degree of influence they exerted over an impressionable teen.
As one of my mentors once said, “You’re leading by example all of the time, but you only acknowledge it when you’re proud of it.” Firefighters and volunteers of all kinds set a wonderful example for the next generation.
Growing Into Your Feet
As we would say on the farm, puppies have to grow into their feet. That fit the description of my son’s excursion into the realm of both firefighting and police work. I don’t know how he would ever have been able to choose between the two, because he loved both as well as other types of rescue work.
My son worked during summers as a life guard and in college, as an officer for the Department of Natural Resources.
In high school, he became a member of the Explorer Post of the Michigan State Police.
His senior picture, above, was prophetic and clearly showed his devotion to public safety.
As he moved on to college, majoring in Criminal Justice, of course (what else?), he also began what would be a patchwork combination of college, jobs and volunteer work for the next few years.
I firmly believed that children should bear the responsibility for their own education, although admittedly it was less expensive then. In order to help with college expenses, he became a resident hall advisor, known as a RA, for his dorm. He was also a volunteer firefighter and police officer for the university.
While my son turned out to be a wonderful human being, his teen years were not without conflict at home, and in particular, with me. He was no saint and children do not come with a handbook. He was my first child and I was by virtue of inexperience, a rookie parent.
By the time he went to college, I suspect he was extremely glad to leave, and I was relieved that he had managed to get to that point alive and with all body parts in relatively good working order.
We did have a few trips to the hospital with a rattlesnake bite and broken bones incurred playing football and skiing. That rattlesnake bite is an entire story all by itself. Suffice it to say, never sit on a rattlesnake!
He was a member of the ski patrol too, but got run over by another skier while he was trying to help someone who had fallen. They brought my son down on the stretcher instead of the other way around.
That episode resulted in one of those frightening “You need to come now” calls and I drove as fast as possible on ice covered roads. They didn’t know how badly he was injured, only that they were bringing him down on a stretcher. I had visions of broken necks and brain damage. Mothers are like that.
I was incredibly worried until I arrived and saw him sitting on the stretcher, surrounded by several very concerned young women fussing over him like mother hens, wrapping him in blankets and bringing him things to eat and drink. He wasn’t the least bit interested in going to the hospital with Mom to get his broken arm set, but I digress.
As a peace offering, after he went to college, I subscribed to a service where your child at college received a monthly goody box packed with stuff college kids like, with a gift note enclosed. “Love, Mom.” I was hoping that might encourage him to call home at least once a month. Keep in mind, this was before the age of widespread cell phones.
In any event, in October or so of his second year at college, which was his first year as a resident hall advisor, he called me, quite exasperated.
“Mom, you’re not going to be BELIEVE what they did!”
“What who did?
“The kids at the end of the hall.”
“What did they do?”
“Well, quiet time for study or sleep is supposed to begin at 10PM. They had their stereo blaring and I had to walk to the end of the hall to ask them to turn it down, even though they clearly knew what time it was. Just as soon as I got back to my room, they turned it back up again. I feel like I’m babysitting. This is ridiculous!”
I tried desperately to stifle laughter, but managed to choke out one word.
“Karma, son, karma.”
“Not funny Mom.”
I probably shouldn’t have said that, in retrospect, but occasionally my evil twin comes out of my mouth before the good twin can stifle her.
He grew up a lot that year.
I sent more boxes.
Work and Distractions from Study
In addition to being a RA, he joined the local fire and police department and coached the Special Olympics team.
In another year, he would become a counselor at a home for violently disturbed children aged 6-18, many of whom had been severely disabled physically and/or emotionally by abuse – the most difficult of the difficult cases – children that most institutions wouldn’t accept. One of his friends was attacked and severely injured while working there, resulting in permanent injuries and eventually, death. It was no walk in the park.
Oh yea, and he managed to attended classes too, at least part of the time.
That’s not to say there weren’t challenges, because there were. He wasn’t as focused as he should have been on his studies, and his grades reflected his distractions, which of course, included a girlfriend. At one point, we had to have “the discussion” about grades, which made my son very angry.
