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Last weekend was my once-yearly trek to the EMS conference in the boondocks. Last year I learned to birth a robotic baby, this year’s highlight was watching my good friend Jay, who 6 years ago was battling cancer, stand up strong and confident and present on professionalism in fire and EMS services.

Let me tell you a little bit about my friend Jay. He is my ex-husband’s best friend (they grew up together and have the war stories to prove it) and I met Jay and his family about 10 years ago. He is now a paid firefighter/paramedic in Fort Myers, Florida and teaches at the local fire academy and the high school votech program. He was diagnosed in October 2005 with Burkitt’s type non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a blood disease so rare that only about 100 people are diagnosed each year. Jay, his loving wife Rhonda, and their six wonderful children fought the disease for over a year.  I have learned a lot from Jay – how to deal with the hand that your dealt no matter how unfair it is, how your attitude can effect the way your battle goes, how important it is to be courageous, how good people will receive good support. Quiet dignity and courage are the two best ways I can think of to describe Jay – and I struggle every day to live up to that example.

Jay and Rhonda both have been wonderful to me through the course of our friendship and my divorce. Despite what could be expected in terms of loyalty, they have not walked away from being my friend – like so many others have. They are at the end of the phone line or the Facebook message when I need them. I am grateful for that.

This EMS conference is now one of the most difficult events for me in my post-marriage life. I have to gird my emotional loins [on a side note, what a greatly colorful phrase, just saying] to attend. This conference is one of the few things my ex-husband and I ever did together. The fire service (along with baseball) was one of the few shared interests we had – and so we did things like this as a couple. And this particular conference was and is always filled with our mutual friends and fellow fire/EMS providers. For those of you who aren’t in the fire service, it can tend to be a very tight knit, close community. Which, when the shit hits the fan, is the best thing in the world – you know that it is your friends and pseudo-family members who are going to come to your aid. But, when your life has fallen apart, it also means that they are ALL going to know about it – and when your ex is also a beloved member of that same pseudo-family, it creates an abondanza of awkard moments. None of your mutual friends want to refer to The Breakup, yet they all know (or think they know) what really happened.

The flashbacks are staggering, those moments when you time travel back to happier days, when you can forget that things have changed. When you run into an old friend who doesn’t know you’ve divorced or you come out of a class and want to share your new knowledge with your life partner. When you go through your skills evaluations and want to celebrate your successes with your husband like you used to. I know that I’m not the first to experience this – those moments of forgetfulness are probably pretty common for anyone who has suffered a loss – but they still twist the knife of grief. I am haunted by the ghosts of lost friends, sad memories, and a firm place in the support system of the local EMS community – no longer can I consider myself a full member of the team because I have lost half of who I was. And the ghost of the Ex lurks around every corner, waiting to slam into me – will he be there? Will he come to the conference and will he bring his new woman? Rationally, you ask yourself – why do you worry if he appears or what he does? Yet emotionally you worry at every moment about the ghosts of him will come out to haunt your present.

So this year’s conference, with Jay as one of the keynote speakers, was one of the most difficult yet. I adore Jay – see the above description – but I also can’t ignore the fact that he is one of my ex-husband’s best friends and has been for over 30 years. How to greet a good friend who, understandably, has loyalties to the man who destroyed my life? How to face a friend who has probably heard every bad thing that my ex can construct about me? How to look in that friend’s eyes and not beg for forgiveness for not having been good enough for his buddy?

The good news is that I learned a lot at the conference. Not just the practical skills-based knowledge on pharmacology and airway management or the new technology for battling ‘dirty war’, not just the steps for a good radio consult with the trauma center or about the protocol updates in Maryland EMS. I learned that I am truly a different person now than I was before. I am damaged goods, yes, but I am also able to stand straight and hold my head high. to ignore the whispers of gossip and to make jokes about the bumpy road I’ve travelled. I am not better for the experiences of the last 2 years – but at least I am stronger.

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Thanksgiving is one of those great holidays in the American calendar – all you can eat, togetherness with family and friends, the Macy’s parade, and an excuse to eat a bazillion starch-filled calories. Anyone who knows me knows that the holidays are my absolute favorite time of year! And, this year, I wanted to take a moment to overlook some of the less-appealing aspects of the last few years and remind myself of ALL of the wonderful things that the Lord has given to me and to share that gratitude and thanksgiving with my friends.

So, here are 20 things I am thankful for this year:

1) my parents and brother, who support me, love me, and protect me – they are the 3 people that I admire most in this world and without them I wouldn’t be who I am today

2) four wonderful “babies” who keep me company, snuggle with me, and make me laugh – God doesn’t care that my children are four-legged and furry, right?

