I was asked a question during this last book tour—where do I keep my awards? (I am a three-time winner of the RITA Award, twice for best contemporary, once for best mainstream fiction). I keep them on my bookshelf in my bedroom, alongside the flag that draped my grandfather’s casket…he was a World War II veteran—and McIrish’s Firefighter of the Year statue.
That’s the one I want to talk about today. Don’t get me wrong; I am very proud to have received my RITAs. But there are awards, and then there are awards.
Once upon a time on a summer day sixteen years ago, I was driving my car, on the hunt for some corn from the local farm stand. Dearest Son, then four, was in his car seat, playing with his little firetruck, while my daughter swam with her cousins and auntie back at my house.
My son and I heard the fire alarm go off, and I said, “Maybe we’ll see Daddy in the firetruck!” It had happened before.
Then I saw the flames. Right there, right in front of us, a house was on fire—the garage side. I saw a man kicking in the front door and pulled over, snatched Dearest from the car seat and ran across the lawn. “Are there people in there?” I called. The man was a friend from around the corner named Tom. “Yes!” he said, and I started running toward the house to help.
Except I had a four-year-old in my arms, and we were close to the road, and I couldn’t leave him there alone. Another man, Ted, came out of the house with an old lady, and a second later, Tom emerged with her husband. “Are you okay?” I asked the lady, who was crying.
“My son is still inside,” she said. “In his bedroom.”
By now the fire had spread with amazing speed, and we could hear the roar and the flames were well past the roof. The sound of glass breaking was terrifying. I took the old lady’s hand. We could hear the sirens shrieking on the quiet August day. Then a fire engine pulled up, and McIrish was driving, dressed in full gear. “There’s someone in there!” I yelled, and he shrugged into his air tank, pulled the mask over his face and…and went inside, another firefighter on his heels. Inside what was now a raging, fully involved fire.
That saying that time stands still…it wasn’t exactly true. Time slowed to heartbeats. I could feel each pump of my heart as I kept my eyes fixed on that door. Was my son about to watch his father die? Should we leave? Could I help? More fire trucks were on the scene, men swarming everywhere, axes in hand, hoses trained on the flames.
“Where’s my son?” the old lady cried.
“Don’t worry,” I said, not looking away from the door. “That’s my husband in there. He’ll save him.” She started to pray. Me, I couldn’t do anything except stare at that door and wait for my husband to come out.
Fires are alive. They are born, they grow, they consume, they die. This fire was so loud, so full of terrifying life, whining and roaring, popping and devouring. Dearest Son was quiet. “Daddy will be okay,” I said. I had never lied to my kids before. I hoped to God that afternoon wouldn’t be the first time.
Then McIrish and the other firefighter, John, came out, dragging an unconscious man. They passed him off to the other firefighters, grabbed a hose and went right back in. “He’s alive!” I said to the old lady. “Your son is alive!” We both started crying.
The fire was under control shortly after that, and my husband came back out, took off his helmet and mask, and looked over at our boy and me. He gave a little nod and smile, and I put my hand over my heart, overwhelmed. Then I set our son down and said, “Do you understand what you just saw, honey? Daddy saved a life. He saved that man’s life. Never forget that.”
“I never will, Mommy,” he said solemnly. He hasn’t.
A helicopter was landing in the field across the street to take the man to the hospital, and he did recover. The old couple went to stay with their other son, and no firefighters were hurt. It was a great day for the fire department, and a great day for our town. All the firefighters worked beautifully together; the good Samaritans got their rightful due as heroes, no one was badly hurt, a life was saved…it was a good call, as firefighters say in their modest way.
Our family and town celebrated McIrish and John, and at one event, our daughter, then seven, accepted an award on his behalf, since McIrish was at the fire academy. He got his statue later that year with a proclamation signed by the lieutenant governor.
But what I remember most was when our eyes met, after the man was saved, after the fire was out. That little nod that said, “Yes, I’m okay. I love you. I’m fine.” And my hand over my heart, telling him, “You are everything a man should be.”
So my statues, while I’m so proud of them…well. There are more important things in life. Fighting Nazis. Putting your life on the line for another. A little boy getting to watch his father be the hero he always knew his daddy was.