However, his anger also made him very determined, which was, after all, the entire point of the parenting discussion. He told me years later that he was so angry he vowed then and there to “show us,” and graduate at the top of his class – and indeed he did. Retrospectively, I don’t care WHAT motivated him, as long as something did.
In the years since, he has never relinquished his steely resolve and dedication. You can call it tenacious or stubborn – but most of the time it’s an exceptional attribute and a wonderful trait, except occasionally when it falls distinctly into the stubborn range. Ying and yang. Yes, he’s personally responsible for most of my grey hair.
Those traits will both serve you well and drive you crazy. I know since I think I might have been the genetic donor. (Ahem!)
However, he’s incredibly dependable (which does NOT extend to being on time in his personal life) and you can take what he says to the bank.
It was the summer of 1992 that my son showed up at the office where I was consulting with a tiny puppy in the palm of his hand – only 4 or 5 inches long and maybe a day old, umbilical cord still attached. Thrown away by a horrible human in a dumpster.
My son found the puppy in his capacity as a DNR officer, heard her whimper, rescued her, and did what any red-blooded American boy would do – he took the puppy to his mother and went back to work. He knew the puppy would die otherwise. Of course, I had to explain to my client that I had to leave, but at that moment, saving the puppy was my priority.
We named her Angel, because we truly didn’t think she would survive.
She did and lived with us for many years until she passed peacefully over the rainbow bridge as an old dog.
The summer between my son’s second and third year of college was marked indelibly by the loss of his father. I use the word “loss” rather loosely, because his father didn’t actually pass away entirely, just in the form that we knew him. He sustained a massive stroke, drastically affecting his body and more tragically, his mind.
My daughter and I became 24x7x365 caregivers (in addition to work and school) and my son simply had to fend for himself. His college was a couple hours distant, trips home were extremely difficult and didn’t occur often. During one of those trips home, his roommate suffered a seizure while driving and totaled his car. My son’s first responder training was life-saving that day.
After the stroke, holidays were no longer cause for celebration, only grief and strife. I can only describe this period as “living Hell.”
This tragedy was followed a few months later by another, the death of his beloved grandfather – a long miserable process wherein death was a relief.
A double whammy.
To say the next few months and years were difficult is an understatement the magnitude of which I can’t even begin to convey. For my son, for me and the rest of our shrinking family.
Baptism by fire either causes people to cave or survive. He survived, thankfully but baptism by fire is hell on earth.
I wanted to give my children wings, but not this way.
By his college graduation, my son had matured into a leader.
As I watched him move through the crowd, shaking hands, coordinating events, then deliver a lovely speech, I knew that his life was forever transformed.
He had indeed made it to the top of his class. This was not the young man I had taken to college years before.
Thankfully, my mother, my daughter and I were able to attend his graduation, although our family was but a shadow of what it had been just a few years earlier. My mother was so proud that she nearly “popped a button,” as she would have said.
And yes, she still called him Butch.
As I watched my son deliver his speech, I was struck by the fact that sometime while I was struggling mightily to deal with the repercussions of my husband’s stroke, earning a living and putting food on the table – my son had grown into a man albeit while traversing a very rocky road filled with cavernous potholes.
He had also married and brought my wonderful daughter-in-law into our life.
I was beyond proud of my son, puffed up like a puffer fish. He had overcome hurdles that a college kid shouldn’t have to face, with his family torn apart by disability, death and the resulting strife.
He had achieved his goal by excelling, but as his mother, I fought an underlying nagging feeling that while he had achieved what he so desperately wanted, ultimately, he might not be either happy or safe. I was uncertain how much was premonition and how much was outright raw fear. Regardless, that undercurrent would be my constant companion at one volume level or another for the next 20+ years.
My son’s true professional career commenced a month after his graduation, as luck would have it, in a city where I was consulting at the time. I actually have no idea if that had any bearing on him being hired, because I doubt they weighed his mother’s recommendation very heavily.
Mothers do tend to be a bit biased (she said with tongue firmly in cheek.)
He was so proud to wear a uniform full time – professionally. He worked hard for that honor! He had made his dream come true. Dreams are much more likely to come true with a lot of elbow grease, and he was never afraid of hard work.
