My aunt, who is my mother’s sister, usually does not ask too many questions; she usually complains about her children, many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But she read this essay and asked, “So how did you come to write that story? Did it really happen? It happened a long time ago, right? After so much time passed, why did you decide to write it down? Why then?”
All of which made me very irritated, because she forced me to think.
The day I came to write it all down, finally and in a torrent, it was cold and March and as soon as I left my apartment, it began to piss with rain. New York City looked like a grey slate, the people grey, too, and I was wearing funeral black, feeling grim, the weather infecting me like a virus. I rummaged around in my book bag for the umbrella, which was a gift from a student (a replacement, actually, as I had lent her an umbrella she subsequently destroyed, so a replacement/gift). I got to 96th and Broadway, took it out, opened it and the color of the umbrella was hot pink, and hot pink can’t help but make me happy, that color and shape above my head like a hot pink halo made me happy, the pink among all the black and slate grey, and that fireman popped into my head, smiling, putting his arm through mine and “helping” me across the street. That meeting was such an odd event, so short; maybe it was a sort of life-force emanating from him, a sort of heat-seeking happiness missile. The kind of man who would spend a lot of time trying to make a woman laugh. It is true that I never forgot him. It is true I did consider going to the firehouse to see him again. On that morose-feeling day, the hot pink umbrella linked with happiness that linked with him altered my mood, and the feeling gripped me; he had made me feel lighter, better, had made me laugh on what was an ordinary day on an ordinary walk to St. John the Divine. He did it again on the corner of 96th and Broadway. And it mattered so much to me at that time on that day to write him, to (memorialize?) immortalize him, because though he died in such a horrible way and in such a seminal event, he still makes me happy.
I have heard that you are only really dead when there is no one left to remember you; I have heard that it takes about one hundred years. The memory of that beautiful firefighter who helped me across the street on that day continues to lighten the weight of living.