Just last week I attended a funeral for our former fire chief, Allen Irvin. When I first met the Chief, he was very wary of me, a newcomer in town. It took everything I had to win him over and I knew that I had succeeded on the day he saw me heading his way and said, “Here comes trouble.” That would be the phrase he’d use each time we’d meet. He was a cantankerous man, who thought his facial expressions never gave him away….but the sparkle in his eyes betrayed him.
His service was lovely and for the first time in my life, I drove in a processional to the gravesite. Fire trucks, rescue trucks, police cars led the way. At each intersection, police held back traffic as what seemed like miles and miles of cars weaved our way to the cemetery. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Several days after, I was conversing with one of our local first responders and I mentioned my awe at the processional. Quietly, the man looked at me and said, “Fifty. I’ve been in about fifty.” I suppose the look on my face showed my lack of comprehension, so he went on. “I worked in New York on 9/11. So I’ve been to about 50 of those processionals.” And he shared with me two memories of two dear friends and co-workers he had lost — one, whose remains were found weeks after the tragedy and the other, whose remains have never been found. I know now that I couldn’t possibly have said anything in that conversation that conveyed my emotions.
Because today, my emotions gave way.
Our Senior Center hosted a brunch today for our local first responders. They had a program for them and invited me to speak. Because I had another event at the same time, I came during the brunch and interrupted the table conversations to speak to the group. Surrounded by both seniors and first responders, I told the story of the fifty processionals. And suddenly, looking around the room at the professionals I have come to admire and respect and love, the story hit home and for the first time in my mayoral career, I cried in front of a crowd.
You see, I’ve been to a practice fire. I’ve been to a random shooter drill. I’ve been part of exhibits to show how medics can get people out of car wrecks fast. Most importantly, I’ve seen how the people who have these jobs look out for not only our community, but for each other. They are all deeply connected and it is a privilege to watch. An honor.
I’m embarrassed that I cried. Because the tears surprised me more than they surprised the audience. I simply cannot fathom the pain of 9/11 for our first responders, and I know that each year, the pain cannot possibly lessen.
And while I apologized for my tears, I cannot apologize for my emotions. Because 9/11 is too important. Because those who serve us with compassion and skill are too important. Because I believe, as we say each year that we move further and further from that event, we must never forget.