The following year, he changed jobs to the employer where he would spend the rest of his career. The new employer was a Public Safety Department meaning the officers are both police officers and firefighters. A perfect environment for his combined skill set.
The result is that every person on a public safety department bears twice the responsibility in terms of training and being prepared for whatever the day brings – be it a police situation, a house or car fire, someone with a health issue, a factory fire or a hazmat situation. They see them all, sometimes one after another or even simultaneously.
One night you may be putting out a major fire and the next day you may be tracking a culprit through the woods.
Training, planning and working with the public as well as local businesses is a critical function of a public safety officer. Kind of like the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared,” on steroids.
Then and Now
The years between then and now have brought many changes to our family, our nation and our culture.
When he first began his career, I worried some, as a mother normally would, but I knew he was well trained and competent. In other words, he wasn’t going to get himself into a dangerous situation. He was always the level-headed person in any situation, thinking clearly. He took “be prepared,” very seriously. His life, and others lives, depended on that.
As the years progressed, I began to worry more as some of his assignments became increasingly dangerous and the drug culture accelerated in the US. His department was located on one of the major drug routes between two major cities.
Furthermore, his department covered two major expressways and the incidents of officer shootings, especially related to traffic stops, has increased dramatically in the past few years as well.
It seemed that being well-trained and sensible might not be enough anymore.
He didn’t talk too much about what happened at work. I was more likely to hear something on the news than to hear about it from my son. Partly, I think, that was because he was busy at home with his young family, but additionally, I suspect it was an attempt to protect me from the chronic, unending worry he knows I would have felt.
Unending Gut Wrenching
A day in the life…
In case you wonder, officers cry.
Not in front of anyone, of course.
They don’t tell their mothers and they certainly hope no one catches it on camera.
This was a fatal motorcycle accident.
They cry when children die.
When people are fatally trapped in fires.
When they can’t save a heart attack victim.
Or when they know a child’s abuse will only continue after they leave.
They don’t discuss these things.
Officers also stop to save people when they aren’t in uniform. My son was commended for valor when he pulled a man from a wrecked burning car – with no protective gear. He wasn’t working that day. He was just the angel who just happened to arrive to save the man in his hour of peril.
My son doesn’t discuss that either.
Or the blue premature baby whose lifeless body he was able to breathe life back into.
He doesn’t talk about any of those things, aside from mentioning much later that it was a privilege to be able to save that child.
My daughter-in-law told me that he was also honored as Officer of the Year one year, something else he never mentioned.
I generally don’t find out any of this until years later, unless his wife happens to send me something at the time.
From him, never.
Then, early one spring, the day came that every mother of an officer dreads.
The phone rang.
In the very early morning. Those calls are never good news.
My daughter-in-law’s cell phone number backlit on the phone display in the darkness of the bedroom.
Those seconds waiting to hear her say something were an eternity.
She said my name.
I said yes.
She clearly knew it was me, so I knew something else was coming.
She certainly didn’t call to chat at that hour.
“I just wanted to let you know before you hear it on the news.”
Life stopped. My vision swam.
I leaned on the counter.
“He’s been involved in a shooting.”
My greatest fear.
Time stretched out in a surreal way I never knew was possible.
“It’s not him.”
“But it’s an officer shooting and there’s a fatal.”
OH MY FREAKING GOD.
By blood pressure hurtled through the roof and the adrenaline instantaneously surged. My heart was racing and felt like it was going to burst through my chest. My knees turned to rubber.
“Is he hurt?”
Another eternity passed.
She might have been driving.
“Where is he?”
“At the hospital.”
She was obviously horribly, horribly shaken. Her voice was quivering. I had never seen her that way before. Just like I’m an officer’s mother, she’s an officer’s wife. We are not weak women.
To this day, he still doesn’t speak much about this, but it was an officer’s worst nightmare.
Ambushed in the middle of the night, fired on point blank after being called to a domestic violence situation. My son was awakened at home. He told me that he knew immediately when he heard the location and nature of that call that one of his young officers was responding to a situation that was extremely dangerous. My son knew the history of the family and the address. He got in his car and left immediately.
The officers were gunned down, one and then the other, in cold blood.
