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The Life You Save
He couldn't be a knight. So he became the next best thing.
He who saves a life saves the world entire. — The Talmud
P had badly wanted to be a knight when he grew up. Fighting dragons, mainly. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. He likes to say he signed up for the college course but didn’t get the grades. Should have studied harder.
But P had bigger problems. P was depressed. So depressed, he wanted to kill himself. This became the new plan.
P tried to carry out that plan. When it failed, he tried again. But somehow, it never quite worked out. One day, he woke up and realized this, too, was not an option.
After he’d had time to rethink his life, finding love along the way, P joined Ireland’s police force, the Gardaí. Or, in full, the Garda Síochána—“Guardians of the Peace.” Maybe he couldn’t be a knight. But he could be the next best thing.
The job was tough, but he was good at it. Dragons, he would learn, came in many shapes. Some of them might try to bash you in the head with a hammer, or stick you in the ribs with a knife. Or stick someone else, unless you got your hands on them first.
They couldn’t breathe fire, these dragons. But they didn’t need to. They knew the secret of man’s red flower. They knew that all it took was a single match. A dark night. A quiet car park, under a sleeping apartment complex. Nobody awake. Nobody to see. Nobody to stop you as you lit the flame. Nobody to catch you as you ran away.
By the time P and his fellow guardians arrived that one dark night, the dragon was gone. But the fire was climbing.
Policy was clear: In the event of a building fire, call the fire brigade and wait. And wait. Do not, under any circumstances, do the fire brigade’s job for them.
P knew this. They all knew this. A sensible policy, they would grudgingly admit. In fact, this particular apartment complex was next-door to a fire station. But at this point in time, the fire brigade was not there.
By now, the neighbors were rushing out in their jammies and slippers to watch the flames and call for help. Nobody had come out, they told P and the boys. Everyone was asleep.
But the policy was clear. The instruction over the radio from Control was clear: “Do not go in.”
But on this night, what was a knight to do?
He can’t remember how many times he and the other Gardaí went back in and up the stairs. Nor can he remember exactly how many people they had to wake up, guide out and in many cases carry. But he remembers certain things very vividly, those moments that sear themselves into your soul, that lodge themselves in your brain with tenterhooks. Helping an old woman who kept saying she was sorry over and over, until eventually he made an executive decision and carried her. Rolling a guy out of bed stone cold drunk and carrying his dead weight down the stairs. Having to slap sense into a screaming mother who wouldn’t move. Finally picking up her daughter and running in hopes she would chase him. He felt ashamed. He had slapped a woman. He had tricked her. But what was a knight to do?
Over all, he remembers the smoke. Filthy, blinding stuff, coating his eyes, coating his throat and nostrils and lungs. He remembers the moment when he panicked, got low and crawled down the stairs himself. “Down,” instinct was telling him. “Stay down, and you’ll be O.K. You’ll be O.K.”
The fire brigade was in time. Sewage pipes had soaked up and slowed the flames. But nobody knew that.
When P climbed in his car that night, he snapped a selfie—a round, bespectacled young thirty-odd face that could pass for younger, tired and solemn, a bit grimy. When he got home, he couldn’t change out of his clothes before his wife had caught the smell. But then, not much ever did get past her.
Soon after, P’s sergeant called him and the boys into the office. He wanted a word. Meaning he wanted to say a few words. Specifically, the words, “I will murder you personally in the event that you ever pull such a stunt again.” That would be all, then. (In my American way, I had asked P if he and the boys would have been up for any medals. Besides the fact that nobody was getting any medals out of this, I was informed that “the Irish don’t really go in for medals.” There’s only one Garda decoration for courage, the Scott medal—“dreamt up by an American, as it happens.”)
P and his wife made a house a home. They made a little lord, a little lady. The lady doesn’t care much for dragons. One time she saw an ad on telly for How to Train Your Dragon and whispered a sinister request: “Kill it please Daddy.” Watching Jurassic Park as a toddler, she was frightened by the T-Rex, but not for long. Slightly bigger brother was ready to leap past her, brandishing a makeshift sword, crying death to T-Rex and all its pomps. In the evenings, P would listen patiently as he made up stories about a fierce little teddy with a shield made of cheese, who fights bad guys and hates bed time.
One night, P found him thrashing and muttering in his sleep, distressed, disturbed. P was gathering him up to comfort him, making soothing noises, when he spoke with a loud voice: “I AM A BRAVE KNIGHT!”
He who saves a life saves the world entire. And sometimes, the life you save may be your own.