Author: AJKat PM
What makes a hero?Rated: Fiction K - English - Tragedy/Family - Words: 1,311 - Reviews: 10 - Published: 04-22-04 - id: 1588679
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The flag has been flying at half-mast for three days now. Dad says this is the last day. Everything will go back to normal tomorrow.
He is awake early this morning to make sure that his dress uniform is ready. I watch as he spreads the crisp white shirt on the kitchen counter and methodically fastens all of the badges and pins into their appropriate places. He finishes with the silver Chief's badge, which has a new black band wrapped around it.
Mom brushes her fingertips across the black band after he puts on the shirt. They look at each other, but they don't speak. I don't know if they are silent because I am in the room or because there is nothing more to say. I only know that I am tired of the silence.
"Your shirt is too tight," I announce.
Their heads swivel in unison. Okay, so their silence has nothing to do with me. They obviously had no idea I was in the room.
"I guess it's a bit snug across the belly," Dad says. "I haven't worn it since the Memorial Day parade. I didn't realize I had gained weight."
"It's fine," Mom says, shooting me a look. "You always look handsome in your dress uniform. I wish you would wear it more often."
"Yeah, too bad he doesn't go to more funerals." I regret the words as soon as I say them.
Dad doesn't even get angry at me. He just sighs and leaves the kitchen.
I don't have to look at Mom to see The Look this time. "Are you sure you want to come to the funeral with us, Angie?" she asks.
I nod, but the truth is that I'm not sure of anything anymore. I really don't want to go to Jamie Westbrook's funeral and face the firefighters and their families. But I would rather spend the day with them than with the people at school who only see Jamie as the top story on the six o'clock news. All of a sudden, people who have never cared that my father is the Fire Chief suddenly think I'm going to have all the answers. For the past two days, their morbid curiosity has made me something of a celebrity in the hallways. Everyone wants to know if I think it was his fault.
I don't know what to tell them.
The ride to the funeral home is very quiet, but there is plenty of noise when we arrive. Reporters are swarming around the front door. They pounce as soon as we get out of the car.
"Chief Russell!" They shout; "is it true there is going to be an inquiry into the incident? Is the victim's family planning to sue? Do you plan on stepping down as Chief?"
"No comment at this time," Dad says, over and over.
I recognize Jamie's mother as soon as we step inside. Jamie brought her to the Christmas party last year, when everyone else brought their families or dates. It struck me as funny at the time that he was old enough to be a firefighter but young enough to bring his mother to the event. Now it just makes today seem that much more tragic.
She doesn't look at my father.
Dad has been practicing the eulogy all week, but I can tell he is still a nervous wreck. He has always hated public speaking. For him, standing up in front of the Township Board at the monthly meetings is sheer torture; speaking in front of a crowd this size must have him in a near panic. But he'll do it anyway, because it's his duty as Chief.
He is planning on reciting the Fireman's Prayer and talking about what made Jamie such a hero.
I am suddenly angry at my father's use of the word "Hero." Jamie fell through the roof and died putting out a fire in an empty house. There was nothing heroic about his death, just tragic. But heroic or not, Jamie Westbrook died because my father sent him up on that roof.
He wasn't a hero. He was just doing his job. Following orders.
My father's orders.
When Dad's pager went off last Monday, I barely heard it. I was struggling with my Algebra homework and didn't even look up when he muttered something about the hockey game he was going to miss on TV that night. Then he roared out of the driveway.
The next time I saw him, he had watched a man die under his command.
The rest of the department is already at the funeral home when we take our seats. They are all wearing their dress uniforms, their rank displayed according to shirt color. Some of the blue shirts come to sit beside my family, but two of the white shirts make a show of moving away from us.
"Don't let them get to you, Chief," Tim Harding murmurs. He is Dad's second-in-command, and he sits proudly beside my father in his white shirt. "The people who matter still believe in you."
Dad looks at me. I look at the floor.
I am still so angry at him. I want to jump up and shout in his face: "That could be you in that casket!"
But I don't do it, because these people need to hear him speak about Jamie. They need him more than I do. As long as I can remember, I have had to share my father with everyone who needs him. It's all part of being a firefighter's daughter.
Before Jamie's death, I never thought about any of these people actually risking their lives. They organize fund-raisers and pancake breakfasts. They go to the local schools during fire prevention week and give out free smoke detectors to families in need. These are men and women who joke about who gets to light the grill at department picnics. Every single one of them has lied to my mother about her horrible sugar cookies, while some of their sons tried to kiss me under the mistletoe at the last Christmas banquet.
The pastor is speaking. He talks about Jamie's childhood, his devotion to his mother and younger siblings, his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter. He tells us that Jamie was always a good kid who did what he was told. At those words, I notice that Dad's hands are shaking.
It dawns on me that it will take more courage for him to face these people than it would take to run into a burning building.
I reach across Mom's lap to squeeze Dad's hand. They both give me startled looks, and I am shaken by the shine of unshed tears in my father's eyes. I have never seen him cry before.
It's time for him to speak. He swallows loudly and brushes a trembling hand across his eyes. His other hand is still clasped firmly in mine, and in that moment I understand why he's still going to speak even though he is afraid and half-sick with guilt and sorrow. He'll do it because Jamie's friends and family need to hear the Fireman's Prayer and they need to hear it from Jamie's Chief. His words will give them peace, although he won't find any for himself. He will never stop feeling responsible for Jamie Westbrook's death, but that won't stop him from going right back out there the next time he is needed.
I squeeze my hero's hand one last time, and then I let him go.