One officer was killed.
One was able to be saved.
I can’t even begin to recant the situation as my son described it. Holding your fellow officer as they bleed out their lifeblood, in the dark, knowing you can’t save them but trying to comfort them, and not knowing if the killer will be shooting at you next. Even second and third hand, the raw unrelenting intensity and terror of this situation came through loud and clear.
These are the things that sear and scar the souls of officers. That’s not the end of that story either, but even today, years later, I can’t share the rest. Because of the circumstances, this incident dramatically increased the danger to the responding and fellow officers, even after the primary incident was over.
Not knowing what else to do, my quilt sisters and I made the surviving wounded officer a quilt, hoping it would help with his recovery.
It’s not a coincidence that the adult woman at right in the photo below is the same woman firefighter in the training burn fire department photo some 20+ years earlier. The children are my granddaughters. Quilts, firefighting and public safety are all family affairs and run in this family generationally.
While I grieved for the slain officer and his family, as well as the wounded officer, my son’s fallen brethren, I was oh-so-very-grateful that my son had not been the one shot or the one killed. The reason was only that he wasn’t scheduled for that shift – nothing other than the luck of the draw.
I felt so guilty for feeling that way in the face of the devastating loss of others.
There but for the grace of God…
Wounds and Scars
My son wasn’t physically hurt that day, but he was wounded just the same, as were all of the officers in his department.
The cumulative wounds of all of the pain, scars and injuries over the years. The pain of the people he couldn’t save, and sometimes the pain of the people he could save, but couldn’t help enough. The people fighting their own demons that he sees over and over again. The people who need help but our society isn’t structured to help, so they live marginally until they die miserably, horribly, or both.
The children. Oh God, the children. And the animals. Dependent beings betrayed by those in positions of power or betrayed by fate or the blatant stupidity or irresponsibility of others.
Drunk drivers, spousal and child abuse, rapists, murderers. The children my son told me about that were molested by both their father and grandfather.
The all too familiar smell of death.
I don’t know how he keeps his sanity. PTSD on steroids. Soldiers serving in a prolonged war that they know will never end.
This is not what my son meant to sign up for. This is not the scenario he expected.
This is what all officers have to face, every day of every week of every year. They are walking targets. Nothing prepares you for that.
Or that people hate you for no reason.
Anger and Danger – A Toxic Brew
In September of 2015, Lansing firefighter Dennis Rodeman was intentionally targeted, hit and killed by an angry driver because people were slowing down to deposit donations into a boot as part of the firefighter’s volunteer annual Fill The Boot Campaign on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
The driver turned around, went back, sped up and intentionally ran over Dennis. Furthermore, his wife, pregnant for their first child, was working as the ER nurse at the hospital where Dennis was transported and pronounced dead.
This time, I made a baby quilt.
The saddest baby quilt I’ve ever made.
These past two years have been particularly difficult, because the political environment in the US has become incredibly polarizing and people from many walks of life have been cast as stereotypes, including people of color, police officers and others.
People are angry. Some people feel empowered to exhibit behavior that was previously considered unacceptable and police officers are the ones caught in the crosshairs as they try to mediate and facilitate peace. In other situations, police are the bearers of bad news and have to deal with people who don’t want to be questioned or arrested.
The most dangerous situation? Domestic disputes where emotions are already running very high before the police are called, followed by suspicious persons and attempted arrests. Complicate all of that with either alcohol or drugs, and sometimes both.
And traffic stops – any officer’s nightmare – along with those officers’ mothers.
You never know the intentions of the person you are stopping. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop – and it’s worse on a known drug route.
Of officers shot and killed in the line of duty in 2016 in the US, 21 were ambushed.
How many people run the risk of getting ambushed at work, every single day?
Another 53 died in traffic related incidents. Three were beaten to death, one was stabbed and one drowned. Six were from Michigan. These aren’t green inexperienced hothead rookies either. The average age was 40 and the average length of service was 13 years.
And while some officers are not honorable, I assure you, most are and have always been. There is very little other motivation for entering this profession. All officers, both firefighters and police, are in much greater danger now than ever before.
