Thursday, April 26, 2012
A to Z Honesty - W is for a Woman of Courage
The grass was brilliant green on the front lawn of Trinity United Church, the biggest church in Gravenhurst, the only one big enough to hold all those people, all those dark uniforms, all those sombre male faces.
"Those are our heroes," my friend Gail had whispered to me in the church. Tears filled her eyes, and mine.
Outside, when it was over, the green grass and the peacock blue sky contrasted absurdly with the black suits and dresses of the community of mourners. We stood, without saying a word, as the parade readied itself to take the chief on one last ride. Flags rippled in a skiff of a spring breeze. In front, the drum corp waited for a command, silver-shined drums sparkling in the sun. Behind them, row upon row of silent firefighters resplendent in full dress uniform, eyes forward, unreadable expressions. The fire truck, cleaner than it was when it rolled off the assembly line, chrome winking in the sunshine, brilliant crimson paint the colour of blood, the colour of sacrifice, a lifetime of emergency calls in the middle of the night. Inside the cab, silhouettes of firefighters sitting bolt upright, holding his ashes, their immense responsibility coming off them in waves. And finally, behind them all, a gray limousine bearing three people braver and stronger than the chief himself: his wife, Cathy, and their two children, Brandon and Rachel.
I work with Cathy. Her desk is kitty-corner to mine, just down the hall a bit. She's been away from work for a while, dealing with her husband's sudden death. John was only 50 years old. Healthy as a proverbial horse. Healthier than most. Everything was fine but then he got the flu, a nasty bout, lost a ton of weight in few days. Cathy was worried, took him to the doctor who discovered John was riddled with cancer. They said he might live for a month or a few months, but a week later he was dead. Shock settled upon our small community, in our department at work, like a shroud. Our regional manager, Bill Allen, had died only a few weeks earlier. Now this.
Cathy dropped by the office to see us last Friday. She took quite a squeezing from everyone. I found it hard to stop hugging her. She's my new hero, you see. I mean, everyone talks about the firefighters being heroes, and yes, they are, of course they are. But Cathy? She's the real deal.
I used to be married to a volunteer firefighter and I can tell you from experience that they're almost never home. If it wasn't a call in the middle of the night, it was being on stand-by, or it was training, or it was practising. The fire department becomes a mistress, a demanding mistress, who leaves spouses alone at home to pick up the pieces, to get things done, to raise the children. John Black was a volunteer firefighter before Cathy had even met him. She knew the trade-off she would be making and she accepted it with a quiet grace. The only time she asked him to turn off his pager was on their wedding day.
Cathy would never call it a burden, knowing her, but her responsibilities increased tenfold when John's long dream of being a fire chief came true. In 2009 he was named Fire Chief of the newly amalgamated Township of North Huron. It wasn't just a hire – he was instrumental in setting up the fire department, in getting it run with the kind of precision and dedication John was known for. The only drawback was it was a long, long way away from his home and family in Gravenhurst.
With two kids still in high school, Cathy agreed to stay in town until both Brandon and Rachel graduated. So, while John was away building a fire department, Cathy did everything else. She worked full time, she looked after the kids and the house, she visited her ailing mom and mother-in-law, she wrassled the family's two dogs, she even packed in preparation for the future move. All this, and she never complained. Oh sure, she had the odd comment to make over morning coffee, when everyone was re-hashing the events of the previous weekend, but her comments were more wisecracks, always said with a gentle smile. She never whined. Me? I whine all the time, about all the stupid little things that tick me off in my stupid life. But Cathy? Who had real challenges? Never. Yet another reason she has become my hero.
The big reason, though, was the eulogy Cathy delivered. It was the best eulogy I've ever heard, so well-written, so moving. In the sea of firefighters, of uniforms, of bagpipes and white gloved salutes, her eulogy was a bright spot of simple humanity. She looked so small up there, at the front of the church, amongst all those men in dark uniforms. But her warm voice was strong and unwavering. She delivered her speech with nary a tear. My heart jumped in my chest with mixed emotions – overwhelming sorrow at her loss but fierce pride in knowing such a courageous woman.
I was going to write about John today because I knew him a long, long time ago. My first newspaper job was the Gravenhurst News. I was 21. Not a pot to pee in and not a brain in my head. John worked for the competition, the Gravenhurst Leader and he didn't look any older than 12. I guess he was only a year or so younger than me but he was long-haired and skinny, and seriously looked like somebody's little brother. He was yappy, though. We'd run into each other at various assignments and he was always making cracks about what a terrible reporter I was and what a terrible newspaper I worked for, but he always had that big smart-assed grin on his face so I knew he was just teasing. One day an elderly lady took him aside and gave him crap for picking on me. I still laugh about that.
But as I think of John, as I sat here this morning with my rapidly cooling coffee, I realized it was Cathy I really wanted to write about. She really is a hero in my eyes. The kind of hero I long to be.
God speed, girl. Know that we're all here for you and if you need anything, and I mean anything at all, you just ask. You realize, of course, that when you get back to work you're going to get the living daylights hugged out of you? Oh yes, there will be hugging. And laughter. And friendship.
And untold admiration.