IT IS THE MORNING AFTER MONday, June 18, 2007. What do you say to the friends you have in Charleston? Words seem hollow, contrived, but you have to call. You hear the quiet voice on the other end of the line. In the forever second of silence, you know that they know exactly what you are going to say and graciously, piously, they say thanks. They say, “Yeah, it is terrible, and everyone is still in shock,” but they have to run, they are going to see about this or that and thanks again for thinking about them. But wait, wait “… and brother or sister, please say a prayer, will ya? Say a prayer for them and their families.” We promise we will. It is not something they have to ask, but they would say the same about your call. We need to do it. It is a tradition, a very important and sacred tradition. It means we care about each other.
It is the morning after. We say that quiet prayer. You know the one: “Dear God, please take them home, please hold them tight. Let them know we will never forget them. God, let them know we will be there for their families and friends. God, if they had any unfinished business, let them know we got it and it ain’t heavy lifting. God, let them know we miss them already. God, let them know we love them always. God, help us take care of their families. God, tell them … tell them we are so sorry we ….”
It is the morning after, and you have had a few calls already, all saying the same word: “unbelievable”-unbelievable tragedy, unbelievable grief for all the families, all the moms, all the sons and daughters, all the dads. Your wife or husband told your kids this morning you might be sad because you lost some friends. Your kids don’t say anything; they can speak to you with their eyes. They lower them slightly and blink. It sends a shudder through you, and your heart races. It means they love you and they know you love them and they honor those brave and beautiful friends you lost. Your mom calls. She knows. She asks quietly like only a mom can, “Are you alright? Do you need anything?” “No mom, I’m alright. It’s just unbelievable.”
Unbelievable is a very interesting word. It sometimes means just that, unbelievable. It also means unimaginable and incomprehensible. Anytime a firefighter falls in the line of duty, it is unbelievable, incomprehensible, unimaginable. We are not supposed to fall; we are supposed to come home. We always come home in the movies. We are the heroes; we make things better.
But firefighters know better. We know the risks. We accept the risks for the rewards. That does not mean the children, the wives and husbands, and the moms and dads do. People are going to ask, “Why?” We know they will be asking, “Why did this happen? Why did nine beautiful men have to die?” Another question for God, another investigation for others, and a lifetime journey of “what ifs” and “if onlys” for the bravest of Charleston, South Carolina.
The whys are deeply rooted in how those nine came to be Charleston’s bravest. The whys are found in old Sunday school books, long since yellowed. The whys are found in scout badges and pinewood derby awards, in football jerseys and letter sweaters. The whys are name tags fastened to every type of uniform-Army, Navy, Marine, Coast Guard, and Air Force-hanging in nine bedroom closets in Charleston, closets where nine sets of Charleston Fire Department dress blues are being carefully laid out, closets that are now shrines to nine lives well lived. The reason those nine were there is because they loved Charleston and everyone in it. The reason they chose to fight fire and death was because they cared a little more than most. They understood more than most and they knew they had to give back, to serve, to feel complete.
This is how we will remember them, standing upright and tall when “Oh say can you see …” was sung. Remember them singing in church off key and out of tune but smiling when you laughed at them. Remember them trying so hard to please you that you laughed until you cried at their childlike innocence. Remember them holding another’s hand at a very sad time and crying salty tears for a stranger. Remember, no one they ever met was a stranger for long. Remember how hard they fought to become one of Charleston’s Bravest and how tall they were in their battle dress. Remember the tears they cried when others fell-the six of Worcester, the five of Esperanza, the 14 of Storm King Mountain, and the 343 of 9/11. Remember how they cried quietly and how they prayed, how they hung their heads every time the flag was lowered at Emmitsburg. Whether it was for seven or one, the pain was the same, the loss was the same, the emptiness seemingly unbearable.
It is the morning after. We are feeling empty because nine firefighters gave their last full measure defending their community. Nine men of Charleston lost doing their duty-serving others and never asking why. Nine sons of Charleston, nine Charleston firefighters, nine men of Charleston who lived life well. God speed, and peace to them all.