2) amazing “sisters”  and friends who are behind me and support me and listen to me whenever I need them, who make me laugh and cry with me, who adopt me into their families, who accept my quirky ways, and without whom I couldn’t survive

3) my guy friends who teach me new things and remind me not to take myself (or life) too seriously

4) a backbone (recently refound after a long absence) that has given me the strength to survive and hold my head up

5) new friends and new hobbies that provide a sense of adventure, a spirit of renewal and rebuilding, and the thrill of life going on

6) my health – it’s been an interesting last 2 months but I am healed, strong, and hopefully on the road to a whole new healthy me

7) a wonderful nirvana called Sprucelands, that saved my life, taught me about the person I wanted to be, and gave me some wonderful lifelong memories and friends – you know it’s a truly special place when, even after almost 20 years, I still include it on my list of God-given gifts!

8 ) a job that I truly love with people that are not only co-workers but good friends – every day is a new adventure in which I am surrounded by caring professionals and fantastic patients and clients
9) a love of travelling that has taken me all over the world and taught me to be accepting and tolerant of a variety of different cultures, ethnicities, and ideologies

10) self-respect  – underappreciated though it may be, I am FINALLY proud to be a good, decent person who has resisted the easy temptations of petty revenge, angry bitterness, and hateful attitudes

11) an open mind, eager to learn and experience new things

12) a sense of unique individuality – when you’re a teenager and a young adult, you don’t appreciate how valuable it is to be your own person but now I realize the gift I’ve been given in being my own special person

13) the beauty of nature around me – green grass, sunny days, snowstorms, sunsets, thunder, hurricane rains, and the bloonms on shrubs, trees, and flowers – we are truly blessed by the world around us

14) the faith to know that God and his army of angels (including some very special grandparents, a wonderful lady named Liz, and the dearly-missed “Curly”) are watching over me and my loved ones

15) a brain in my head – I look around and see so many women who think that their only value and worth is being pretty and dumb – and I am SO glad that I can be an intelligent, strong, independently-minded female in a world that still tries to teach us to be silent and subservient!

16) that I have been brave enough get out of bed every morning and face some tough times and some hard decisions

17) food on my table – there are so many people in the world who can’t have 3 regular meals a day, so I am thankful for easy, affordable, available food supplies (what can I say, fat girl likes to eat!)

18) the brotherhood of the fire department – although they make me want to drink heavily sometimes, I know those guys would be there in a heartbeat to help me if I called

19) a heart full of love – no matter what has happened to me in the past and may happen to me in the future, I have a lot of love to share

20) laughter and tears – two of the most important things a human needs to survive this crazy journey called life

So now that I’ve shared mine, what are the things that YOU are thankful for this Thanksgiving?

My dear friends and faithful readers, I say a prayer of Thanksgiving for all of you on this most important day. Without all of you, the world would be a grayer place. Thank you for the sunshine you bring!

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 So I was driving home from work a few weeks ago and saw this simple statement written on a sign board for one of the more….uh…fundamentalist churches here in Easton. And, while I generally don’t agree with the statements this particular church posts (don’t start sending me hate mail, I just don’t agree with some of their beliefs), this particular statement really got me thinking.

I admit that, for the past several weeks, I have been a tidbit grouchy. Perhaps its the keen sense of loss and grief I feel for the act of eating and enjoying a meal, perhaps it was the surgical experience of having my guts scrambled. Perhaps its the culmination of the past several years of stress, or maybe it was just because I have bottled up too much anxiety lately and it’s starting to manifest. Regardless of the reason, I have been grouchy and grumpy.

But this sign gives me a sharp dose of reality. I should be grateful for the wonderful things and people I have in my life. I have my health (came through the surgery with flying colors, according to the surgeon this week), I have a roof over my head (at least for the time being), I have family and friends near and far, I have a strong fire department family. I have a job that I love and which challenges me daily and I have fantastic, caring coworkers. I have a strong brain and a stronger character (hence why I have lived the last 2 years without one single spiteful action – yay me!). I have hobbies and activities that give me an outlet for stress. I have food in my pantry (which someday I’ll get to eat again) and I have heat in the winter and A/C in the summer. I have a wide and diverse group of people that I truly care about.  I have four-legged furry children who love me unconditionally. What amazing things do you have in your life to be grateful for? What people can cheer you up, make you laugh, help you out, cry with you, and love you always? What blessings have YOU been given?

