By Anne Gagliano
I’m sitting in a crowded formal banquet hall when, as one, 300 hands raise a singular playing card into the air—the seven of hearts. As we glance around and realize we’re all holding the same identical card, we burst into incredulities at this amazing magical trick pulled-off by that evening’s entertainment: “Double Vision,” Canada’s only identical twin magic and comedy act. Each member of the audience had been given their own deck of cards and instructed to cut, turn, fan, look at, and then place them at the bottom of the deck. We did this again, and again, and again. The numbers weren’t exact, the decks were normal (as we clearly saw as we turned them), and I’m sure everyone did it a little bit differently. Yet somehow, at the end, as we were asked to hold up the top card after the final cut, we all had the same card. Not only is this trick extraordinary, but so is the card itself—“lucky” and “heart” perfectly summed up the day’s events, which deeply touched my heart.
My husband Mike and I had the great honor of being invited to teach at the 2019 Alberta Fire Chief’s Association Conference in Red Deer. It was my first time flying to Canada. I’ve driven there many times, as we live only an hour from the boarder of Vancouver, British Columbia, but I’ve never flown. Flying is a whole different experience with customs and all that goes with it. You truly feel that you’re in a foreign country: vulnerable, alone, and far from home. But before long, a firefighter picks us up at the airport in Calgary and delivers us to our hotel in Red Deer safely. With this, we realize we are among our fire family, the only difference being just a hint of an accent. Well treated (they gave us really cool coins just like American firefighters do), well received, and very well fed, we relaxed and enjoyed.
On the second day of teaching, I’m sitting in Mike’s final class, “Go/No-Go.” Because it is standing room only, I opted to take the extra seat at the front behind the instructors’ table (as only I can really do, being the teacher’s “special pet” and all), thus freeing up my seat for another firefighter. This new seat is an uncomfortable one; all eyes now face my direction, but I turn sideways and focus my gaze on Mike so as not to be too intimidated. I can say this because I’m biased and I love him. Mike is an amazing instructor and engages the crowd so completely that, for a while, I forget that I’m somewhat under a spotlight. However, this will soon change.
As Mike gets going, one of the first points he makes is in reference to the rescue profile of a fire scene. What are firefighters saving? He asks the crowd, “What would you risk to save a known, savable life?” The old adage goes, “Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk a little to save a little. Risk nothing to save nothing (or that which is already lost).” When I hear this, as the wife of a firefighter, I always think, “Please, don’t risk your life.” In my view, it’s always No-Go. Typically, I’m somewhat detached, even a little cynical when life or death is mentioned. I guess this is a natural form of self-preservation. The thought of my firefighter risking himself for another is too painful for me to even contemplate, so usually, I don’t.
But this day, in this class, in this spotlight “hot seat,” I’m struck in a whole new way. Maybe it’s because I’m in Canada, maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe it’s because I’m in front of a crowd with its eyes on me—this message suddenly becomes all about me. Mike uses this as his next example: “What would you risk to save my lovely bride sitting here beside me, a known, savable life. She’s my whole world; if I lose her, I’ll never convince anyone else to marry me. Keep in mind as you make your decision, you risk not just your life, but the lives of your entire crew when you decide to enter that fire. You risk your parents—I have to think of this, as I don’t believe my parents would survive losing me. They’ve already lost my baby sister to cancer. My death would probably destroy them. You risk your spouse’s life, her happiness, her heart. You risk your children’s lives—their future, their development, their financial stability. May I submit, you don’t risk a lot to save a life, you risk everything. Knowing this, would you risk everything to save my wife?”
By this time, my heart is pounding. All eyes are on me. I shyly look down as I feel my face turning red. This has somehow become incredibly personal, not an abstract notion of firefighters performing courageous deeds yet again. But these firefighters, in this room, in this foreign land, being asked to risk everything—just to save me? The room erupts in emphatic answers of yes—I would—I would give all to save your wife. I dare to glance up and look at all those brave faces from this bird’s-eye-view, and I can see that they mean it. Without hesitation. This they would do; exchange their lives for mine. A lump fills my throat and tears sting my eyes.
Firefighters and fire spouses, the next time you hear of firefighter courage, please don’t gloss over it as is typical with us. We somehow take for granted this gift, even at times resent it a bit as the fear of pain and loss is an unpleasant thought on any given day. But instead, do this, imagine all those brave souls out there keeping watch in the night, ready at a moment’s notice to come for you—just you—to pluck you from the forces of death. It is incredibly personal. Powerful. Unfathomable. Firefighters all across North America, from Alaska, to Canada, to Key West, and all over the world, will give everything to protect you, to save you. How lucky are we to have such a gift? A gift of courage and sacrifice and heart? The quote I like to use in my marriage class (from an anonymous military leader) comes to mind as I think; Dear God, where do we get such men (and women)? What loving God has provided, that each generation, afresh, there should arise new giants in the land. Were we to go a single generation without such men, we should surely be both damned and doomed.
How lucky are we to have such people among us, lucky to know them, to love them, to stand beside them, to lift them up? This all takes heart. The word heart is derived from the Latin word cor, which means courage. I think all of these things as I gaze at the card in my hand at the fire banquet that night—lucky #7 of hearts.
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Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.