My husband, Pablo, doesn't want me to be a firefighter. "I'll leave," he threatens.
I see anger in his eyes, and betrayal. He must envision my squad as buff Playgirl models whose main mission is posing for the firehouse calendar. I imagine the thoughts that must taunt him — secret affairs, late-night talks, and sultry rendezvous, all sponsored by the station.
He doesn't understand how my heart rate quickens when the station alarm sounds. How I fight to slow my breathing when the deafening tones blare, filling every space. How the acrid scent of smoke causes an adrenaline rush I can only quell by jumping from the truck and running to the hoses. He wouldn't understand my fear of screwing up.
My fellow firefighters are the only ones I can talk to.
When I was a 6-year-old trauma-nurse wannabe, I played hospital and pretended to treat patients. I wanted to help people, but the danger and excitement also drew me in. I craved the rush of saving someone on the verge of calamity, on the edge of living or dying. In high school, I worked as a co-op student at a family doctor's office and studied health care. I was psyched about my future.
My plan derailed when I got pregnant at 16. My parents demanded I quit school. The baby had to be my priority. "Get your GED later," they told me. But I couldn't. I wouldn't. Who would I become if I didn't finish school? A high school dropout with a baby on my hip — a label I couldn't live with. Besides, I needed the education to get a good job to care for him.
Pablo (the baby's father) and I would stay together. He would help me as I juggled being a mom and a student.
Unfortunately, I wouldn't have to juggle. Two days after my 17th birthday, at 33 weeks into my pregnancy, fate once again mauled my plans. I hadn't felt the baby move in a while. "Don't worry," my mom told me. "Babies just get quiet. It's normal." But it wasn't. At the hospital, the gigantic sonogram machine verified what the nurses and doctors had whispered among themselves — my baby was gone. They induced labor, and after suffering the excruciating pain of childbirth I was handed a perfect, beautiful baby boy who would never take a breath. We buried Matthew at a cemetery down the street from our house, along with my happiness. My world would never be the same.
I graduated high school and signed up for college, still dreaming of nursing school, with Pablo still by my side. But an insatiable emptiness permeated every cell. I adopted a playful gray kitten, Gravy, naively hoping he would somehow satisfy the hollowed-out place that losing Matthew had left. But loving a kitten wasn't the same as loving a baby. I had to fill the hole in my heart, and I didn't know any other way but to get pregnant again.
After only one semester of college, I gave birth to another son, Gabriel. Now that I had a child to provide for, I put school on hold and focused on my job as the receptionist at a local urology practice. At least I was still in the medical field, but my plans to become a nurse would have to wait. MarcAnthony was born five years later, and shortly after that I was hired as office manager at my obstetrician's office. After two more years, our daughter, Alex, was born. I had a job and a family, but I didn't have the career I longed for.
When Alex was 4, I went back to college part-time, taking online classes while running a doctor's office and meeting the demanding needs of three young kids. My educational progress was like a slow drip, but I kept at it. And finally, 17 years after starting college, I was ready to apply to nursing school like I'd always dreamed. But a realization hit me like a punch in the face when I researched the schedule — nursing school would require me to work after-hours shifts for my clinical rotations. I knew being a nurse would require the night shift, but nursing school? How in the hell would I do that when Pablo was a truck driver — frequently working nights, sometimes working weekends, on the road for days at a time? Who would watch the kids? Who would welcome them home from school, help with homework, comb the tangles out of Alex's thick auburn hair that had grown almost to her thighs? That was my job.
So, I put my plans on hold. Again. But inside, I was antsy and frustrated. I was a dutiful wife and a diligent mom, but I craved a purpose of my own.
Then one day last January, four years after I gave up my dream of nursing school, I toyed with my longing by browsing the internet for jobs, like the exciting rush of online-car-shopping when there's no way you can afford a new car. I felt a spark as I came across a Facebook page advertising a class to train volunteer firefighters. Surely divine intervention had guided my fingers over the keyboard. I called the department — training was only one night a week and a commitment of only 36 hours a month. This could work. I completed my application and sent it to the volunteer fire department, intoxicated by its promise.