November means Thanksgiving and I think too often we forget the origins of the holiday – thanks giving! So instead of grumbling and being grouchy this month, I think I’ll choose the “humbly grateful” option. Thank you Lord for giving me life, friends, family and love. Thank you Father for giving me a life that is filled with laughs and lessons. Thank you God for the challenges and obstacles you have given me – it has made me stronger, wiser, and more tolerant. I am truly grateful and humbled by the blessings you have given to me.

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In looking up some statistics and photos for my September 11th musings, I stumbled upon the biographies of a man that I have come to develop a very strong admiration for. I don’t know how, in the massive media coverage following the attacks, I managed to miss hearing the buzz about this now-iconic figure: Father Mychal Judge, chaplain of the Fire Department of New York. I

Father Mychal Judge

want to share with you a little more about what I have discovered of this man in the last few weeks; I think this extraordinary human being needs a small extra bit of eulogizing.

Father Judge, ordained as a Catholic priest and Franciscan monk in 1961, grew up in Brooklyn the son of two Irish immigrants. Serving in various parishes around the northeast, Father Judge took special interested in the plight of the homeless in the larger cities. Having become an alcoholic in the 1970s and admitting his addiction in

1978, Father Judge knew the struggles that the homeless and addicted faced every day. He also spent quite a bit of time ministering to the gay/lesbian population and those suffering from AIDS; following his death a few of his friends and associates revealed that he identified himself as gay, as a matter of orientation and identity and not as a matter of practice since he was a celibate priest. Very wisely (in my opinion), he asked of Rome’s anti-gay teachings, ” “Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?!”.  Ever the champion of the underdog, Father Judge specifically reached out to those that most needed his love and kindness!

In 1992, Father Judge was appointed chaplain of the FDNY. As chaplain, he offered encouragement, prayers, and spiritual interventions at fires, rescues, and hospitals. He counseled firemen and their families, performed weddings, funerals, baptisms, and hospital visits for ‘his’ firefighters. He truly was accepted as one of the FDNY’s own; his Irish roots (and work to bring peace to Ireland) and his loving, jovial charisma made him a natural fit in the firehouses around the city. As biographer Mychal McNichols noted, “His whole ministry was about love. Mychal loved the fire department and they loved him.” To say that the most stalwart and macho group of firemen in the world loved him and accepted him, with all of his liberal social teachings, is surely a remarkable testament to the kind soul that he was! As Father Judge once said, “The firefighters ask me to bless them. But the truth is I feel blessed by them.”

Father Judge was a dyed-in-the-wool first responder. In his eulogy of Father Judge, Father Michael Duffy, OFM remembered that  “…he loved to be where the action was. If he heard a fire engine or a police car, any  news, he’d be off. He loved to be where there was a crisis, so he could insert  God in what was going on. That was his way of doing things.”  At his last official mass at FDNY Engine 73/ Ladder 42 (Bronx) on September 10, 2001, Father Judge gave the following homily:

You do what God has called you to do. You get on that rig, you go out and do the job. No
matter how big the call, no matter how small, you have no idea of what God is
calling you to, but God needs you. He needs me. He needs all of us.
God needs us to keep supporting each other, to be kind to each other, to love each other…

We love this job, we all do. What a blessing it is! It’s a difficult, difficult job, but God calls you to do
it
, and indeed, He gives you a love for it so that a difficult job will be well done.

In an interview in 1992, Father Judge rhetorically asked “I wonder what my last hour will be. Will it be trying to help someone, trying to save a life?” Little did he know the thousands of lives he would touch in the final moments of his life. Early on that bright morning of September 11, 2001, he rushed from the friary at Saint Francis of Assisi Church to the scene of the World Trade Center attacks. He was among many pastors, priests, and rabbis that had run to the aid of the people pouring into the streets – but he knew that his first priorities were his firefighters. Video of some his last moments (purpotedly shot by documentary filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet) show him praying fervently before he headed inside the building to minister to injured firemen and administering the Sacrament of the Sick and Last  Rites.

As Father Judge rushed into the North Tower with firefighters, Mayor Rudy Giuliani has stated that he called out, “Father Mike, pray for us!” and that Father Mychal responded, “I always do! I always pray for you!” Because of his official status with the fire department, he was the only clergy allowed inside the building and was surrounded by people needing help as death rained down around them. According to biographers Ford & Daly, when commanders gave orders to evacuate the building, he refused to abandon the hundreds of firefighters still trapped inside saying, “My work here is not finished.” Between 9:50 and 9:55 am, Father Judge climbed up to the mezzanine attempting to reach some injured firefighters. Seeing dozens of jumpers crashing onto the plaza outside, he is reported to have cried out fervently and repeatedly, Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!”

