September 7, 2006

A Harrowing Weekend

It was the kind of message I always dread getting on my pager: HOUSE FULLY ENGULFED FIRE 2 CHILDREN TRAPPED UPSTAIRS. Many such messages, based on the very first information, are inaccurate. Sadly, in this case, it was all too true. When I arrived at 5:30 a.m. flames were devouring the two-story home. Time became elastic as it will do, and it seemed like a very long time before the fire was out and the searchers headed in.

Less than 48 hours earlier, on a Saturday morning, I attended the funeral of a state trooper from the local post who had died from injuries sustained in an on-duty automobile accident. It was, in the vernacular of some parts of the South, a homegoing, a celebration of the trooper’s life. In this case there was no need for eulogies that colored in the man’s good qualities while leaving the bad in empty outline. This trooper was a true man of God, a man who unashamedly lived his faith.

The next day, Sunday morning, a priest friend of mine spoke about masks. More specifically about the church being a place where we can take down our masks and reveal our selves. We cannot hide, God knows our face. In the arms of the church we find consolation. We can find peace when there is no understanding. The trooper’s funeral was not sad. Here was a man who lived a good life with no regrets, a man who had his reward, a man who had had no need to hide behind a mask. But in the funeral were many masks. Masks of stoicism, men and women in uniform uniformly resigned to not let themselves go out this way, to be more alert, more careful, to go home at the end of their shift. One of the best things about law enforcement is the camaraderie, the very real sense of brotherhood, the thin blue line. I counted at least three hundred peace officers at the funeral, many of them had never met the trooper, but all were his brothers in arms.

Back to Monday morning, back to the house fire. Standing there looking at the home burnt to the foundation and still smoking, with two young brothers in body bags on the front lawn, we were all unmasked. For a few quiet minutes we let ourselves be human, let ourselves mourn. Stripped down to what we all are, fathers, uncles and sons, silent sentinels in the acrid air.

I would argue that some masks, at least in the short term, are necessary. Not to hide behind, but just to keep going, just to get home. We put our masks back on. We became what we do. But later, for me it was when I finally went to bed, the mask fell off and tears flowed. The priest put it this way, “There is nothing wrong with a mask from time to time so that all your emotions aren’t out front all the time. There is nothing wrong with seeming like you have your act together for the sake of another. There is something wrong with believing the lie. There is something wrong with thinking you are the only one wearing that mask. There is something wrong with not letting God in to that cesspool of old junk you carry around. There is something wrong with missing the real healing God has for you because you have to act like you’ve got your act together.”

With the masks off the healing began. But we are the fortunate ones, left with only macabre memories that will slowly fade but never leave. What about the families? They’re left with a hole they will always feel but never fill. I pray they find peace.

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