It was the first few minutes of the Last Alarm funeral service at SeaGate Centre that were most moving. The solemnity. The gravity. The quiet.
For two hours or so, a convention hall was converted into a holy place. A place doesn’t need to be a cathedral or have stained glass to be holy.
The holiness was not in the words, but in the silence, the brotherhood of blue standing at attention, the American flag hanging above the stage, the drum beating, the single bagpipe disappearing into the silent crowd, the tolling of the bell three times for each man.
I personally believe — no, I believe I know — that James Dickman and Stephen Machcinski are in heaven and very close to God this day. Theirs are the souls of the just. And no harm can come to them.
But the job of those left behind is to mourn, to grieve. And that takes time.
Mayor Mike Collins spoke Thursday night about the hole in all our hearts — the hole that will not heal. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that God keeps the hole, the wound, open, so that we will not forget; so that we keep the memory of the loved one alive; so that we keep the lost one close.
It is said that Pope John Paul II spent two hours a day in prayer in his private chapel and that sometimes the Pope could be heard wailing — crying out to God, arguing with God: “Why?”
You know the questions: Why the Holocaust? Why a boy of 7 with leukemia? Why does a young firefighter, with a baby and a three-year old, die when his life has scarcely begun?
Not everything does happen for a reason. Sometimes life is unfathomable and horrific things happen for no reason at all. Why does a supposedly loving God allow it?
If we are honest, we admit that we don’t know. And we cling to that hole. And to each other.
When I hear a priest tell firefighters, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” I think “How could they not be?” I have to think God wants them to be troubled, and for a while.
What many firefighters feel right now is shock and anger. They are entitled. Why did it happen? It shouldn’t have happened. There is a widow with two babies left behind. And parents, who have outlived their child. Damn this stupidity; this human calamity.
Listening to the speeches at St. Patrick’s Church and SeaGate Centre, what moved me most was the thing offstage — the simple heroism of what these two men did. I wonder if the rest of us can truly understand it; can truly understand what it means to run toward a fire.
I don’t want to think of these guys as saints or Christ figures, but as thoroughly human, brave strapping young men who did what they did because that’s what firemen do. If it had a philosophic base they wouldn’t do it. Their nobility is noble because it was natural. And their lives need no value added. Their lives and deaths are enough. They speak for themselves.
I am encouraged by John Paul’s argument with God. I take heart in Mother Teresa’s bouts with anger and doubt — she kept feeding the hungry and burying AIDS victims and they just kept coming at her. Sometimes she could not pray. Just like some firefighters and their wives cannot pray now.
Grief takes time. It has to work its own way. And that way is rocky and steep — a way that cannot be charted.
In the end it is not the words that resonate, but the wordless punctuations — the sea of blue; the pain on ex-Mayor and Fire Chief Mike Bell’s face; the pipes and drums, some from Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Fort Wayne, Ind.; the mumbled responses to prayers; the silence; the deep and abiding grief.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.
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