“By 8:30 a.m. on a September morning in Los Angeles, the temperature was already reaching an uncomfortable level. I was seated in the passenger seat of my mom’s car and the black leather beneath me was serving as a reminder that cooler weather was nowhere in sight.
We were stopped at a red light and the car was silent aside from the monotonous ticking of the turn signal.
My phone was lying in my lap, ready to receive a call or a text message from my husband. He had been gone for two days assisting firefighting efforts on the Canyon Fire a couple hours north from home.
I glanced down at my phone when I noticed an unfamiliar number was calling me. I ignored it. I assumed if it were important, the caller would leave a message. And sure enough, a message was left.
It was the Chief of our fire department. His message was brief and without details; he only said that he would try again to reach me.
I called back the number that I previously ignored. I can still perfectly hear his voice. But I can only remember fragments of what he said.
‘Ryan was assigned to the Canyon Fire…there was an accident with the water tender…he was killed.’
I don’t know if I screamed. I remember yelling, ‘What am I going to tell my kids??’ I was bent over in the passenger seat of the car. My body was folded in half. I felt my mom’s hand on my shoulder. I could hear her voice, but I had no clue what she was saying.
My mom immediately headed back to the freeway to take me home.
It was quiet again.
Instead of the monotonous sound of the turn signal, it was my voice. In whispers I repeated to myself, ‘This isn’t real. He’s coming home. He has to come home.’
Ryan and I began dating in our sophomore year of high school. I was 15 years old when I met this shy, blonde haired, blue-eyed boy. He barely spoke a word to me, but less than two weeks after meeting he asked me to be his girlfriend.
And now here we were: almost 22 years later, 16 years of marriage with two children, a house and a dog.
I didn’t know life without Ryan. How was I supposed to believe he wasn’t coming home?
When we rounded the corner onto my street, I saw a fire department vehicle parked in front of my home. In the driveway stood a Chaplain of the department and my father.
My voice barely whispered, ‘Oh my God…’
I doubled over. I couldn’t lift my arms. My head felt heavy as it rested against my knees. I felt the hot air hitting my body. My dad opened the passenger door and immediately covered me. I could hear his voice, he was sobbing. I felt the moisture of his tears against my cheek. I couldn’t unbuckle my seatbelt. My dad must’ve done that for me. My weak legs climbed out of the car.
I approached the very tall, soft-faced Chaplain. He had the saddest eyes I had ever seen.
One by one, more cars appeared in my driveway and parked on the street. In numbers were fire Captains and Chiefs entering my home, their condolences beginning to sound like a standard greeting.
The Fire Chief was suddenly on my doorstep. He was repeatedly apologizing for having to tell me over the phone, ‘…but I needed to get to you before you heard about it somewhere else.’
I was advised by Chiefs to leave my children at school. It was determined best to let them finish their day while more people arrived to inform me about what would take place over the next 48 hours.
No sooner had I been directed to leave my children at school when I was approached outside by another firefighter.
‘Does your daughter have a phone?’
‘Then you need to go to the school right now and get her. It’s already in the news. His name and everything.’
Panic swept over my body. I pulled my phone out of my pocket. My phone was flooded with text messages, missed phone calls and voicemails. I had notifications in every social media outlet. I opened one of the social media apps and sure enough, there he was.
His handsome face. His smile. His name.
Article after article was about the firefighter who died in a rollover accident on his way to fight a fire. Post after post was about the department mourning the loss of their comrade. Word after word was about the man who was supposed to come home to his wife and his children. Photo upon photo was the man I call my husband.
I was immediately taken to the schools of my children. I entered the office, followed by an entourage of sadness.
‘I need to get my daughter.’
I stood in the office, staring through the window, watching and waiting for her to appear. I saw her blonde hair bouncing with each step, a smile upon her face as the principal greeted her.
As soon as she entered the office, she stopped.
‘Mommy, what’s wrong?’
I grabbed her hand and led her outside. There, in front of her school, I held her face in my hands and brought her eyes to mine. I took a deep breath and allowed our eyes to search each other. I knew I had to say it.
In between shallow breaths, I whispered to my 12-year-old daughter, ‘Baby, there was an accident. Daddy died this morning.’
Her beautiful blue eyes were drowning in the tears that hadn’t fallen yet.
I grabbed her and pulled her into me, holding her head against my chest as the world around us melted away.
From there, we traveled to the school of my 11-year-old son. Again, I entered the office with an army of people behind me.
‘I need to call for my son.’
I waited for him outside, expecting him to appear to my right. But instead, he surprised me on my left when I heard his voice, ‘Mommy, why is there a fire car here?’
Just as I did with my daughter, I cupped his small face in my hands and met his gaze. We stared at each other for a moment before I delivered the same exact words to him.
He looked past me at the county vehicle parked in the distance. That bright yellow car that once represented safety now acted as a courier of bad news.
I pulled him into me, but he refused my embrace.
‘I’m so sorry, baby,’ the words barely emerged from my mouth.
I placed my hands on his back and started leading him towards the car. The silence in the air was painful. I watched my son stare at the Chief and the Chaplain as we walked past them. They nodded in his direction, acknowledging his presence.
As soon as we were in the car, I turned to face both of my children. They were staring at each other. There were no words.
We seemed to arrive at our house within a matter of seconds. There were more vehicles surrounding my home. My front door was open. There were people scattered all over my property, many people I recognized and several I did not.
In a daze, my children walked towards the front door of our home. As soon as we crossed the threshold, the three of us were separated. It was as if we were caught in a wave that crashed upon us, forcing us to separate. The kids were immediately smothered with hugs and words. Men who never met them but knew their father approached them with forced smiles and gentle handshakes.
The rest of the day was a blur. So many people. So many hugs. Endless tears.
I stepped outside and sat down on the steps leading up to my front door. The sky was crystal clear. The sun was warm on my skin and its glare was causing me to squint. A very gentle breeze was causing the wisps of my hair to stick to my face. It was the kind of day that made you grateful to be alive.
I felt a small presence next to me. It was my son. He sat down next to me, getting as close to me as he possibly could.
We sat still, allowing the sun to melt our arms together.
‘Mama, is Daddy really dead?’
My heart dropped. ‘Yeah, buddy. He is.’
He said nothing. We sat in silence for another minute.
‘His heart will never beat again?’
I was staring at the ground in front of me. ‘No, buddy.’
The only sound was the murmuring of people inside our house and the leaves being rustled by the breeze that once made me grateful to be alive.
Together, we sat. Although inaudible, I had a feeling we were both focusing on the sound of our beating hearts.
That was nearly three years ago. The memory of that day has been deeply engraved into our hearts. The 21st of September sits on our calendar as a reminder of the day our lives changed forever. But there is no darkness surrounding that day. That square on the calendar represents the day our hero became everyone else’s hero. It represents the day we were forced to seek strength in our faith. It’s the day we learned how to pay attention to the sound of our hearts, and it’s the day we learned that love doesn’t die when our hearts stop beating. That date on the calendar represents the day we chose to live with his love, instead of the loss. And it’s the day we discovered there is no darkness in love.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jennifer Osler. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
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