As I write this in late November 2017, just last night, we lost another officer who was specifically targeted by a fleeing high-speed driver as the officer attempted to deploy stop-sticks.
Which brings me to today.
The day after Thanksgiving and I’m preparing to be very thankful, indeed.
The Home Stretch
Our Thanksgiving wasn’t on Thanksgiving Day. Officers work holidays and often, older officers try to give younger officers a break so they can be with young families on holidays. Our holidays are whenever our family is together.
I am always so grateful to see my son and his family – or put another way – I’m incredibly thankful that I still have a son to see. Other mothers don’t.
My son goes to work every day with a smile on his face and a target on his back to serve others. And he has for nearly 30 years, since he was 16 years old. Two thirds of his life. He’s served in his current job for almost half his life.
Thank God, he’s almost done.
He’s in the home stretch.
The final 10 days – 5 of which are in uniform.
For the first time ever, this coming Tuesday, I’m actually going to get to do a “ride along” with him.
It’s been a long and often very rough road, these past decades. More like a combination triathlon and marathon than a typical career. He still works weekends, works uncounted overtime hours, in all kinds of weather, often in danger, on icy roads, and misses many of his children’s events because he can’t leave until the job is done – not just when his shift ends.
I’m incredibly proud of my son, his decades of service, his integrity and of the positive ways in which he’s touched the lives of so many. But I’m also unbelievably glad to be done walking on egg shells on a daily basis and hoping against hope the call that I’ve dreaded for decades doesn’t come.
I feel like I, we, have dodged a bullet, pardon the pun, every single day.
Just 5 more days until I can change prayers.
Five more days before he closes the door on his squad car for the last time and takes off that uniform forever.
Just five more days.
I couldn’t be happier.
On his last day in uniform, his wife of all these years will be riding with him, closing out this chapter of his life and welcoming him to a new, and hopefully safer, future.
As one of my friends so succinctly said, every new beginning comes from some other beginnings’ end.
Act two is about to begin.
As I ride with him, I’ll be interviewing him about his time as a fire and police officer, and I’ll be sharing his thoughts with you.
As I drove to station this morning to join my son today, I listened to the radio coverage of the police officer’s funeral who was killed on Thanksgiving. Flags everyplace were at half-staff.
I remembered 9-11 when I stopped by the station to be sure he was alright because there was a HUGE accident which closed the expressway in both directions. He was safe, but quite busy on the scene. I don’t think he ever knew I was here, as I needed to continue on to my destination. All drivers were distracted that day listening to the unfolding of that national tragedy. I drove the back roads, wondering when the insanity would stop. I knew that police and firefighters would be in more danger than anyone else – they always are.
I promised myself not to cry as I rode in the passenger’s seat beside my son. I couldn’t help but remember earlier days of riding in the passenger seat as he drove for the very first time. He was ecstatic. I was a wreck.
A few months later, we went to Virginia and he got to drive nearly the whole way. In fact, the only reason he went along was so that he could drive. I was much more relaxed this time.
Once again, I choked up remembering how grateful I was to have this opportunity. He had survived more than 8000 days of danger. Only 4 more to go, after today.
Holy water from Lourdes?
All of the above perhaps.
I was so pleased to be invited to join him on the road for a few hours, something I’ve never gotten to do before. He works 12 hour shifts and when he works days, his mornings are often spent on the road responding to calls and the afternoons in the office approving reports and doing paperwork. He’s a Sergeant, so he has administrative responsibilities in addition to his duties as an officer and as a firefighter.
Of course, as firefighters and first responders, any activity is subject to interruption. When fires happen or emergencies, the station clears immediately.
His jobs and responsibilities have varied over the years, with some special assignments, but he is finishing out his last few days on the road. Today was glorious, warm and sunny, at least for this time of year.
As we pulled out from the station, central dispatch was busy relaying police and fire calls to all of the agencies in his county. The fire tone sounded. That Plectron sound hasn’t changed any over the years. The difference now is that there was a confusing cacophony of dispatch orders and calls throughout his and neighboring jurisdictions, all of which he had to be aware of in case of requests for assistance.
A special laptop is mounted in the car, and the officers have to monitor the calls on the laptop, along with driving and whatever else comes up.
