By Anne Gagliano
Just last shift my firefighter husband Mike e-mailed me the coolest picture from work; he entitled it “the ghost fire.” He called me that night and told me all about it; though only a small one, I still detected the excitement in his voice. You see, firefighters love to fight fire; it is their favorite part of the job. It is my least favorite part of the job, and even after nearly 30 years of this, the fact that my husband actually goes into live fires still freaks me out. Because he is a thoughtful husband, he sent me the photo, as he knows I enjoy being a part of his world. But in his effort to include me, he unwittingly set me up for a very rough night.
It was a confluence of events that led to the perfect storm of anxiety, sleeplessness, and even tears. Mike, ever dutiful, phoned me from the station to tell me goodnight around 10:00 p.m., which is our age-old custom. He must call me because after ten, I will not call him. It is an old habit born from station phones; rule was, in the day, that wives should never call the station after ten, as firefighters (including mine) may be sleeping. Even though he has a cell phone now, I still never call after ten; I guess old habits just die hard. So when he phoned that night to convey the day’s events, he told me of the “ghost fire” but didn’t call it that. He described with enthusiasm that it was just a small bedroom fire, but it was fun and all went well. He then said there was a “mysterious phenomenon” that occurred on one of the walls and to look for the picture in my e-mail. This piqued my interest, as he knew it would, but before I could question him more on this, the sound that jars my soul and causes my pulse to race involuntarily drowned out any further conversation between us: the station alarm bells. He cheerfully shouted, “Gotta roll, Baby!” and hung up. I blurted out, “Call me when you get back so I know you’re safe,” but he didn’t hear me. And so began my descent into agony for the night.
I tried to watch a show, but my eyes kept drifting to the phone, willing it to ring. He knows to call me back when a run interrupts us and usually does so right away. But the phone doesn’t ring. An hour goes by; as I watch each minute pass, my heart rate accelerates and my imagination runs wild. If he’s not back by now, he must be at a fire. Seattle has been experiencing a polar vortex of late, plunging our usually mild fall temperatures to extreme lows. These cold spells produce lots of house fires as people bring out their space heaters and such. I try to find things to do that will keep my mind from going to dark places, carrying the phone with me as I go. I get online and check my e-mail; there is the promised one from Mike. I open it and see my smiling husband and his L 5 crew mate, Firefighter Jimmy Richards, standing near a perfectly formed ghost in white on a charred, black wall. I see Mike’s sweet, much beloved face, and instead of being impressed by the unusual ghost phenomenon, I find my eyes welling up with tears instead. Though I’m not superstitious, and despite my best efforts to be “reasonable,” the harmless ghostly image in my worried mind appears not “Casper-like” but ill-fated, like an omen.
Since it is against my well-trained, firewife nature to call him at this late hour, I try texting him on my cell phone instead. This is all but useless as we live in the one place on the entire north continent that gets no cell reception. I even send him an e-mail, though he is unlikely to be on a computer. Another hour goes by and still no word. It is getting very late, and with each passing moment, I know he is less and less likely to call. I should be going to bed myself, but in my anxious, spooky, panicky state, I know it is pointless. Only being assured of his safety will allow me to sleep.
I almost couldn’t write this column because I am so ashamed to still be having these emotional struggles after all these years as a firefighter’s wife. I feel that as a long-term veteran I should be stoic in the face of potential loss; that I should be able to hear the alarm bells over the phone and not have a nervous breakdown; that as a captain’s wife, I should be unflappable, fearless, and strong. But the truth is this: It’s easy to be brave when your husband is lying safely next to you; it’s an entirely different animal when he’s out there in the night facing Lord knows what and you’re left home alone trying to sleep with his side of the bed empty. I used to think that surely with age the passionate love of youth fades away, making the prospect of death easier to face, but that is not so. With each passing year, my love for my husband only grows stronger and sweeter. Love is such an amazing gift—a gift that grows and expands and never ends. It is the greatest gift I’ve ever received, but one that has rendered me extremely vulnerable as a firefighter wife because I have so much to lose. Mike and I have built a life together; we are inextricably linked. If he goes, we go. The older he gets, the riskier this profession becomes; firefighting is a dangerous business, even for the young and the strong. His wisdom and experience counter the physical dangers, but as time goes on, I fear the odds are rising against him—and seeing him in bunkers next to a blackened wall with an eerie image of death doesn’t help much.
We firefighter wives don’t talk about death. It’s too horrible to even glimpse, let alone put into words. We cope by living, for the most part, in denial. But on nights like “the ghost fire,” I am forced to face it. I grapple with it. I wrestle with it. I seek distractions that will put the terrible thoughts from my mind. All I can say to young firewives out there is, “Be forewarned: You will have many nights like these. Nights when, for whatever reason, you’ll be worried sick for your precious firefighter. Nights when you are robbed of peace and of sleep. And nights when you ignobly feel that the whole world can just go to hell, let someone else risk their life to save it. It’s not worth it to me; all I want is my best friend, my one true love—to come home. Not a pretty thought but a real one.
I eventually put the phone back in its cradle. He is not going to call. I have said my many prayers to God. “Please, Lord, keep him safe. And please, Lord, have Jimmy and whichever other crew members are working tonight watch his back.” It’s all I can do. I finally drift off to sleep.
The next morning I hear him come in. He’s tired. He’s been up all night. The bells in the firehouse kept the crews busy. I gently remind him that he was supposed to call me after our goodnight call got interrupted. Oh, he says, I thought we were good. I’m so overjoyed by his safe return that I don’t even scold him. How can I after he’s had such a night? Besides, it’s his job to save the world. And it’s my job to let it be so.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.