Pelion, SC 11/20/2021 (Paul Kirby) – Friday and today, I have wept more than I have in many years. I don’t use the word cried because that’s not what I’ve actually done. I’ve wept. Google defines wept as an expression of deep sorrow, usually by shedding tears. Tears have flown from my eyes and down my face uncontrollably and as I have been racked with sobs, I’ve unashamedly wept often over the past 24 hours.
What might you ask has caused a man of nearly 60 years to weep so much? I don’t know that I actually have the answer for that. I know that it started with a heartbreaking telephone call at 6:58 a.m. Friday morning. My close friend and The Lexington Ledger’s Advertising Executive Cathy Williams called me at that point and gave me the news that absolutely devastated her family. On Thursday afternoon, her 2-year-old grandson R.J. had slipped out of his parent’s yard for a brief moment and fallen in a neighbor’s pool near Pelion. No matter how hard the paramedics, firefighters, sheriff’s deputies, and medical staff tried, they couldn’t revive the baby. He died at the hospital later that night.
I’ve asked myself many times since why I’ve been so devastated myself, why this child’s death hurt me so. Certainly, Cathy is a good friend and co-worker. I owe her a great deal. Still, why should I weep so openly over her loss as if it were my own? I did not know R.J. and may have met his mother once if at all. He was not one of my grandchildren. Together, two of mine celebrated their 7th and 10th birthdays with a skating party Friday night. Still, I feel devastated by this child’s death.
When I spoke with Cathy, I tried to comfort her. I told her as hard as it is to understand, God has a plan and little R.J. was now in a perfect place, heaven. She knew that. I prayed for Cathy and her family. I asked that God give them comfort during this time. I called friends and family, my pastor, and others and asked them to pray the same. I truly believe this child is in heaven now so why could I not control my tears, my emotions. When I woke up Saturday, I was still asking myself why this affected me so.
On Saturday morning, I woke up as I normally do about 4:00 a.m. I built a fire to warm the house and sat in my chair with my dogs in my lap. I flipped through my streaming channels and stopped on the Roku channel. Somehow, God stopped my scrolling fingers on a movie called Courageous. It’s a movie about four sheriff’s deputies learning that God intended them to lead their families, to be more involved in their children’s lives as great daddies. I recommend every daddy watch this movie. In the movie, one of them lost their 9-year-old daughter. As I watched, it was as if someone had opened a faucet and the tears started again. Just a little way in, I had run through another dozen paper towels as I mopped the tears from my face. Why was I, a grown man that was taught to be tough and not to cry such a mess? I had to pause and ask God what was happening to me.
Some of you who know my history know that I became a volunteer firefighter when I was 18 years old. At 19, I was hired as a career employee with the Lexington County Fire Service. Until about 1997, I worked doing what I loved, helping people who were often having the worst day of their lives. It wasn’t just a job; it was a passion.
Through all those years, I saw a little of it all. I saw battered wives who finally snapped and shot their abusive husbands dead. I ran suicides, hangings, carbon monoxide poisonings, self-inflicted gunshots, the whole gambit of how you could take your own life. I ran fatal car crashes, deadly fires, and cardiac arrests. Those were all tough. It’s tough to see someone who is dead, especially when it just happened in front of your eyes.
At one point, I worked fighting fires for Lexington County and on my days off, I was an EMT in Orangeburg County. One night while on duty there, I ran a call where a man had shot himself with a .308 caliber hunting rifle. It was a mess. He had been struggling with substance abuse and his wife had left him taking their children with her. The night he died, he went to her mother’s home where she had taken the family, broke down the door and shot himself in the head. His children were in the house. It was a tragedy but we as medics used gallows humor to get by. We made jokes about it to keep our own sanity. It was wrong but at the time, that’s how firefighters and medics coped back then.
Later in my career, I ran a child who was run over and killed by a school bus. He was in kindergarten. It was terrible tragedy, but it happened. I also ran a teen who was riding his dirt bike when a cable across a trail caught him by his neck. His friend who was riding with him cried and begged us to save him. We couldn’t do that no matter how hard we tried. There were no jokes this time, just a lot of sleepless nights. There were plenty more of those calls that stayed with me until this day, but I think you get the point. As hard as it is to admit it, these will stay with me until I die.
Remember that this was in a day before the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a thing. ADHD was treated with your dad’s belt back then, not with medication. Depression was just feeling blue for a few days. My how times have changed.
I still to this day don’t know if I have PTSD. I’m not sure I want to know. I’m not big on excuses and sometimes, I cynically wonder if my fellow public servants who use the label PTSD use those diagnoses as an excuse for their bad days. I think that’s wrong on my part too. Certainly, they are feeling what I feel when they are sad. They cry uncontrollably or wake up at night in a sweat at times without knowing why. I may not have PTSD but still, when I weep over the loss of my friend’s grandchild so fervently, I wonder.
Today I came to realize something. I weep because I am a human being. That diagnoses I can live with. My friend and her family hurt and that affects me profoundly. I am still a rough, tough man, but a man that started life as a human being. Human’s weep when things touch them deeply. No matter how tough a man I am, I’m first a human being with feelings and emotions. My feelings were hardened by the fact that I worked at a very tough job for too many years, but I’m still just a man, not Super Man. That’s why I weep at tragedy. That’s why I look away when a bad wreck has happened on a road I’m driving. That’s why I cry so easily now at the news of a tragic loss. Below the cap, the Carharts, the worked stained t-shirt, the pistol I often carry on my side, underneath all that, I am a human being.
Today I ask that all other human beings pray for Cathy, Morgan, Robbie, and their family. There loss is more profound than I can fathom. They’ve lost a dear child too soon and no matter the fact that he’s now resting in the arms of God, they are in deep pain and sorrow.
I also ask that you pray for all those that had a part in trying to save little R.J. The deputies, the firefighters, the medics, the hospital staff, our Coroner Margaret Fisher and her staff, I’m sure they’re also devastated. Yesterday, I called to thank them all. I spoke with Margaret. Even though she had dealt with this tragedy herself late into the night before, she had the grace to hear the pain in my voice and ask me how I was doing. I called the fire chief, the director of the county’s EMS Division, Captain Howard of the Sheriff’s Department’s South Region. I asked them all to thank their teams for what they had tried to do.
Today, if one person reads this and cries, I understand. We’re all children of God. He built us to have emotions as human beings. If we didn’t feel sorrow at a time like this, what are we, when will we ever cry and show outwardly what’s happening inside?
I ask today that you join me in prayer for those who are hurting because of R.J.’s death. They certainly need God’s grace and support. I ask that you pray with me for the men and women who tried so hard to bring him back, the ones who tried to change what they could not change. I ask that they somehow cope themselves. Whether they have PTSD or not, they have love in their hearts.
Right now, I have decided that I don’t have PTSD, I have love. Somehow, that makes it okay in my book. I am a common man, a retired firefighter, a businessman, a writer who has love in his heart for my fellow man. I think love better describes what I am feeling. I cry because I love Cathy, I love Morgan and Robbie, I love the men and women that tried so hard to revive a child that was called home by God. It’s okay in my mind to excuse my emotions because I am human, and I love people.
Let me end by saying this. No matter if you’re a man or woman, no matter your age, it’s oaky to cry if you love and your heart moves you to do so. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that you’re a human being and you have love in your heart for others. That’s alright by me and it should be alright in everyone else’s eyes too.