A Firehouse Christmas

A Firehouse Christmas

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

A Firehouse Christmas

We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.

Marion Wright Edelman

. . . she stood

in the station doorway

framed by snowflakes

the size of a toddler’s hand.

Heavy, white ones,

falling like tiny angels

who couldn’t resist a short dance in her hair.

Like Santa she brought joy,

Her bulging bundle of teddy bears

and woolly mammoths,

their faces pressed

against the opaque bag,

hoping for escape,

a chance to be squeezed again

by little hands, and

held close to tiny faces . . .

Seattle Decembers are misty and steel gray, like the navy ships and aircraft carriers that silently ply our waterways. Three or four times each winter a heavy, wet Puget Sound snow bends the cedar boughs and hemlock branches and the carpet of ferns on the forest floor with white wonder. It blankets and crusts our curving, winding roadways, turning every hill into a toboggan course for kids and the adults who wish they still were.

For a fire-station lieutenant, it also fills the nights with fender benders, abandoned vehicles and power outages. I get precious little sleep on snowy shifts, but the joy our icy visitor brings to children is worth the commotion and confusion.

The pre-Christmas snow assault had been underway for two hours, and my station had already responded to three rush-hour accidents. Fresh coffee was brewing. All indicators pointed to a sleepless, hectic night. I was sure the knock on the firehouse door was a stranded motorist or a passerby reporting yet another accident on the busy four lane just beyond our station ramp. I was wrong.

I guessed her to be about thirty-five. She was a slightly built, auburn-haired woman who stood outside the doorway, smiling through the silver-dollar-sized flakes of snow. I invited her in and offered her the first sampling of our firehouse brew, making her laugh out loud with my comment about not having a sharp knife handy to cut it. She accepted my offer, kicking the crusted snow off her boots as she entered. She lugged a bulging, kitchen-size garbage bag in her left hand, leaning slightly out of balance to compensate for its weight.

She shook the snow out of her hair and blew on her hands while I poured a cup of the pungent firehouse java. “What do you take in it?” I said over my shoulder.

“Just black, thanks,” she replied.

I carried the two steaming cups across the kitchen and handed one to her. She wrapped both hands around the warm mug, smiled and thanked me. Between sips we speculated as to whether or not the early snow meant a brutal winter bearing down on us. She laughed again when I told her I was going to make a ton of extra money by setting up a chain- and stud-installation service outside our bay doors.

I looked down at her white plastic bag. She must have seen the question flicker across my face because she smiled and answered before I could ask. “I couldn’t bring myself to come here for the first three years,” she began. Her voice trembled a little as she spoke. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to say ‘thank you’ but, well, here I am.”

The picture was clearer now, yet I still didn’t have all the puzzle pieces. “Ma’am?”

She tilted her head and motioned, gesturing toward the bag she’d placed gently on the entryway tile. “These were my son’s.” Protruding from the top of the bag was a bucktoothed, charcoal-brown beaver. Below the beaver I could see an assortment of two dozen stuffed animal toys. They looked like a band of mutinous zoo critters preparing for a breakout.

When she told me her son’s name, the last puzzle piece fit. He had been another victim on our highway several years ago—another heartbreaking loss, a child we couldn’t save. He had died just prior to the holidays. I can’t imagine there ever being a good time for your child to die, but it seems having to endure such a devastating loss as holidays approach would add a final twist of cruelty.

For a moment, words failed me. I could think of nothing to say, so I said nothing. I stared at the droplets of moisture in her hair. She took a deep breath, smiled and said, “I can’t find a use for these now, so I was wondering if you could give them away.” She paused. “I mean, to kids who need them.”

Like many other fire departments, our medic units carry a supply of stuffed animals. When a child is hurt or sick, a teddy bear may not ease the pain, but it brings comfort. It’s a buddy who understands and who doesn’t complain if he’s squeezed too tight. This woman knew about our teddy bear giveaway program, and she was offering a very special collection.

I thought about asking “Are you sure?” but didn’t. The look in her eyes told me she hadn’t arrived at her decision lightly. “Thank you,” I said. I thought carefully, then added, “I don’t think you’ll ever know how many little folks you’ll touch by doing this.”

“I hope you’re right,” she said. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to know he’s sharing with someone who needs help.”

“Not gonna finish that coffee?” I asked. She was already heading for our front door, leaving the still steaming, half-full cup next to mine on the table. “Nope. I need to get home before it really gets bad.”

I held the door open for her and told her to drive safely. She laughed again and said, “I’d better. I don’t wanna be your next patient!” She paused for a second, turned and said, “Thank you.”

I waved and responded, “Thank YOU! And Merry Christmas!”

The station tones went off again, this time dispatching my rescue crew to a woman in labor. Forty seconds later the white and blue medic unit rocketed out of the station and onto the highway, its blazing twin sonic beacons reflecting off the swirling snow. Alone, I returned to my coffee and the bag of stuffed animals.

I knelt beside it, pulling the furry little creatures out one by one. A stuffed hippo, a green and purple teddy bear, and a bald eagle with an extraordinarily large beak and limp wings that wrapped around his torso.

I wondered how many memories the bag contained. How many times a little boy had drifted off to sleep, cradling one. How many had heard a childhood secret whispered, how many a bedtime prayer? I thought of my son, A. J., and his collection of stuffed dinosaurs. In this mother’s situation, could I, would I ever have the courage to give such precious mementos away? I gathered the stuffed animals and put them back into the bag, then placed it carefully in our supply room. The next morning I told the oncoming crew about our new supply of cuddlies.

The days are getting shorter again, the nights colder, and the holidays are approaching. It’s been almost a year since that mom gave us her unique gift. I haven’t spoken to her since. She hasn’t stopped by or called. But if she does, I know exactly what I’m going to tell her.

I’ll tell her about the nine-year-old little girl whose house burned. She never let go of that gray hippopotamus. Or the ten-year-old whose leg was shattered in three places after being thrown from a horse. At first he didn’t want the brown and white beagle, but five minutes later was clutching it tightly against his chest. And the snow-white teddy bear we gave the five-year-old with a 104-degree fever. We named it Fritz, and it made a sick little boy smile.

Those are only the stories I know. There are many I haven’t heard and probably never will. I know this: With each stuffed animal there is a special story made possible by a mother’s gift of love. A tale of adversity, of pain and fear, interwoven with a strand of comfort only a stuffed animal could bring. For each toy a woman’s son once cradled, there is now a rainbow in another family’s storm. Could there be a more perfect way to chisel your child’s legacy on the walls of history?

Aaron Espy

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