Father Mychal Judge was struck and killed at 9:59 AM when the South Tower collapsed and sent concrete flying through the North Tower lobby at speeds of over 100mph. He is officially listed as Victim 0001 of the September 11th attacks – #1 only because his was the first body recovered and autopsied (the first victims, in reality, were the passengers and crews of the airplanes and the occupants of the buildings).

What happened next was truly an amazing human moment on that day of horror. A NYPD lieutenant, digging himself out of the rubble, found Judge’s body and assisted by two firemen and two civilian bystanders carried it out of the North Tower lobby to nearby St. Peter’s Church. This remarkable and touching event was captured in the documentary film 9/11 (author’s note: truly one of the best documentaries ever made, everyone should see it in order to truly grasp that historic day)  and on film by Reuters photographer Shannon Stapleton. This photo is one of the most disturbing and iconic images to come out of the tragedies of 9/11. Father Judge’s ashen lifeless face stands in stark contrast to the lieutenant, firefighters, and bystanders who are steadfast in their mission to carry his body to safety.

As Father Duffy said in his eulogy, “The firemen took his body and because they respected and loved him so much, they  didn’t want to leave it in the street. They quickly carried it into a church and  not just left it in the vestibule, they went up the center aisle. They put the  body in front of the altar. They covered it with a sheet. And on the sheet, they  placed his stole and his fire badge. And then they knelt down and they thanked  God. And then they rushed back to continue their work.”

Father Judge’s funeral was held on September 15, 2001 and was attended by over 3,000 mourners. Former President Clinton, in attendance at the funeral, said that Judge’s death was “a special loss. We should lift his life up as an example of what has to prevail … We have to be more like Father Mike than the people who killed him.”

This amazing human being is now being considered for sainthood and I must say that, even though I’m not Catholic, I would support this wholeheartedly.  And while he may never pass the various tests to enter the Catholic canon of saints, I believe that wonderful man is looking down from Heaven to continue protecting his firefighters and his congregants. He has, in my Protestant mind, already fulfilled his obligations. I cannot think of more saintly acts than to spend your life in servitude to the human race and to lay down your life in order to help them find spiritual peace in the last moments. Rest in peace, Father Judge, and thank you for teaching us about true love and absolute service for others!

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So, in addition to the freak earthquake that struck our area earlier in the week, the big news in our area of the world is the imminent arrival of Hurricane Irene. Having grown up outside of Buffalo, I am perfectly prepared for snow up to my ass and ice storms that coat the world with a 3″ layer of ice. I can even handle freak thunderstorms and high winds. But hurricanes were not, until I moved to Maryland, a part of my disaster repertoire.

My first hurricane was Hurricane Isabel in 2003. I was scared witless, as the news and media made it seem like the day of armageddon was coming. I didn’t want to stay in my apartment by myself, waiting for death, so I arranged to take my cat down to the then-boyfriend’s house and then spend the day with him at his volunteer firehouse answering rescue calls. While this seemed, at the time, to be no big deal it did cause some harassment from the guys in my firehouse for having abandoned our department and for having been a big old chicken and yada yada yada. Oh well, I was scared, dudes, get over it!

Anyway, the storm itself didn’t really harm our area badly – but the tidal surge did! I spent the whole day after the storm riding around in a john boat picking up elderly folks and people stranded by the waters which had overtaken the river and creek banks and come right into their homes. Several of the people we rescued that day also made a point of rescuing their pets (and just so you know, cats don’t like boat rides). But I had to tip my hat to those folks for making sure that their four-legged friends were safe.

At the end of that day, I had never been so wet, so exhausted, and so fulfilled in my entire life. That experience made me so proud to be a volunteer, so thrilled to be able to help people who really needed help! That, I think, was the first time that I realized I could make a difference, even a small one, in someone else’s life – that I was, even for a brief moment, important to someone. And to have shared that experience with my fire department brothers – it was an experience beyond explanation.

So now we are faced with another hurricane. This lovely weather lady, named Irene, is heading our way with what weather.com is calling an ‘extreme’ threat. It seems fitting to me, somehow, that I am forced to weather another storm in my life. The last year and a half has been so utterly turbulent – a hurricane will almost seem anti-climactic! This time, though, I no longer have fear – instead I have faith, family, friends, and furry four-leggeds for company. I will stay with the dog and the cats as long as I can and then, when things get bad, I will head to the firehouse – MY firehouse – and do what I can to help. I don’t need a boyfriend to protect me, I don’t need a husband to shelter me. I am on my own two feet this time and, as I have discovered in the past year, I can stand alone and weather any storm!

