It has been 1 month, 7 days and 2 hours since that day. I still remember the picture of it. Every image, every second was like a knife pierced into my heart. I couldn’t bear it. I gaped for fresh air. I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to understand how it felt, the heart wrenching pain. Maybe you’ll listen to it like another one of the tragedies you hear during the course of your life and then forget. I won’t blame you. But even as I type with these trembling old fingers of mine, I still think my son deserves this. He deserves to be heard. He deserves to be known. People need to listen to his story. And if while finishing the last line you’re filled with remorse, I wouldn’t blame you either. I still shiver at the thought.
Back in 1968, we lived in the bustling town of Estbush, a small town with a welcoming air. We had our home just a few miles away from the street market. A small cottage with a comforting essence, it was the shade of red. Red because my wife, Holly loved it. And during the construction I had made sure that it was a perfect present for her, furnishing every detail about her choices and reflecting every little thing she loved. Jim was born in this very cottage. It feels like yesterday when I used to watch him play in the backyard. The sounds still echo my head when Holly used to thunder on Jim for covering the floor with prints of his muddy feet. I used to sparkle when I saw him play. I waited anxiously to come home from work to get embraced by his eager felicity to see me.
Funny how I abhor the sight of the backyard now. How the once blooming daffodils are a pile of dried petals. How during the bleak winters the ground is enveloped in a cascade of snow and there’s no one to take care of it.
Time flapped its wings too fast. I couldn’t tell when I was watching him toss his toy-firefighter he adored, and the next day he’s standing in the church, watching his wife come down the aisle. Janet was a very sweet, loving and a respectful daughter-in-law. I couldn’t ask for a better wife for my Jim. She understood him way more than I did. Jim grew up to be a handsome young man. Tall, well-built, and of course, the exceptionally unique emerald eyes he got from his mother. Janet was equally beautiful. The people in town often called it a match made in heaven and tried to be as modest as I could.
I take a glance of the empty room I’m sitting in. In the corner of the room, there’s a dusty piano covered in white cloth. My room is dark and dingy most of the time. Except for the daily hour when Janet comes to draw the shades for some sunlight to sneak in. Rest of the day, the room is dark, rather it always has an air of staleness.
Jim was an ambitious man, right from the beginning. He was good at everything he did. Whether it was helping Holly and Janet in the kitchen or fixing the old rusty second hand truck he had bought. Whether it was fishing or a game of cards, he was the best among us. We sure didn’t have a sumptuous lifestyle, or wealth to be pompous about, but what we did have was happiness, contentment and peace. And of course, a family which is a privilege denied to many. One specific thing that Jim was always passionate about, since childhood, was becoming a firefighter. He had something in him that always urged him to help people. Get them out of hopeless situations. Bravery and valor was always his forte. But unfortunately, he couldn’t become one. He did not tell us the exact reason and never really talked about it. And we never raised the topic.
In the summer of 1994, the weather conditions went really bad. There was a thunderstorm almost every alternate day. A tornado had hit close to our town. The weather reports claimed that it was the most violent of tornadoes in the past 5 years. At the time the tornado hit the outskirts of our town we were returning from a local carnival. Jim was driving. We were aware of the unrest and complete disorientation that prevailed all around by the news on the radio. It was raining heavily. We were passing by the town hospital when there was a blast behind us. It shook our car and it went screeching in every direction. The window had broken and rain entered our car blocking Jim’s vision. Fortunately, we were safe, as Jim had hit the brakes on time.
We stepped out of the car and witnessed a blazing and luminous ball of fire emerging from the hospital building. We could see several fire trucks and police cars. Numerous jets of water being injected in the building, but the fire seemed inevitable. Sounds of sirens and wailing could be heard. Ambulances carrying people away. I had not seen a more deadly and horrifying sight in my life. Suddenly, Jim started telling us to leave. He ordered us to get back in the car. Since Estbush was a small town there were less firemen and the situation demanded more. He had decided to help. We cried and pleaded him not to go. But he had made his decision. I wonder if he had even heard me in the constant claps of thunder and the loud noise of rainfall and the utter confusion.
I dropped Holly and Janet home, and made my way back to the hospital. I saw Jim gearing up in a yellow suit and without wasting any minute he went inside the building. My heart leaped and beat rigorously against my chest. He was assumed to be an official as he wore the uniform. In the absolute chaos, no one got to know he was a civilian. Black smoke came out of the fiery building. Every second was like an year. Despite the rain the fire was ablaze. The smoke was choking and the air around was damp but it hurt the lungs like needles piercing through.
Jim came out with a man half-burnt on his shoulders. He was screaming with pain. The sight was terrifying. He handed the man carefully to the officials and again went inside. I almost felt like pulling him back but I was helpless. As soon as Jim went in, there was another blast. A strong wave of heat swept the area. I was appalled. I swear to God, I couldn’t have been more frightened. More fire trucks came. More jets of water. Another man was rescued from the second floor. The Head of the team ordered the firefighter’s to recede. Several of them came out. But the one who rescued the man from the second floor could not come out. The building was going down. People shouted for him to jump, but he couldn’t. There was no escape. The building collapsed. The fire was brought under control. It had finally extinguished. I ran further too see where Jim was. But I couldn’t see him. I was blanched with fear.
I ran up to every face. Questioned every person. Yelled. Cried, and almost died out of remorse. I was unwilling to accept what had happened, still incredulous. I hoped he would be among the countless firemen I saw. But he wasn’t. I fell down on my knees, almost out of breath. I wailed at the top of my lungs, his image in my mind. People came running towards me, helping me to regain my posture, trying to comfort me. But where was comfort now? They didn’t even know the man that was inside.
When the storm passed and situations normalized, every firefighter that died was given a proper, respectable funeral. But there was no grave for my son. Jim. My Jim, who didn’t even have second thoughts before risking his life for others. He who could have easily gone home and watch the scenario on television, chose to fight and help people. No one came to know about the sacrifice of my son. No one recognized it.
You may now understand the pain I have residing inside me. This intense lump in my throat. Janet, who was once the Goddess of cheer, barely speaks now. She has lost all her spark. And sometimes, I hear her quiet sobs as she weeps at night. I’m writing this for the local newspaper as I need the people of Estbush to know this story. I need them to know, that my son was a brave man, who saved the lives of many. Whose death deserves to be respected or at least be known.
It’s almost dusk, and the crickets can be heard now. My tired eyes and old fingers have done their job of telling you the story. I don’t ask you to drop by flowers on his grave everyday but I can only pray now, and hope that when you hear of Jim, you realize his worth or at least have a small notion of the pain and anguish of this helpless, hopeless and proud Father of a Firefighter.