At one point, the neighboring department was dispatched on simultaneous police, fire and rescue runs – and my son’s agency provided mutual aid for the police call since one agency couldn’t respond to all of them at once. Police and fire work is always a mixture of choreographed scrambled insanity.
These men and women are highly trained and prepared for whatever happens next. They are knowledge workers, and you want your fire and police to have as much training and knowledge as possible. Your life depends on it, and sometimes even more important – your quality of life. If you’re having a heart attack, your quality of life is increasingly compromised for every incremental 30 seconds that your heart and brain are without oxygen. Crisis training matters as does having enough equipment to be able to respond promptly.
I don’t have any idea how many lives he has saved, but I hoped we wouldn’t add another one today.
What Will You Miss?
I asked my son what he would miss most about his job, after retirement, and he said that he would miss the camaraderie with his fellow officers. I could have predicted that answer. It’s particularly evident after seeing him interact with everyone who comes in contact with him. He waves and smiles, and more importantly, you can see that their smiles aren’t perfunctory, but they are genuinely happy to see him.
Many residents wave as well, and he has clearly fine-tuned his people skills over the years. His genuine caring shows as he says hello, answers questions and engages people. He’s honed the fine art of defusing difficult situations.
I am reminded of watching him interact with his fellow students at graduation, those many years ago, and was surprised when his classmates presented him with a gift. Same leadership and people skills, two decades later.
The Flip Side
Not everyone is glad to see him though.
As we patrolled the roads, he showed me where they had found 12 meth labs dumped last year. I didn’t know this, but meth equipment can only be used once. If a meth lab is discovered in a house, they have to actually gut the house, including the drywall before people can live there again. Meth is that toxic – and people intentionally put this stuff in their bodies.
A few miles later, we stopped to shepherd a flock of turkeys across the road.
I was really hopeful that we didn’t come across any animals that needed to be rescued, because he and I don’t have a particularly good track record in that vein and I didn’t know how his department would react to him returning with his mother AND some injured animal in the front seat.
And yes, I did get to ride in the front seat, not the “special” box seat in the rear.
As we rode the expressways, most people were courteous and amazingly, dropped their speeds. So nice and mannerly. Except for that one who passed him. Ok, blind, death wish, idiot? Who knows. Who would intentionally fly by a marked police car?
I reminded myself how dangerous traffic stops are – made even more so when you realize the person you are stopping may be blatantly in-your-face disregarding the law. Perhaps trying to antagonize the officer.
Part of the area my son’s department patrols is a rather seedy area marked by small alleys and bars – although many have, thankfully, closed in recent years.
Most Frightening Experience
I asked him about his most frightening experience. Like many officers, I expect, he had to think a bit. Situations that would terrify most people are part of their daily routine. Officers tend to bury the worst of these memories because if you thought about them very often or dwelled upon these situations, you’d make yourself crazy.
And now that I think of it, you’d make your mother crazy too.
Before I tell you this story, my son is not small by any means.
He recounted a late-night call years ago when he was working midnights. A man in one of those alleys behind a bar with a gun. I think he told me more, but I didn’t hear anything beyond “man with gun.” Oh, and a very large man – like 450 pounds. It was a gang situation, and my son was alone. They don’t ride two officers to a car, and the only backup car on duty was across the county.
The man refused to stop when told to do so. He advanced towards my son, and started to mock him. As my son pulled his nightstick, the man taunted, “what do you think you’re going to do with that?”, laughing, and continued moving towards my son menacingly. Five or six other men were behind the 450 pound man. My son knew he could easily be rushed and these were clearly gang members. He didn’t know how many more there might be, or where. He was very clearly in danger and possibly trapped. He didn’t dare take time to turn around to look behind him.
My son pulled his gun and started backing up, warning them to stop. My son said his training clicked in and he was calculating distance, because they are taught not to allow a suspect who is advancing on you to get closer than 16 feet because they can stab you before the bullet takes them down. Furthermore, in this case, the other 5 or 6 men following the large man could rush you before you could fire 5 or 6 additional shots, if need be, to protect yourself.
Preparing to shoot.
