Ending 2012 with firefighters on my mind

Mike Chiapperini

Lt. Michael Chiapperini

I’ve spent the last two days watching funerals on TV. West Webster Firefighters Michael Chiapperini and Tomasz Kaczowka were laid to rest and their services were aired live on one of our local news channels. (You can read more about the events that led to their deaths in this post.)

The services were so different. Chiapperini was married with children, and his funeral service focused on his family and on his 25 years with the West Webster Volunteer Fire Department and his 19 years with the Webster Police Department. The first hour was spent with first responders filing past his casket.

Tomasz Kaczowka

Tomasz Kaczowka

Kaczowka was just 19 years old, only a year out of high school; his funeral service was much more religious in nature, focusing on his committment to his Polish- American heritage and his strong ties to his church. The first hour of his service was a traditional Catholic mass.

In both cases, thousands and thousands of first responders from across the U.S. and Canada stood in formation outside the church or school where the services where held. Appropriate, as the two died together in the line of duty on the morning of Christmas Eve when a madman started a fire to lure first responders to the scene, and then gunned them down.

They died together, mentor and mentee.

Different funeral services, yes, but, like their lives, together they seemed to perfectly bookend the life of a first responder. Chapparini was the more experienced public servant, leaving behind a long legacy of public service and in the dozens of young people he’s mentored over his lifetime – one of them being Kaczowka. Kaczowka was in the spring of that call to a lifetime of service. That lifetime, though shorter in years, leaves a lasting impact that will be felt for decades through lives of other firefighters and coworkers who knew him.

On this last day of 2012, my original plan was to look back on the year and recap the positive changes I’ve made in my life and the obvious progress towards regaining my sense of self.

In other words: me, me, me, me.

But the events of the last week have left me pondering less about myself and more about the nature of service and community.

At his funeral, Chiapparini’s friends, coworkers and family talked much about the honorable life he led, his “certain sense of right and wrong” and the way he “gave his life for peace and justice.”

I have to ask myself: do I live my life every day in a way that is honorable? Do I know right from wrong and stand up for right even when it’s difficult? Would I give my own life for justice?

Kaczowka’s brother Darius talked about Tomasz’s dedication as a volunteer firefighter, admitting that he was sometimes jealous of what he called Tomasz’s “hobby”, the time it took away from their relationship and the way it seemed like he was abandoning his family. But now, Darius explained, he understood and respected that Tomasz wasn’t abandoning his family but serving his extended family and his community. It wasn’t a hobby, it was Tomasz’s calling.

I grew up the daughter of a police officer, so I understand Darius’ feelings. It can feel like the person you love is always off helping others while seeming to ignore your needs, when you’re right there under their nose. But as I’ve grown and matured I’ve come to understand that people who go into service professions – law enforcement, first responders, medicine – do so because they are called to serve, and that rather than feeling abandoned we can feel part of that call by the sacrifice we make in our own relationships. It’s not easy on us, and it’s  not easy on them, either.

And, quite frankly, it’s not something you can really understand until you’ve seen a need in the world and offered a  helping hand, and recognized the sacrifice necessary to do that.

Growing up, I would not have called myself a servant. I was selfish and bitchy; I doubt many people would have called me a good friend. But there came a point in my life when I began to understand more clearly what God had done in my life and what was expected of me as a follower of Jesus. I began to see that in serving I was actually being served, that in giving I was actually recieving.

It’s a lesson you can only learn by doing. And it’s a lesson I think I’ve forgotten about the last few years as I became overwhelmed with my own problems. You can’t give what you don’t have, and while service to others often replenishes our own spiritual wells, sometimes there comes a point where the well is so dry that there isn’t anything to give, and trying to do so only leads to exhaustion.

Today I realized that I’m past that point.

It was on my mind all week; I wanted to help but I had no clue how to do that. It was a helpless feeling, because I could see people mobilizing and I wasn’t part of any of it, didn’t even know how to offer myself. It was then that I realized that to be part of a community, you need to … well, be part of a community. A church, a group, a volunteer organization, even just a circle of friends.

It was driven home when, as they brought Tomasz’s casket into St. Stanislaus Church, the congregation sang the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.” It’s a song we sang over and over again as we prepared for mission trips to Mexico 7 or 8 years ago, a time in my life when service was second nature, when I was part of a community, when I felt needed and useful.

Mike Chapparini’s wife suggested at his service that people who want to help to do small acts of service. I like that and I think I’d like to make that a goal for 2013. Give, love, serve. In small ways, in organized ways, in random acts of kindness.

Will you join me?

As Kaczowka’s fellow firefighter Nick Volo said at the service, “Rest easy, brothers, and we’ll take it from here.” Let’s help them do that, in community, together.


3 responses to “Ending 2012 with firefighters on my mind

  1. Reblogged this on emergencywife and commented:
    Beautifully written

  2. I am a captain with West Webster and I have been trying to blog about the past week’s events all week but still, I have no words. I cried throughout this entire post. You said many things that I tried to say and couldn’t and still can’t. I can’t thank you enough and I hope it is okay with you that I reblog this. May God richly bless you.

  3. Reblogged this on My Life on the N-List and commented:
    Since my words have failed me all week, I am reblogging the beautiful words of a fellow blogger (Notes From the Funny Farm). I thank this author so very much for this post.

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