IT’S JUST A JACKET. SLEEVES. COLLAR. BLACK. Except a scientist designed this jacket with Nomex and Kevlar, those laboratory materials that protect against heat. Reflective yellow tape is wrapped around the sleeves, chest, and hem. And a warning label — with certain words capitalized, no less — is sewn inescapably to the inside:
“Firefighting is an ULTRA-HAZARDOUS, UNAVOIDABLY DANGEROUS activity. Neither this garment nor any other will protect you from all burns, injuries, diseases, conditions or hazards.”
My husband’s rank and name, “LT GRAVES” are sewn on the back in 4-inch yellow letters. I look up from the letters, past the hoses dangling from the firehouse ceiling, over the hood of a rescue truck to see Mike about 25 feet away. He is boosting our 4-year-old son into the driver’s seat of a firetruck, laughing, while our son grips the wheel.
I don’t need to see Mike’s face. His wide-legged stance, the long line of his back, and his thick mop of black hair are as familiar and comforting to me as his easy smile and hazel eyes. Like a beloved city skyline viewed from another direction, he always looks like home to me.
His firefighting jacket hangs heavily on the side grab rail of the firetruck to which he’s assigned. The weight of the alarm packs, radios, flashlights, and tools it holds makes the jacket a two-handed hoist for me. When I struggle into it, it drapes like one of Buster Keaton’s oversize suits.
That’s when I noticed the label, wrinkled and faded, blaring its warning, which goes on — in needless detail, really — to list all the possible calamities that might befall the wearer: “You may be KILLED, BURNED, INJURED or SUFFER DISEASE or ILLNESS with no warning and no sign of damage to this equipment.”
Of course I know the job is dangerous, in that remote way I know of other true-but-hard-to-picture things. But the danger is visible now, printed inside his bunker jacket, just below his heart. I run my finger over the label and think of the firefighters who died in the Worcester Cold Storage fire in 1999 and in the September 11 attacks, and of others lost closer to home.
Mike’s few close calls have been mercifully benign, most memorably when he fell through the weakened kitchen floor of a burning house and landed virtually unhurt in the basement. I heard this story before we were married, and — before I understood the deadpan humor of firefighters — I asked him what he was thinking in that moment, expecting revelations of profundity and eternity.
Not exactly, Mike said. Just one salty word came to mind as he dropped.
So many firefighters have given so much, and their families along with them. I don’t know if we’ll be spared. It’s the question that hangs — unasked and unanswered — every day when he steps out the front door for work. But I have hope — great hope — for a long life together and the sure comfort that Mike loves his work and is enormously proud of the firefighters with whom he shares it.
Even with that comfort, though, I suddenly feel the need to state my case, to read into the record exactly how I feel about his job. That jacket label with all its dire warnings compels me. I walk over to Mike and hug him from behind. He twists a bit to bring me to his side, then looks down at me.
“I need you to come home,” I say firmly. “Every day.”
“OK,” he says. I wait for the where’s-this-coming-from question, but it never comes. He simply squeezes my shoulder and smiles. “I will.”
Noelle Dinant Graves is a writer on the North Shore. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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