We are gathered on the porch, exchanging presents, sharing some champagne and crackers too.

We are gathered to celebrate Christmas, but have gathered a day early on Christmas Eve because the weather is supposed to blow hard on Christmas day, making socially-distant porch gatherings not very enjoyable.

We are gathered to raise a glass for the holiday but really we are gathered to celebrate a life that was nearly lost. On Nov. 21 my brother in law Kevin Brennan fell from a fire truck while preparing for the funeral of Allan deBettencourt, a fireman for 58 years who died at the age of 83.

Kevin has been a volunteer fireman and EMT for decades, in New Jersey and on the Vineyard. He always has a radio at his side, when out walking or in the house, no matter what day or time, the messages crackling over the intercom, and then he is gone, grabbing his jacket and equipment to rush to the scene of a fire or accident while we remain seated at the table, eating and drinking and saving a plate for whenever he returns.

Kevin has never, to my knowledge, fallen off a fire truck, but he did on that Saturday and nearly died of head injuries. He was flown to Boston and it was touch and go, but now here we are, many weeks later gathered on his porch, listening to him tell stories and sounding the same as before the accident. 

Kevin has lost 20 pounds. He is a lean man who did not have 20 pounds to lose, but otherwise he looks good and remembers everything about his life and the people he loves. He does not remember the accident, though, or the few weeks after while he lay in bed in the hospital. Kevin wants to remember those moments, to deconstruct the scene like he has been trained to do, but the rest of us do not want to remember those details.

We are gathered on the porch, standing as you do, swapping anecdotes and memories in between opening presents, when a large fire truck rolls up the lane, a narrow dirt lane, and the huge truck rubs up against the branches and bushes as it approaches. Its lights flash like a Christmas tree, but no sirens, not tonight.

We are gathered on the porch and the fire truck stops. Matt Gongola, Robert Tabares and James Moreis Jr. get out. They are wearing masks but there is no stopping the hugs as they greet Kevin in person for the first time since the accident, these men and several other men and women like them, including Matt Bradley who was on the scene that day, who knew what to do because they had been trained to save lives. They attended one of their own that day, kept Kevin’s head intact and his vitals pumping, rushed him to the hospital and then onto a helicopter.

If it were not for these men and women and what they know how to do, have volunteered their time and energy for, we would be gathered on the porch minus one.

And as the men hug and talk and we take pictures of the group, we can’t stop saying thank you, please pass the thank yous, have another helping of thank yous, to all the men and women who choose to save lives and homes and pets hiding out in burning bedrooms while the rest of us stay at home, marveling at what they do but never really knowing what they do until they attend to one of our own.

And as the firemen drive away, we gather once again on the porch to wave and shed tears that we do not wipe away because they feel so good.