If you’re looking for profundity, stop reading now. This post isn’t going to be earth-shattering or life-changing. It’s just a simple thought I had a few minutes ago.
I was in the backyard playing with my wife and kids. It’s a hot day, but it was still nice to throw the Aerobie, watch my youngest daughter spray her siblings with the hose, and generally decompress after a long day of teaching.
On the way into the house I started thinking about the firefighters in New York on that terrible day more than a decade ago. I started thinking about one guy in particular. He’s just a character in my head, but in my mind he has a sandy brown mustache and unremarkable features. He’s probably about forty-five, he has a nice wife and a couple kids, and when he smiles at you it makes you feel a little better about the world. He’s just a regular guy and would laugh if anyone called him extraordinary. He has a beer with his coworkers on occasion, but mostly he just does his job, spends what time he can with his family, and generally tries to be the best person he can be. He has faults like everyone else, and sometimes he gets irritable. He often wishes he had more money. He sees all the women in their expensive clothes and jewelry and wonders if he’ll ever be able to make enough money for his wife to have those things. This firefighter, he also loves cars, and he wants to buy his son a really neat one for his sixteenth birthday, which is only a few months away.
But the firefighter gives his son love, which is thankfully free. He also watches Disney movies with his daughter sometimes. She’s eleven and still likes the princesses. The firefighter secretly hopes she never stops liking the princesses.
One day this firefighter finds himself facing an inferno. He’s on the street staring straight up at a seething orange blister near the top of a skyscraper. The blister keeps vomiting black smoke.
The firefighter knows there’s a good chance the whole damned thing is going to come down soon. He knows many people inside that inferno have died.
But there are more up there. People with families. People with friends.
The firefighter’s forehead is beaded with sweat. Some of it’s from the heat baking out of that hellish orange blister, but some of it is fear sweat too. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to miss his son’s sixteenth birthday. Even if he can only afford to buy his boy a used Honda, he wants to be there for that. He wants to see the look on his son’s face when he hands him the keys.
The firefighter thinks of his wife. How she probably wants nicer clothes but would rather have a husband who loves her and does his best for her. She never complains about how they don’t go on vacation very often. She appreciates him for doing his best.
The firefighter takes a deep, steadying breath, and smoke tickles the back of his throat. There’ll be more smoke inside. And screaming like the ninth circle of hell.
But those people, he thinks as he moves swiftly toward the seething blaze, they didn’t make this hell. They don’t deserve what’s happening to them. They have families too. They have friends. He knows he might be their only hope of survival. He has trained for this.
But he’s scared as he hustles toward the door. He doesn’t want to die. He wants to watch a movie tonight with his daughter and eat microwave popcorn with her. But he suspects he’ll never get that chance. There’s a growing certainty in him that these are the last few minutes of his life.
But when he reaches that burning building, he goes through that door anyway. He goes through that door because even though he’d laugh at the notion, he’s a hero. He graduated in the bottom half of his high school class; he’s never been in the newspaper or on TV. Yet in the minutes before he dies, he will show more courage than most men will ever dream of showing.
Hands trembling, the firefighter dashes up the stairs. The faces of his wife and kids go with him…
That’s all. Sorry if this seemed maudlin or melodramatic. I’m just thankful that people like that firefighter exist. It’s sad and horrific that there are people who take others’ lives because of their hatred and bigotry. But it gives me hope that there are people who risk their lives—and sometimes sacrifice everything—to help people they’ve never met.
So thank you to all the firefighters, police officers, and the rest of the incredible people who tried to stand up for what was good and decent in the world on that horrible day more than a decade ago. To the victims of 9/11, please know that we miss you and still mourn you. And to anyone who lost a family member that day, please accept my good thoughts and prayers.