Backing up, shouting…
Getting ready to fire.
The last thing he wanted to do, ever, was to shoot someone.
Suddenly, the officer from across the county arrived and burst onto the scene. He happened to know the name of the 450 pound man from having interacted with him previously, shouted his name and asked what he was doing? He told the 450 pound guy to stop, because he was going to die otherwise.
Thankfully, he did stop, and his buddies ran off.
Even just hearing the story, all these years later, made my blood run cold and chilled me to the bone. Not because my son almost shot someone, but because he could have died a horrible death. I knew how close he had come.
Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know at the time.
All of this made me wonder – is the glass in the squad car bulletproof? What about the doors? I never thought to question this before. Yes, it’s a good thing I didn’t know.
It’s Not Just Your Life
It’s no wonder that many police officers won’t eat at restaurants in the area where they live. They have too many people who “don’t wish them well.” The longer you work in an area, the more people you arrest, the more people (and their families and friends) who don’t care for you. Sad commentary, when you think about it. Being a police officer isn’t just your job, it’s your life and it affects the lives of your entire family.
It’s your life, but it’s not just your life. It’s the life of your family too.
Your spouse, of course.
Life as a police officer affects the lives of everyone, from the oldest family member to the youngest, in ways that people outside of law enforcement would find incomprehensible. Suffice it to say that school and extra-curricular activities can be difficult for children.
I must confess that these pictures are some of my all-time favorites.
These exude the perfect blend of toughness, protection and love.
It seems so unfair that these innocent creatures pay a price for their father’s occupation. It’s no surprise that many officers move away from their communities after they retire.
Our excitement for my ride-along day, other than a couple calls for domestic disputes where my son (mother in tow) simply arrived as backup for other responding officers (I think they gave him a break cause his Mom was riding along), was a retail fraud situation. Retail fraud is shoplifting. Let me translate – some guy in a dark hoodie decided to steal a laptop from a store. Merry Christmas!
Ok, let’s try this again, he stole a laptop and ran outside across the parking lot, according to the dispatcher’s second transmission. Oh, and he’s about 6 feet tall.
Transmission 3: No, no, he’s in another store now.
4: Oh wait, he’s gone again.
5: No, we don’t know if he is black or white.
6: But he has on a grey or black hoodie.
7: Uhhh…we think we might see him again.
Clearly, there’s a lot of confusion, but the officers have to assume that there is a thief to be caught and position themselves accordingly.
My son and the other responding officers stationed themselves outside the entrances to the stores in question as well as the mall entrances. Thankfully, not a large mall or there wouldn’t have been enough officers.
Some officers walked through the stores in question looking for a six-foot male with a dark hoodie.
I told my son if the shoplifter was smart, he would simply ditch the hoodie. Maybe “trade” it for something else in, say, a nice black and white stripe.
My son said the perpetrator would likely be carrying a laptop or something that size. So we sat at our appointed location and watched. And watched. And watched.
My son gave me very specific instructions as to what I was to do in the event that the perpetrator was spotted and a foot-chase ensued. In essence, stay in the car and out of the way.
That is, unless the tides were to turn and my son no longer had the upper hand and was in danger. Then, all bets are off. Yes, always a mother, regardless.
However, when the officer inside the store saw the security video and talked to the loss prevention people, it turned out that the store security people actually stopped the man in the hoodie and he gave the stolen property back, then ran out the door.
So, we weren’t looking for someone in the second store after all, nor someone with a laptop. The man we were looking for ran off across the parking lot several minutes before we arrived. He was probably watching and having a hearty laugh or stealing from a second store while the police were distracted.
We drove around the neighborhood for the next hour or so, searching, to no avail. He was probably long gone or off to the next targeted location.
The one man we did see in a gray hoodie at the mall wasn’t the least bit concerned with police officers and it was quickly determined that he wasn’t the person being sought.
Another day in the life.
Like many days for police officers, there was no time for lunch.
I also discovered that officers can’t use public restrooms. They can be ambushed there. Plus, you have to take off your 11-pound gunbelt.
Officers go back to the station, or wait. Sometimes for hours. It’s not like they can just leave a scene.
