When I was little I was laid down to sleep by hands that have felt darkness and light, eyes that have seen grief and pain, yet never allowing us to see it in their gaze. My pancakes were made extra doughy by a woman who has cared for children from third world countries and children from all over the New England states who needed specialised care. My body was hugged and felt safe by a man who rushed to houses in the middle of a cold dark night to save someone’s dream home that was up in flames.
I grew up playing inside of a funeral home, my siblings and I played hide-and-go-seek behind caskets and thought nothing of the body laying in the room waiting for their family to come see him or her dressed and made up for their final goodbye. In my teenage years I would happily join my Dad on a ride to – pardon the harshness – “go pick up a body” at the airport. The quiet ride together and the reality of life and death so profound at that age.
I was raised by The helpers. These helpers are my parents. Helen and Russ. When my father returned from the Vietnam War to find a ‘new normal’ way of life, he worked as a contractor and then later was hired as a funeral assistant at a funeral home, close to where he was raised.
Years later he went to school to become an EMT and then a full time firefighter. He worked at the funeral home and as a firefighter for 32 and 34 years, respectively.
My mother and her eldest sister became the first two of three sisters to become nurses. In her career she worked in a children’s hospital, nursing homes and her favourite – which ended her nursing career on paper – a school nurse to elementary school aged children.
Our lives were filled with shift schedules. My Dad entered home in one uniform, to the “station” as it was said in our house. My mom left once he arrived – to work the nightshift to help make ends meet. We heard beepers ring in the night, we were left staring at my father’s empty chair where his Thanksgiving meal was sat, covered in aluminium foil awaiting his safe return from the massive warehouse fire he was helping the neighbouring city put out.
Our house did not have a study with a computer, or framed diplomas with their degrees and accolades lining our hallways. Our house was not large, modern or trendy. It was cozy, filled with warm blankets for cuddling up, the smell of cookies and bread being baked in the oven. It was an open door, welcoming, loving, and healing you. It was filled with the noises that alarmed us, let us know something was happening, that there was an emergency, or someone had passed through to the gates of heaven.
This was my childhood. Early dinners we shared before Dad headed off to his shift just to simply be together. Secret “free” car washes in the back of the station garage that Dad would allow when we had our first car. I can still smell the soap they used. Mom was called on by neighbours, hurt children, ill parents needing home care – could she help? Did she have time to spare?
Each corner I turned I was praised for their goodness. Teachers, coaches, my friends’ parents acknowledging how my mom or dad had helped them through a death, a tough time, or a moment where they didn’t know where to turn and when they found them they were saved. A gentle word said by my Dad to comfort someone’s loss at a viewing. My Mom’s support and referral to a hospital she knew someone working at, to help connect them to a Doctor and speed up a pending diagnosis. There would be late summer evening knocks at the door to see if she could clean boo-boos from boys who fell off their bikes or out of the tree. She’d greet them with warmness and a tender touch, making you feel instantly better and safe with her voice and hands alone.
It meant something then, it was a feeling, undefinable until I was older. The feeling would run deep, even at six years old when I was watching my Dad in his fire gear teach my classmates how to “Stop, drop, and roll.” Lessons scheduled each month in our home to make sure we knew our escape route and how to execute. It wasn’t paranoia, it wasn’t overdone. It was simply natural – as if a chef would teach their child to sear a steak or a hairdresser teaching their daughter how to cut her fringe.
Right or wrong, too much or too little, this was how my older sister, younger brother and I were raised. It was a childhood with caution, awareness, stories of triumph and sadness, and exciting outcomes after heartbreak and fear.
We learned how to accept disappointment – if my dad made it to our field hockey game we were lucky that day and never took it for granted. Understanding on that day he planned to drive an hour to see our championship game, he never arrived. I’d look for his face, his uniform perhaps to flash on the side of my eye as I dribbled down the sideline – when it didn’t come, I knew he tried. It was just that he had to help and that support he’d be giving may be to someone suffering their greatest pain.
My parents have been retired for years. They’ve been able to have a huge hand in supporting my sister, Heather and her husband Sean raising their three children, Caitlin, Cara and Connor. They’ve made their home into my family’s only home in the USA for the past six years as we’ve lived in Bangkok. Reverting movie rooms back to play rooms, and reconverting bedrooms that had long ago been turned to storage rooms back into bedrooms with Star Wars adorned beds and closets filled with boys shorts and tee shirts from the house we sold.
Even though their careers ended, The helping did not and it far exceeds my immediate family. When COVID started to become more prevalent in March, I asked my parents while on a FaceTime call what it felt to be them right now. How were they coping, being the helpers of the past and now, unable to due to age and ability? They were quiet, they looked at each other while finding the words. After some time Mom spoke and said “I wish I could do more, I wish I could help, I want to help.” Dad nodded, and said “I agree, it is difficult to sit here and not be doing.”
We talked more, sharing how the pandemic was impacting healthcare, essential workers, and funeral homes overrun so much so that bodies were placed in refrigerated trucks in parking lots. Both of my parents couldn’t fathom what was happening and how to overcome it.
If you looked at them and peered into their souls, you would see all they’ve done for others has just made sense and has never been a compromise. There is a world full of these humans and they are to be treasured and appreciated. This pandemic is showing the amount of these selfless beings and in some way I hope we can look at that as a light, that we were able to see what the helpers are dedicated to and how many there are. If I can sure say anything myself, they are capable of a whole heck of a lot.
“Don’t be hard on yourself, or others. None of us have done this before, none of us know what we are doing. We weren’t trained for this.” Russell F. McKenna Sr. My dad’s first words of encouragement when we went into lockdown in Bangkok and we talked about what it felt like.
December 9, 2020