Recently I was asked to give opening remarks at a pediatric care conference named in honor of my son. My preparation included both a careful crafting of remarks and a deep recognition of the significance of returning to Brian’s home city of Denver.
There was a ritual for getting there.
First, call close family and friends. All of us love Brian. We draw strength, meaning, and understanding from one another’s stories, words, and actions. We are part of the tightly knit group of folks who continue trying to make meaning of the tragedy of losing such a fine young man. We name conferences and scholarships after him. We hold on to precious mementos that were once his. And all of these things move us further along the mysterious path of grief and acceptance.
Second, travel with an open heart. Tuck some things in the suitcase that will remind me to see and feel his spirit which is around me always—a beautiful stone sculpture found on the beach, an exquisite bone carved eagle whistle, some of his ashes, a candle, the black wristband with his name. Create an altar in the hotel room. Spend time with it.
The conference was held at the Colorado History Museum. Nearly 200 EMS personnel attended with another 300 engaged through a live streaming webinar. Every county in Colorado had people listening. My slides worked and my message was more prescient than I could know.
As each of you who do this work knows, you have to find a place inside yourself to carry some of the darker sides of society that your job confronts you with on a pretty regular basis. You can get discouraged or cynical or you can grow your soul big enough to hold life’s paradoxes.
What followed was an entire day of power points and talks about the trauma that children experience: abuse, trafficking, drug exposure, domestic violence, etc. The presenters included leaders of all aspects of childhood trauma from the Denver EMS system: doctors, district attorneys, a firefighter, detectives, social services. The charge to the listeners: watch for signs and symptoms of abuse and need, you have a legal responsibility to report/to help children.
During the final panel presentation, I asked the question, ”There are numerous new EMS personnel in the audience. I can imagine that these presentations have been a both eye opening and overwhelming. What would each of you as leaders in your various departments say to a young paramedic or firefighter or policeman who experiences some of their own trauma after dealing with one of these situations?”
Panelists acknowledged the very real challenges and the need to break free of internalized beliefs of being weak if you can’t handle these things. Each one said, “Talk to us. Talk to peers. Don’t stuff it.” And more than one of them acknowledged, “We don’t do a very good job with this. As a system we need to learn together how to be more supportive.”
Third, allow grief, welcome the broken heart. After having dinner with some of Brian’s friends, I went back to my hotel room, sat in the chair next to the little altar of tangible things, looked at the moonlit silhouette of the distant Rockies, blew the eagle whistle to send out my call for his spirit, and in the stillness that followed just wept and wept. It has been 2 years, 3 months. Life goes on, and sometimes it stops so I can touch again into the bottom of the well of my grief at losing my son.
There was a ritual for leaving.
I had a fitful night of sleep. When I awoke, the thought came to me, “None of Brian’s ashes have been scattered in his home city.” So, I got my things together, checked out of my room, left my bags with the concierge, and walked across the street to the Colorado History Museum and its landscaping. I went back to the boulder I had sat on to eat my lunch the day before.
No one was around this frosty Sunday morning, so I spoke aloud to my son. “I do believe you will always remain an important part of Colorado EMS history.” I scattered the small bag of his ashes around the stone. It felt just perfect. Then I took off walking the city that Brian loved, that helped him come into the strength of his gifts as a street paramedic.
We never know what will come. All we can know is this moment and how we are with those around us.
When you are young, you probably don’t think much about the word legacy because you are busy living your lives, not imagining that some day people will reflect on what you have done and how you have done it. Brian left a legacy without planning to leave a legacy. (Words from my slideshow talk at the conference.)
I am older. I am thinking about legacy. This trip served as a powerful reminder to me to continue to strive to live each day to its fullest—which means the inclusion of plenty of time for wandering and wondering and openness to life’s intangibles.