Every day, as my husband leaves for his dangerous job on the railroad, I tell him, “Don’t be a hero today, babe.” Railroading is a dangerous job in that workers must jump on and off moving trains, monitor carloads — quite often on the side of mountains, and sometimes, even control entire locomotives with a remote control pack affixed to their bodies.
Railroading is not for the faint of heart. I believe this is precisely why my husband was attracted to the job in the first place. I hate it.
I remind Jamie not to be a hero because he needs reminding. It is his first nature to be a hero. I don’t understand this mentality at all, but him and I? We’re vastly different people.
We are in the backyard having a family dine-out. We do this sometimes. On the off chance that Jamie and I both have the evening off work, we will prepare a feast, set the outdoor dining table, force the kids off their devices and spend some time in our beautiful outdoor space.
As we eat our smoked ribs, the sound of a dirtbike fires up in the back alley. Seconds later, the revving of an engine is replaced with the distinct sound of a crash. Voices that are slurred and frantic fill the space just on the other side of our fence. Jamie and I look at each other for only a split second before he jumps out of his chair and runs to the back gate.
If it were me, I would have just sat there — pretending I hadn’t heard anything. I am a terrible, terrible person like that.
Instead, my husband takes charge immediately. The teenagers from across the alleyway were screwing around in their garage. They had been drinking beer and playing with their bikes. Idiotically, one of them decided to go for a cruise in the back alley and instead crashed directly into a power pole and smashed his head open.
Jamie is telling me to get towels from inside the house. His voice is calm and in charge. He tells the spectators to back up. He begins performing first aid on the kid, checking his vitals, making sure he isn’t paralyzed. He is doing all the things we learn to do in our first aid classes but that most of us forget as soon as we receive our certificate of achievement.
I grab the towels, and he orders me to cradle the guy’s skull to ensure his neck does not move. I do so while holding back the strong urge to puke because this kid’s head is a bloody mess.
The other adults gathered around are just standing there dumbfounded. He has now asked several times that someone call 911.
Predictably, everyone has forgotten how to use their phones.
He’s talking soothingly to the boy while also telling everyone else what to do. All of us are in shock. Currently, there are six teens and four adults in this scene. Only Jamie seems to have a handle on how to deal with this medical emergency properly. I lose so much faith in humanity — including myself — during these tense seconds. Finally, Jamie asks me to take over talking to the boy.
“Just talk soothingly to him,” he says. I try my hardest. My “hardest” is making jokes like, “You have a lovely skull, my friend.” It makes the kid gurgle-laugh.
It is the worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life.
Jamie calls 911 himself, and, thank god; the ambulance is there within minutes. They tell Jamie that his quick thinking and first aid had likely saved the kid’s life or, at least, saved him from a life-long injury.
This was not a one-off experience for my husband.
Before Jamie was a rail conductor, he was a chef. Once, he was catering a dinner at the town offices and was setting up the buffet. It was only him, a prep cook and our little town’s mayor in the large room where the dinner was set to take place.
The mayor, trying to make small talk with Jamie, had just said, “You know, if you work very hard in your life, you could someday be the mayor of a town like me,” speaking to him in a condescending childlike way. It didn’t seem to occur to the mayor that being a ticketed chef was a worthwhile goal to have achieved. That’s what we get for living in oil-loving Alberta.
Jamie was just about to reply with something like, “I’ll take a hard pass on that,” when something distracted him.
An elderly woman, walking through the foyer, slipped on some water that had been tracked in from outdoors. She went down hard, and as soon as Jamie saw, he knew that she likely had broken a hip. Without hesitation, he ran to her, again jumping into first aid and stabilizing her, taking control of a situation when no one else would.
He barked at the mayor to call 911. In shock, the mayor stood there, and it took another three requests for someone to call for medical help.
When Jamie was 16 and a good-for-nothing rebel teen, he witnessed a woman dismember her thumb by slipping on a patch of ice while pushing her heavy trash can to the curb. The sharp edge of the bin took the top of her thumb right off.
Jamie found the thumb-top in the snow, packed it with ice, and helped get the lady to the proper emergency services.
He never found out what became of the lady and her lost thumb but he did do everything in his power to help her in the moment.
Fight or flight is the real deal, man. I know for a fact that I am a flight person. I run away from everything. I am forever terrified of scary life moments. I fear that by involving myself in a crisis, I will only make it worse with ill-timed nervous joking and not properly remembering my first aid training.
I’ve always known this about myself. From the time I was young and witnessed my grandmother speeding up to our townhouse — cupped in her hand was a baby bird on the brink of death. She then proceeded to wash the bird in my paddling pool (which I was in at the time, gross) and all I could think was, “Ewww she’s touching a bird!”
I knew then I was never destined to be a hero. It’s not in my bones.
People like my grandmother and my husband, though? They are real-life superheroes, and I like to think that I can glean a little satisfaction simply by being in such proximity to them.
Yesterday was a rough one in the Brown household. As with every appliance we’ve come into contact with lately, we found ourselves trying to fix a necessary kitchen apparatus once again.
Last month it was our refrigerator; this month, it’s the kitchen sink. “This faucet is fucked!” Jamie bellowed as the teeming rage threatened to overtake him. He was scrunched up under the sink, trying to remove the nut that would allow us to replace the sink’s faucet.
The thing was so corroded it simply wasn’t budging.
I could understand the frustration. We’ve been hauling water from the bathroom tub to do dishes for days now. It seems like every week, we have to do a DIY project in the house to maintain a livable home. It’s frustrating because, on our limited budget, these projects take away from the possibility of ever going on a vacation or owning anything that we didn’t acquire by dumpster diving in the cover of darkness.
It’s life, I tell myself. And gently, as Jamie screams into the abyss of the kitchen sink’s underside, I say the same thing to him.
Then he looks at me with eyes that are so kind and so sad and says, “I’m sorry that we have to deal with this shit. I want to give you everything, but I feel like I’m always failing.”
My heart crinkles in at the sides as soon as my brain registers the words he’s saying. He doesn’t think he’s enough for me? Does he think I could ever expect more from him? This man, who I’ve thought of as a superhero for our entire relationship, feels inadequate?
But isn’t that the way it always goes? The true heroes, the people who are not like me and my boastful ways, are always the most humble. They can’t see the good they put into this world because they are too busy being so damn good.
I crawl under the sink beside my husband and kiss his lips in this dingy moist sink-cave we now inhabit. I don’t know what to say to tell him that he is wrong. I don’t know how to make him believe that he is the most phenomenal spouse anyone could ever ask for. I don’t know what to say because the feeling is too big to squeeze into words.
So instead, I hold the flashlight up to the problem and give his cheek another lingering kiss.
“Let’s figure this out together, babe.”
I may be a flight person, but some problems are just too big to run away from.
*First published on Medium.com