Updated: May 1, 2012 8:18AM
The year I lived across the street from a busy, urban fire station taught me several things, not all of them good. For example, the ability to sleep through the racket of several apocalypses per night seemed a useful skill, but when fatherhood arrived and infants lived in my home, it quickly morphed into a character defect.
Perhaps the most salutary thing those frequent sirens etched on my soul is the sense that every time one hears their wail, some person’s life, or a whole family’s, won’t be the same, at least for a while, and maybe ever. Now that most any noise disturbs my sleep, whether a dripping faucet in the next room or an ambulance far across town, I find myself wondering in the stillness before sleep returns, “Who waits in the smoke for firemen, or for the police amid some wreckage? Who will win the race to that home, the paramedics or the angel of death?”
Growing up in a pastor’s home made the ring of a telephone, especially if it came after dark, as alarming as any siren. My father would answer and mostly listen. Afterward, he and my mother would speak quietly, often in German so we children couldn’t understand. Sometimes Dad then picked up his car keys and left. We wouldn’t see him again until breakfast, where the quiet way he stared into his cereal told us that somewhere in our little town, darkness deeper than nightfall had descended on some nearby family.
Behind every face we encounter, all day every day, whether at work or on the street or even in places of worship, a story lurks. Likely as not, the tales if told would hold a bucket of secret tears, carry the distinctive scents of fear or despair, or echo with hollow words that tell of a life in which purpose or direction has slipped away.
Very few of these include sirens or late-night emergency calls. Even the army of counselors among us who get paid to listen to our stories and help us sort through their broken shards in search of meaning don’t hear but a small fraction of what cries out silently from the vast host of human hearts on any given day. Mostly, folks find ways to keep going, morning by morning tackling life all over again, making their corner of the world function as best they can.
Yes, we know days and weeks filled with joy, gratitude, love and abundance, but even in those times a mother is only as happy as her saddest child. Among true friends, when one has reason to weep, the rest taste salt no matter how brightly heaven smiles.
On our best days, we remember that we’re all made of the same frail stuff, and without being asked to do so we absolve the rude, inattentive, preoccupied grumblers and bumblers who cross paths, if not swords, with us. After all, tomorrow we may need their forgiveness.
We must do something, no doubt, about health care policy, indebtedness, national security, the environment, and other issues that monopolize the headlines most days. Too often, however, these matters become distractions. Not one of them, nor all of them together, can match the gravity of the quiet dramas of friendship, compassion and forgiveness that play out close by among those whose eyes meet ours day after day.
Stories that never make the news and don’t involve sirens tell how we pursue our truest callings and report our most profound successes. In the words a friend sent this week, “We’re all just walking each other home.”