So, to all of my friends in coastal areas, please be safe and have faith.

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Today, as all of my American friends know, is July 4th, Independence Day. The day that celebrates the first Americans declaration of freedom and independence from England. A day for family and friends, fireworks and fired-up grills, beers and burgers, celebration and restoration. We honor the brave and noble men and women in our past and present who have struggled to keep American freedom protected. And we rejoice that we live in the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Days like today are especially difficult for me, partly because I am so far away from my family and partly because I am reminded of what I have lost. I no longer have someone to share holidays with. I wake up in bed with three purring, furry friends instead of a husband. I have to travel 8 hours for a hug from my mom and the only memories I have of my current hometown are tightly bound to memories of my ex-husband.  Luckily I have my fire department brotherhood that helps to fill the holes in my life. They invite me to parties, share their families, and allow me to pretend, for just a little while, that my life is still normal. And they let me serve the department and to do what I can to help others. They have given me a wide circle of friends that have supported me for the last year.

So today is a day to declare my independence! To remind myself how brave it was to move to a place far from the support of my family and to have planted roots deep enough to weather the storm! To celebrate that I have survived the shattered marriage and have slowly begun to rebuild my heart! To declare that I am free, as a woman and an American, to wear pants, cuss, vote, and otherwise live my life how I choose! To rejoice that I’ve come a long way, baby! For every firework tonight, I am going to send up a prayer of thanks for those hardships I have survived, those tears I have shed, and those lessons I’ve learned. And I think I’m going to use those sparkling lights to make some new dreams…

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One of the guys in the firehouse  has implied that I am a Man-Hater. In fact, he was nervous allowing me to be alone with his girlfriend (who herself is divorced) for a couple of glasses of wine for fear that I would turn her into a Man-Hater too. I am so saddened by this implication because, honestly, I truly do love men. Many of my best friends are of the male persuasion and I adore the  unique perspective they have on life.

I tried to explain to my friend that I do NOT hate all men in general – maybe just one. And I’m not even sure I can hate him – my ex has truly shown himself as an AssHat as a husband – but I have a tremendous amount of respect for him as a firefighter and paramedic. It’s very hard to hate someone you admire. But in thinking about being accused of being a Man-Hater, it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, “Runaway Bride.” In the opening scenes of the movie, a cynical male columnist writes this about us women:

Today is a day of profound introspection. I have been accused of using this column to direct bitter diatribes at the opposite sex. This uncomfortable accusation has plunged me into at least a minute of serious reflection, from which I have emerged with the conclusion that, yes, I traffic in female stereotypes. But how can one blame me when every time I step out my front door, I meet fresh proof that the female archetypes are alive and well. The mother, the virgin, the whore, the crone. They’re elbowing you in the subway, stealing your cabs, and overwhelming you with perfume in elevators. But perhaps in fairness to the fairer sex, I do need to broaden my horizon and add some new goddesses to the pantheon. I would like to nominate for deity the cheerleader, the coed – and the man-eater, the last of which concerns me most today. In ancient Greece, this fearsome female was known as Erinys, the devouring death goddess. In India, she is Kali, who likes to devour her boyfriend Shiva’s entrails while her yoni devours his dot, dot, dot… never mind. In Indonesia, the bloody-jawed man-eater is called Ragma.  You notice these are all countries without cable. And in Hale, Maryland, where she helps run the family hardware store, she is known as Miss Maggie Carpenter…

How ironic that, since my ex has accused me of using this blog to display my bitterness and my friends think I have gone off men altogether, I am labeled a Man-Hater. I guess I am in good company, though, as you look at “Runaway Bride’s” researched list of mythological divinities that have paved the way for me. I am certainly, according to this list, not the first woman to be frustrated beyond belief by the actions of the opposite sex. And, as many of you reading this are probably female, you can understand the things that guys do that make us crazy…

But, as I said before, I really am NOT a Man-Hater. I would hope my guy friends could testify that I pride myself on being “just one of the guys.” I depend on my men to keep me grounded and to help me to let go of grudges, to not allow emotions to get in the way of reason, and to be a little selfish sometimes. My guys are the balance to the estrogen of my girlfriends and I need them to help me not take life so seriously, to laugh at the absurd, and to relax a little more. I rely on them to teach me about beer, baseball, fart humor, and the genius of Mel Brooks movies.

So, I am proclaiming here and now (are you listening, Chris?) I am NOT a Man-Hater! I will not be turning into Kali and devouring your entrails or going postal on your guyness. My guy friends are wonderfully unique creatures totally different from my girly self and I am truly blessed to have them to keep me straight and to keep me laughing!

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