Going to the bathroom when needed is a luxury most of us simply take for granted and never even think twice about.
My son was generous with me, we got to take two, count ‘em, two, bathroom breaks and wound up eating snacks in the squad car that Mom had in her purse. Had I known, I’d have brought better snacks. It turned out to be our special picnic. Much different than childhood picnics with snoozes on blankets beside the lake, those memories now softened by the haze of time.
Some things never change. Mom’s still bring goodies. Always the Mom, but to a son who hasn’t been a child in a very long time.
The great thing about our kids is that we love them even more as adults, as if that’s even possible. Then add to that cocktail how proud we are of them.
Immeasurably proud. I never thought I could be prouder than I was as I watched his graduation speech those many years ago, but I was, as I watched his retirement speech this week, a couple days after my ride-along.
Ironically, and perhaps being a bit cheeky, his fellow officers gave him a clock. Now he has absolutely no excuse for being late.
My son succeeded, and survived. He has come through that long hallway, that career he had worked so long and hard for – literally through the valley of the shadow of death.
He sought to save lives.
He sought to make lives better.
He sought to inspire others.
His dream, all those years ago, came true.
The Final Day
So today, when my son signed off the air for the final time, and not only cleared his car and shift, but cleared his badge for the last time, retiring that badge number forever from service, I was torn between overwhelming relief, pride and gratitude. These difficult days are all memories now.
His locker is vacant now, and it’s for a GOOD reason. His buddies are all jockeying for his desk and office things. Jokes are flying and backslapping is happening as he walks through the station.
I see him looking at the fire trucks, still longingly, and remember his fire trucks as a child. HIs favorite toys.
I can set about finishing his quilt. That horrible nagging premonition that dogged me for years had, so thankfully, never come to pass. I can finally breathe easier and know that he won’t die or be terribly wounded in the line of duty. Now I only have to worry about “normal” things.
I can finally say those words without fear of “jinxing” the situation. No, I’m not typically superstitious, but when your kid’s life is on the line, every single day, you will do absolutely any little tiny thing that might bring them a modicum of luck or protection. I understand the genesis of superstition rooted in powerlessness and fear.
This Christmas was the best ever! Not only did he not have to work, there was no chance he’d have to leave in the middle of the day or the meal. He was almost on time too! But the best gift of all, for me, is his retirement.
Thankfully, this is a celebratory quilt! I’ll be sewing his patches from his now-retired uniforms into the 4 blue corners!
I gave him the quilt I made for him, but the best was yet to come. It looks like someone else in the family has inherited the quilter gene too!
His youngest daughter made her first quilting project, a hotpad to give to her Daddy for Christmas to celebrate his retirement. The center block is part of his old umpiring shirt – his first job at age 13 where he learned an incredible amount about public relations with upset parents. Believe me, nothing upsets parents more than having their child called “out.”
I went to those games to protect him, just in case, although he never knew that. Fortunately, he never needed protecting.
Little did we know at the time how he was being prepared, shaped by divine hands.
As we were riding back to the station at the end of our ride-along time together, I asked him whatever happened to the officer that was wounded in the shooting a few years ago. There’s a very fine line between being supportive and caring and prying – and I didn’t know where that line was in this case. The officer had been off work for a very long time and I had been hesitant to ask too much, not wanting to violate the officer’s privacy, put my son in an awkward position or make him unnecessarily sad. I knew that my son had been deeply grieved – particularly because the wounded officer was one of “his rookies” that he was training at the time. He thought of him as a younger brother.
My son kind of chuckled, so I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that this was going to be a positive answer.
“He’s doing fine now.”
I told him how relieved I was to hear that. Maybe the quilt helped.
He smiled broadly, grinning ear to ear and said, “Guess who’s applying for my Sergeant position, now that I’m retiring?”
Yep, I knew. “His rookie,” now all grown up. Just like my son did all those years ago. Following in his footsteps, or at least hoping to.
Those are mighty big shoes to fill.
My son has touched the lives of so many in this path with such fleeting hands, sometimes only briefly and invisibly. Anonymously if he had his way, and often with the whispered brush of wings.
We love them and give them wings.
Some become eagles and soar.
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