Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Call

Last Wednesday, I had a long night.

Some of you know that I volunteer part-time as an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) for my county's Search and Rescue Unit. What this used to mean was that any time day or night, I was on-call for searches. When I received a call, I had under thirty minutes to be dressed, pack-ready, and out the door to the station, which is 20 minutes away. Not easy to do when you're the mostly stay-at-home parent to three kids under the age of 10.

Which is why these days, I volunteer in a different capacity. I serve as a call-out operator, which means the search manager or Sheriff's Department sends me a page (again, at any hour of the day or night) and I dispatch searchers from home. Basically, I'm at the top of a glorified phone tree.

And while this job is easier in many ways (I don't have to leave my kids at moment's notice and I don't have to hike through the night or the sleet or the snow searching for lost hikers or stranded families or the occasional meth addict...yes, our tax dollars are well at work, people), it's harder in one respect: after I get a page and make my phone calls, I often have nothing more to do but wait.

I wait for calls back from volunteers, for more details, for news of a stand-down or successful find.

Or not.

And the waiting puts me in an odd sort of limbo, lying in bed in the dark, willing sleep that won't come until I can calm my pulse--racheted up from the searing beep-beep-beep which tears me from my bed--especially when the call is a hard one to take.

Like last Wednesday's. This is what greeted me on the pager screen as I squinted against the glare of the kitchen light at 2:38 am:

ASSIST TO _____ COUNTY AUT 3YO FULL CALL OUT. REPORT TO STATION 7.

Which translates to a request of our help by a neighboring county to search for a missing three-year-old autistic child.

If that won't get you out of your warm bed, nothing will.

Oh, and it was raining. Hard. And as I made my calls then reported in with the search manager, I felt burdened by the knowledge that I would not be among them.

Because in the past, I have been, and while tiring and frustrating and heartbreaking, searching for the lost is among the most gratifying work I've ever been honored to be a part of. But Wednesday night--like every night--my own children were asleep in their beds, and when they woke, they would need their mother. As would my place of employment. And the soccer car pool, and my friend who'd asked me to babysit her preschooler.

And is any of that more important than the acute need of a missing child?

No.

But all of it combined, day in and day out, year after year is. And for me, this has been a hard realization to learn.

Almost as hard as the realities of the cases I've heard and the outcomes of the failed searches I've attended. Right now, while my kids are small and my responsibility to family and home are as strong as a magnetic pull, I can't go.

But this knowledge did nothing to negate the fact that this missing child continued to weigh on me all the next morning: as I went for my early morning run in the (ever increasing) wind and rain. As I got ready for work. As I got my kids prepared for the bus. As I taught kindergarteners to read. As I checked my email and put together blog posts. As I drove the soccer car pool.

I was caught up in the ebb and flow of my own little universe, all the while aware of another one: one filled with a child's fear and possible suffering and a family's anguish and my colleagues' exertion. Of course, we always are, aren't we, to some extent? We know about the earthquake on the other side of the globe, and yet we can't allow that to stop us from packing our first grader's lunch. We are aware, in some corner of our mind, of war-torn countries and suffering peoples and even the homeless man who sits every day at the corner by the coffee stand, and yet, we still muse over our grocery lists and deposit our pay checks and sign permission slips. We have to.

And so I was there, fighting the tide in that alternative universe-type place, right up until the moment, at 4:45 pm, when this page graced my screen:

ASSIST _____ COUNTY STAND
DOWN CHILD HAS BEEN LOCATED
ALIVE (I had to scroll down to see the word 'alive')

and for the first time all day, I relaxed, finally able to shake off some invisible burden.

I didn't hear the whole story behind this child's rescue until the debriefing (and I'm unable to give details here anyway), but in that moment, last Thursday afternoon at 4:45, as I searched the laundry pile for a soccer jersey and double-checked homework while thoughts of what's for dinner tugged at the corners of my mind, the waiting was over. The plane was done circling, the holding pattern broken.

And I was able to enjoy the serenity of a safe landing.
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