January 24, 2000

Flicker of Hope

My friend, Pat, is civic minded. Her town had a great idea during its tercentennial celebration several years ago. Every house in town would burn a lighted candle in a front window all day and night during the celebration. Pat liked the idea and she plugged in one of her Christmas candles in the picture window of her living room. She felt part of the celebration.

Time passed, the hoopla of a small town’s celebration died down, and the town moved on to other community issues. Lights were packed away to await the next Christmas season. But the light in Pat’s window remained on.

The light remained in the window for no particular reason other than it seemed like the right thing to do. It was a handy landmark for giving directions to her house. Pat is always giving out directions to strangers. She is known in the area as the woman who rehabilitates injured birds and people call frequently with injured owls, hawks and other birds of prey. She tells them to look for the light in the window.

One day, while dropping off an injured bird, a woman asked, “What is the light in the window for?” Pat had no ready explanation, but being quick on her feet, replied, “Oh, that’s a flicker of hope for the birds.”

The light, with its small incandescent bulb, shines brightly in Pat’s neighborhood. Across the street is an older couple who have had more than their share of illnesses and surgeries over the last few years. Pat and her husband have helped out in small ways when needed. The woman told Pat, “When my husband and I are in pain and just cannot sleep, we look out across the street and see your light. We know that you are always there if we need you. That means so much to us.”

Light bulbs do wear out. Sometimes in the middle of the night Pat awakes with the sense that the light has gone out. And perhaps this is the night that her neighbors need to see the light the most. Invariably her sense is right when she checks the light. A quick replacement is substituted from the important reserve supply.

Recently Pat has had her own medical problems. And she noticed that her neighbor across the street had left one candle burning in the window after the Christmas holidays had passed. She called her neighbor and said, “I see that you have a light burning in the front window.” “Keep smiling, Pat,” the woman said. Their roles had reversed. The light gone out from one house had reflected back. The flicker of hope had returned.

Hope keeps us going. The Czech leader Vaclav Havel said, “Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit … it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.” We could argue forever about the ultimate source, the anchor, but it is clear that we each can be an anchor by orienting our spirit. And the orientation may be not toward anyone or anything but merely out. The recipients, those we somehow touch, will show up. One small flicker of hope will reach another and another and another. My light goes on today.

January 6, 2000

The Fire Truck

"Another funeral,” I said to myself as I turned my car onto the street which runs down to Newburyport Center. I often travel this route which passes the Roman Catholic Church which fills the block. Instead of the usual empty row of spaces the road was filled with cars from a funeral procession. The hearse and the limousines for the family were parked and leading the way. A flash of red struck my eye. The early winter’s day had not yet yielded a touch of sunlight and the cold, hard, gray light blended all of the vehicles together. But one vehicle stood out: a shiny red fire truck.

My first reaction connected the scene to the recent tragedy in Worcester in which six firefighters lost their lives fighting a fire in an abandoned warehouse. Two of them entered the building after a report of homeless people living there. Those two became trapped and four more entered to save them. All fell, leaving seventeen fatherless children.

The funerals for those lost men were large public displays. Firefighters from around the country rallied in support of their fallen brethren. This display in Newburyport was too small to be connected – just one small fire truck. And yet I am sure that someone was rendered fatherless in Newburyport too.

The fire truck was not of recent vintage. It was too small and too rounded. Today’s trucks are large and have sharp angles with boxy noses. This truck I recognized as from the fifties, from the era of my childhood. On most days in the late fifties I walked by the firehouse in my hometown. I never did go inside. My Cub Scout den never did make the trip. I would stop across the street and peer in at the vehicles. Only the front of the trucks showed in the late afternoon light; the rest faded into the shadows of the barn. Those big rounded fenders were perfect for reflecting light and pulsed as shiny as a new red apple. They were safe. They were always there and ready in case there was a fire at my house. My family was safe. I was safe.

At the funeral, the fire truck had been transported from a different time. Here forty years later it stood out as a red marker in the last ritual of life. Black is the ordinary color of death, and yet the deceased, or someone on his behalf, chose red to be his signature.

I know nothing about this deceased. I prefer to make it all up. I believe that this was his antique fire truck. Somehow the love of a child for things big and loud and red was never lost in him. He retained that playful glee and drove his truck in parades to share his childlike feeling with others. It would be only fitting that his favorite toy be at his last public performance.

One other detail must be mentioned: the fire truck was covered with flowers. The incongruity of this splash of colors and softness was shocking. This truck, which in its heyday carried many men on saving missions and perhaps on missions which cost them their lives, was covered with flowers. This symbol of his childhood and of his life was a final resting place for the beauty of this world.

I bet the deceased would have smiled. No, he would have been jumping up and down with glee. His toy had been transformed into something he had never considered. It lit up the lives of all those who drove past it that day – even in death, a serious, playful reminder of the joy of living.