It took Joe twelve years to wear his uniform after he retired.
When I went through his closet, I could find nothing but the Windbreaker he wore on 9/11, his riot gear helmet and a bag filled with paper work.
I could not find his old uniforms. Not sure how to ask him without bringing up bad memories, I worked myself in to the conversation stating that we’ll be out soon telling our stories, giving some History of 9/11 and he should represent his department.
That’s when he told me, he threw his uniforms away when cleaned out his locker.
“I’ve served my coutry, during the Viet Nam era, I’ve devoted 31 years to the NYPD. I have always protected and serve, even when the people I’ve protected have turned against me. I saved no one on 9/11. What I thought were manicans broken apart, were actual human beings. I bought no home home or their loved ones peace. I don’t deserve that uniform. I let my city down.”
It was time for me to get him out of that. But how?
The answer would come a few days later. A friend I had not seen in years was staring at us on line at the supermarket. What are the chances? We smiled. Asked the required-How are you’s? And then she asked about our lives. She really didn’t seem interested so we didn’t say much.We helped her during trying times, took in her children when she was sick and included them in all of our outtings. At one point, apparently Joe had said somethig that offended her and she cut ties. No matter what we tried to do to rectify things, it was more important for her to remember that one thing Joe did but not all the good things we have done.
Joe looked at me and asked what that had to do with uniform.
Simple. We should always remember the good in all our friends and remember that they are human. We are humans. We make mistakes. How valuable was our friendship to her that she never wanted to mend fences? She was willing to throw years of friendship for words that we honestly don’t remember Joe saying. As is his uniform. He wore it to receive his medals. He wore it at funeral to honor his buddies.He wore even after he and his second partner got into “situations” only two knuckleheads would get into. (Those are his words, not mine.) He was never once ashamed of wearing that uniform. On 9/11 he wore it to protect and serve and that’s just what he did. He didn’t let his past mistakes on the job, stop him from running into the site to save people. So why should he be ashamed to wear it now. He should wear it now with the same pride. And there’s no mistake about that.
He thought it was too late for that any way, since he threw it all away. But I remember the day he retired. I had made him months before get copies of his “ribbons”, the term they use for what each medal he’s been awarded stands for. I wanted to put it all in a frame. And I still had that. I had his uniform hat as well and his shield. For his birthday, three years ago, a birthday we cannot celebrate on 9/11, I bought him a uniform.
Sadly by the time I thought of the idea and borrowed one of his suits so the uniform guy could use those measurements, he had been diagnosed with 5 WTC diseases, one of them cancer. When the uniform arrived two days before his birthday, I was excited to see it. He’s a handsome man when in uniform. Very handsome. When he opened the box, he stared.
He looked up at me, stared back at the uniform, touched every inch of the jacket, touched his ribbons, took a deep breathe, rubbed his eyes and said, “Wow, I got to get back in this huh?” When he tried it on, the man who once weighed 210 pounds was now 170 pounds. He looked like a boy doing his first Holy Communion wearing a suit two sizes to big because his parents wanted him to wear it again the following year for confirmation. That’s the way things were years ago. But that day, three years ago, the big uniform was because he had lost so much weight.
Now I was staring at him, at the uniform and his new hat. I looked at his ribbons and began to quiz him on what each one meant. He held my hand and said, “I’ll wear it. I earned it but so did you. Let’s go get this fixed.”
And we did. And he wore it that year, the year after and the picture above is him honoring is buddies Stephen Patrick Driscoll and William John Perry during Police Week, one year ago in May.
He will be wearing his uniform this year. Only it will be in Gander, Newfoundland where we will be going with a group of friends to show our gratitude to the town that showed so much love, care and humanity at a time when we were all so frightened, so fearful and in so much pain.
Five more days.
Be kind to others. Be good to yourself.