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.
My family talked about my opportunity over breakfast-for-dinner at IHOP. My little princess, 8-year-old Alex, smiled and giggled when I told her I might become a firefighter. Gabriel, now 16, grunted a “cool,” and my 10-year-old, MarcAnthony, told me how neat it was. Together, we planned — who would cart the kids to softball and soccer practices, and who would make their dinner. But Pablo’s words lacked the enthusiasm and emotional support I needed. He said all the right things — “Oh, yeah, that’s great” — as he scrolled through his phone without even looking at me. But his words were flat, like cardboard cutouts of what I wanted to hear. Was he just placating my crazy desire?
The first night of training hurled toward me like an ominous storm, making me want to duck-and-cover for protection. I called my mom. “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not in shape. What if I’m so much older than everyone else?” Anxiety sloshed around in my stomach. My brothers laughed about my upcoming physical agility test. Walking and mowing the grass had been my primary exercise for years. “You’re gonna die,” they assured me as a red wave of embarrassment made its way up my neck and into my cheeks.
When the night finally arrived, I drove up to the station and parked the car, but I couldn’t make myself get out. I lurked and watched. Were the other candidates young? Were they muscular and fit? Were there any other women besides me? What was I up against? I shook my head at the lunacy of this stupid plan and put the car in reverse — my age (34), the extra pounds I hadn’t been able to shed, and being out of shape all screamed at me to speed away with gravel flying.
But I didn’t.
The image of Alex’s excited little face raided my brain. She would be so disappointed in me if I didn’t at least try. “I want to be a firefighter too when I grow up,” she told me. Get your ass in there and do what you came to do, the voice inside my head commanded. I needed to show my little girl that all things are possible. I needed to show myself.
So, I stayed.
Embarrassment filled me up as I tiptoed to the only empty chair — in the front row. No sneaking to the back. All eyes focused on me as the instructor stopped mid-sentence. “Are you here for the candidate class? I’m Dan. What’s your name?”
“Yes, Amy Murillo,” I croaked, then slunk down into my seat, trying to make myself invisible.
I discovered that those eyes staring at me when I came in late belonged to average people — an 18-year-old senior in high school, a 45-year-old air-conditioning technician. And other women. After talking to them, I realized that we were all there for one purpose: to help the community when it needs us — fighting fires, rescuing people, and watching out for each other.
On the way home, I called Pablo. My voice bubbled with excitement as I told him: “I loved it!” He seemed surprised at my words, then silent. As if he’d hoped I would hate it, that I would fail.
In the following weeks, I grappled with heavy hoses, learned the equipment on four different trucks, and practiced using ventilation techniques while lugging heavy chainsaws. I even wrestled the 209-pound Rescue Randy dummy, dragging his dead weight up and down the bay drive to prepare me for a real rescue. I crawled my way through multiple consumption drills, learning how to breathe in an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus). I hated the fact that I dreaded Wednesday classes — I didn’t know what surprises the chiefs would have for us and whether I would survive them. “Sixty seconds!” they randomly screamed at some point each night, giving us only one minute to get “bunked out” from head to toe.
Once during a rescue drill, I got wedged underneath my favorite truck — Engine 1. “What if I get stuck?” I joked with the chiefs before crawling under. I wore full gear and a blacked-out facemask that both simulated a smoke-filled room and prevented me from freaking out under the engines. My mission was to crawl along the bay floor by following the massive hose laid out through a maze of fire trucks, rescue dummies, and other hoses intertwined like snakes. When I went under the truck, I knew where I was — I could smell hot oil and feel heat. Although already exhausted, I was making progress, my fingers scrabbling around the floor for a way to get through. But the strap of my breathing apparatus got tangled in the grating on the bay floor. The more I pulled and wiggled, the tighter it got, until my arm almost twisted from its socket. On the edge of panic, I forced myself to breathe deeply — one, two, three — to keep calm; to save my air. Two chiefs crawled under the truck to untangle me. “That’s never happened before,” they said. I was both relieved and embarrassed by my rescue. I now tell everyone I have a special relationship with Engine 1.
On Burn Day, we spent nine hours simulating rescues in a “burn building.” They set the building ablaze; I could feel the heat of it as I dragged the hoses, crawling in on my hands and knees to rescue simulated victims — high-rise hoses wired together to mimic the heft and weight of a man. Rivulets of sweat wet my body, the inside of my suit a sauna. Blisters and bruises covered my swollen legs, but I kept going.
I have never been prouder of anything I’ve ever done in my entire life. But I foolishly believed my toughest battles would be fighting fires. How could I have known my biggest obstacle would be in my own home?
