As the city struggles through a dying summer’s final heat wave, I find myself seeking refuge in any establishment that boasts a refreshing chill from an A/C unit. Ironically, this means I am back at the local coffee shop, enjoying a nice, hot, beverage.
While claiming a chair at one of the tables in the corner, I do a quick scan of my surroundings, taking note of what’s around me – mostly people seeking shelter from the blistering heat of a sun that’s in denial as well, after feeling satisfied that I have seen enough, I sit down, and scroll through endless miles of social media.
While doing that, I came across a picture that my friend had taken, and then posted to his account. It was a picture of Edmonton, a city I know all too well… It is the city where I spent majority of my time working as a paramedic. At first glance, the photograph is gorgeous. A picturesque ensemble of colors and textures. Through the bottom half of the photo, is the river valley, snaking its way along the edges of the picture. On the top half, the sprawling city skyline, building atop of building, some old, some new. Tucked perfectly in behind those giants, a flawlessly blue sky. Like I said, at first glance, a truly beautiful picture.
For me though, I could not help but look at this picture and begin to remember, to recall and re-live, past events that had unfolded on those city streets that were hidden in behind the statuesque, sky-reaching towers of glass and stone. I could not help but look at the high-level bridge, and remember the jumper. A man who had flung himself from the lengthy suspended piece of road, connecting north and south sections of the city. A man whose body was pulled from the North Saskatchewan, broken, bloated and water-logged. I remembered the overturned car on the bridge itself. Not that it was traumatic, it was just something I recalled. Point is, I could not look at that photo nor likely drive past the streets of Edmonton without saying, yep, there was a dead guy there, and there, oh, and there! Edmonton, the city of the dead. And this picture, a postcard of the past.
You know those ghost tours or haunted house guides droves of people pay money for? Well, come with me to Edmonton, I’ll take you on a tour. Ghosts are not guaranteed (not for you anyway) but, bleak realities of a lesser known world most definitely are…
Funny, isn’t it, how a simple photograph can bring about so much emotion or reflection inside of oneself? I know that I spend too much time living IN the past, as opposed to living WITH the past, and I am working on that, it’s a task that has proven more challenging than imagined but, I am working on it…
Someone once asked me, “Don’t you remember any good things you’ve done as a medic?” Sure I do, really, I do, it’s just the reality of being a first responder is this: no one is calling us on their best day. They are calling us because it’s their worst day, so, for the most part, we are completely saturated in the bad of day-to-day life for others. For me, and many people I know, this has the lasting effect of seeping over into our lives outside of uniform as well; seeing only the bad or, assuming the worst or most nefarious of scenarios. I mean, how could we not, day in, day out, night in, night out, for ten, twelve, or even fifteen hours of a shift, for years, that’s all we bore witness to – the worst man has to offer.
If you read back, you will see how I scanned the room before sitting, I was not scanning the room or its people because I wanted to see who else was hiding from the bullying heat of the sun, I was making sure my arcs of fire were covered, and my flanks were protected. I was looking for sinister looking individuals that didn’t fit the rest of the decor. I was scanning for threats, and looking for the exits. Assuming the worst, a practice I have gotten quite good at. It was also a practice that I needed to employ to ensure that I could go home at the end of a shift. The stark and unexaggerated reality of being a first responder, is that we literally work in life and death for a living, even when we are not at “work”.
Part of me started to feel sorry for myself, sorry that I was unable to look at a photograph and see it for what it was – beautiful. As I started down that path of self-pity, I noticed a gnawing sensation of anger growing within me. My palms began to moisten with sweat. My breathing quickened, and my face tightened with annoyance. I sat like this for longer than I would have liked. It took having an elderly man asking if I could pass him some napkins from the counter beside me, to realize that I was in a safe place, and that not everyone wishes to do me harm.
If I can convince myself of that over and over, maybe one day I will learn to believe it. And maybe, just maybe, I can look at a photograph, and see it for its intended meaning, and not see it as a postcard of the past. Maybe… just maybe…
Side note: That old guy, the one who asked me for napkins, he did seem kinda shady… I don’t trust his cane… And what’s that hump on his back!? … (Kidding!)