I didn’t see it, but I heard it. The fire station is a few blocks from my house, so I heard the fire engines first, the high siren spliced with the deep honks of the big red trucks. Then I heard the whining siren of the police cars join in the chorus, as they raced to the place they were called. Not quickly, it seemed, because I heard them for a long time.
When I went to university in this same small town, we used to hear these disasters every few days. The air would erupt with wails all of a sudden, regardless of where you were on campus. If you were in the coffee shop on the main drag of town, the one with the huge front windows to distract you from any homework, you could see the police cars and fire engines race down the one way street, as other cars tried to find a spare curb to pull up next to. We used to joke that a cat was up a tree, or they were all racing to help one broken-down car.
Tonight, as the sirens didn’t stop, I ceased brushing my teeth so I could gauge: are they coming closer? Or going further? I began to worry slightly about my neighbors, sniffing the air for any whiff of smoke. Maybe it’s the older German woman across the street, who writes passive aggressive notes to put on cars that park near her home. Maybe she fell and couldn’t get up. Or the kids next door, a girl and her two little brothers. Maybe one fell off his bunk bed or down the stairs and hit his head too hard. Maybe his arm is broken. Or my friend Kathy, who has a bad back that keeps her from enjoying her recent retirement. Did her Golden Retriever Madden dial 9-1-1 for her in one of those feats of insight that happens on occasion when a dog’s owner is in peril?
When I was younger and rode in the backseat of a van, I remember whenever we came upon a car accident, my mother would always breathe out quickly and quietly, “Jesus be with them,” as we passed ambulances and emergency vehicles. It was the same blessing she prayed over my siblings and me as we left for school in the morning, calling it out as we scurried out the door, bag lunches nearly forgotten, or whispering it in our hair when we lingered in her embrace, anxious about a test or gym class or recess.
“Jesus be with you.”
Now as an adult and commuter, I follow her example as I drive past strangers who are dealing with frustrating and potentially painful ramifications to either a misjudgment or an accident. I was in their same place, not too long ago, standing on a median, looking in shock over my dear little red station wagon, who looked defeated with deflated air bags, a crushed and leaking front end, and a wailing horn that would not turn off. All of my pain for all to see, a terrible moment on display.
I’m trying something similar with the sirens. Instead of bemoaning the sirens heard in every corner of my small town, I pray that Christ be with my neighbors, both next door or a few miles away. I remind myself that the sirens are heralding a horrible and potentially life-changing moment for someone, maybe the most painful of their life. Maybe someone is broken or dying, alone. Or maybe they are broken or dying with someone helplessly holding them. It could be that someone is being hurt by someone who they love, physically abused and emotionally scarred. Or maybe it’s nothing, nothing at all.
I won’t know what those sirens were wailing about. They finally receded into the distance, and I went back to brushing my teeth, my neighbors forgotten again and the memory of the sirens fading. All is well on my block.
But from my mouth to God’s ears, the brief and already forgotten prayer wafts, hopefully giving some stranger some extra strength in their worst hour.