* * *
I had to work a night shift unexpectedly and couldn’t reach Pablo, so I left the kids home alone, after talking with them all and making sure they knew what to do in every possible scenario. They’re now 9, 11 and 16; shouldn’t they be all right?
“Why would you leave the kids by themselves? How would you ever think that’s OK?” Pablo raged later. He ignored my explanation, what I’d done to make sure the kids were taken care of. Pablo thinks I’m a bad mother, that firefighting is not a mother’s job.
He also uses the “it’s too dangerous” argument when his other protests fail. I don’t disagree. It is dangerous. But we’re trained to be as careful as possible, and those firemen he resents are there to save me. I remind him of this, and his resentment goes full circle again.
My husband never asks about my day. He’s too angry. He doesn’t want to hear how I learned to propel out of a window, or what grass fires we battled, or whether I had to extricate a crash victim. My new happiness threatens him.
Pablo can’t comprehend that my co-workers are just normal people with spouses and children. He doesn’t understand that these men and women, my clan, would give their lives for me.
Or maybe he does understand. Maybe that’s the bigger threat — I’ve found a new family. They would crawl through thousand-degree heat and breathe in toxic smoke to save me. I think my husband wants to be the man who rescues me if I need saving. He doesn’t want to abdicate that job to anyone else.
At dinner one night, I told the kids how I moved the engine. “Wow, that’s cool,” they all answered, excited that their mom got to drive the huge red monster of a machine. But not Pablo; he said nothing. I don’t think he wants people looking at his wife behind the wheel of a fire truck, with so much power right under her foot. I can no longer share with him. Words between us are now only the most mundane of inquiries — “What do you want for dinner?” “Can you pick up more milk and cereal?” — superficial statements to carry us along with our daily lives.
Alex supports me; “I still want to be a firefighter,” my little girl whispers, as if sharing an important secret. Although my boys still support me, they are now frustrated. The cool factor has worn off, replaced by my absence. They don’t want to do things for themselves that I’d always done. Now it’s more work for them. But they will learn to be more independent. Isn’t that a good thing?
And shouldn’t they be there for me now?
My husband and kids are not the only resentful ones. I am too. Bitterness bubbles under the surface, with my shame at having to explain to my chief how my husband wants me home. It’s now the station joke: “Time to leave, Amy. You don’t want to miss your curfew.” We laugh about it, although it’s not funny. How can my family want me to give up something I love so much?
I won’t give up the energy that fills me when I run to the scene of a car crash. I feel complete — I have a purpose other than motherhood. Is it selfish? I don’t think so, but my family feels otherwise. So, I’m caught in the middle of my own raging fire — a woman’s struggle to be both wife and mom while also living her dream.
Pablo and I have been through so much in the last 19 years, but we’ve survived. We have a beautiful family and a comfortable home. A stable life. Surely, we can work through this new test of our dedication to each other? I want Pablo to realize, like I have, that joy breeds joy. I want my kids to know this, to feel it. My newfound happiness will spill over into the rest of my family’s lives.
* * *
“I’ll leave,” Pablo says again, bitterness coating his threat. “I can’t be married to a firefighter. You need to choose between those guys you work with and me.”
Both hurt and anger fill me up. How can he give me this ultimatum?
“No. I won’t. The choice is yours,” I tell him. “You’re the one with the problem, and you have to decide if you’re going to stay or leave. But if you leave, you have to explain to the kids why you broke up our family. It is your decision.”
Right after we’d each stood our ground, Pablo went on a two-day trucking job. Good. He needed time to think this through. I didn’t call him or answer his calls and texts. I wanted him to feel what it was like without his family.
When he got home, he admitted he’d spoken too soon. He shouldn’t have told me to choose. He grudgingly realized that the choice was his, not mine. Is my dream worth the disintegration of my family? I don’t know. Hopefully it won’t come to that. I want both.
I will not give up my passion, but I will make concessions. No more overnight stays, and I won’t volunteer for weekend shifts. I won’t apply for full-time firefighter jobs because of the after-hours scheduling.
I call Pablo while he’s on the road to tell him I’m leaving for my shift. He doesn’t argue with me — he’s past that. Now he’s just indifferent, saying nothing. I’m trying to compromise, but does he notice? Does he care? He still doesn’t want to hear about my job, what I have planned, what happens during my shifts. If I came close to dying in a house fire, he would never know. But he’s agreed to bring the kids to a football game I’m working at as an emergency responder. A good sign? I think so. Baby steps.
“You are a totally different person,” Pablo tells me.
He’s right. I am.