No Surprises: navigating tragedy with faith, family and the FDNY
Chapter 3 Manhattan, Meetings and Memorials (First draft unedited)
Saturday morning Pastor Steve stopped by to say, “he was going for it.” Translation he was going to speak about salvation, faith, the gospel message. I knew Bruce would have wanted that. This was the time to show in words and actions what we truly believed. This was the “if we truly believe what we say believe it better be different” moment. The service was scheduled for 2pm. The 15-passenger van came in handy. We picked up my parents and hung out at their house for a little while because we couldn’t arrive too early for the service. Things needed to be in place before we arrived. I, however, just want to get it over with.
When we arrived at Maranatha a huge American flag hung between two fire department ladder trucks. Firefighters were starting to gather. We waited in Pastor Charlie’s office with those who were speaking. When I realized I left my Bible in the van, Pastor Charlie handed me his and I was struck by the realization that he was one for many years who “gave me the Bible” each and every week. There was a sense of profound gratitude and comfort. It was awkward just hanging out waiting to start the service. Everyone had already expressed their condolences and small talk seemed inappropriate.
We were escorted into the sanctuary while Jon Werking played the prelude. I wanted to look around to see who was there but that seemed improper.
The firefighters who had been waiting outside filed in to take their seats. Almost immediately someone started clapping. Eventually Jon stopped playing as everyone was standing and clapping for the firefighters. My heart broke for the firefighters as the stress of the last weeks was evident on their faces. The honor guard processed carrying the various flags. The congregation sang “The Church’s One Foundation” led by Pastor Steve and the worship team from my home church. I love that hymn. The words speak such truth and there was a special memory from June 2001 attached to it. When we attended the Sunday morning worship service at General Assembly for the Church of the Nazarene along with 20,000 other believers, all the words for the choruses had been projected on the screens except for the last song “The Church’s One Foundation.” The assumption was everyone knew the words to that hymn. It is considered a standard in the church. The only problem was my girls didn’t know it. Bruce and I were shocked. What do you mean you never heard that song before? We related the story to Pastor Steve who was equally dismayed but also realized that “we” hadn’t been singing those old standards in church that was quickly remedied. Hymns began to appear in the song list on Sundays.
Pastor Steve welcomed everyone saying, “we were here today to remember Richard Bruce Van Hine, who was a husband, father, brother, son, faithful friend, member of the greatest fire department in the world, committed church member and most importantly a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.” That set the tone for the rest of the service. The clergy who spoke were all those who had spoken truth into our lives through the years. These were men and women who knew Bruce.
Pastor Jerry besides being a pastor had been a member of the FDNY for 30 years. He and Bruce hadn’t been on the department at the same time, but that brotherhood bond was real. He was visibly shaken and said, “I am hurting today.”
Pastor Maureen Garcia, my mentor and friend, shared a George McDonald quote:
“…Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because He said, Do it, or once abstained because He said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe, in Him, if you do not do anything He tells you…”
Dr. Dale Noel, a gentle and unassuming church friend, who had been a hiking buddy of Bruce’s offered a beautiful prayer. As part of the prayer he quoted 2 Timothy 4:7 – “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Pastor Steve would later mention those same verses and personalize them – “Bruce fought the fight, Bruce finished the race, Bruce kept the faith.”
Charlie and Craig offered words of tribute. Charlie mentioned he had only known Bruce for five years, but it felt like he had always known him. It seemed as they lived parallel lives as they both had started tree businesses in the 1970’s. Charlie spoke of tree work, hiking, firefighting and faith. He got a laugh from stating “in the fire department we say to be abused is to be loved. Bruce was definitely loved.” Charlie included 1 Thessalonians 4 – “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” I smiled when I heard him quote those verses as he didn’t know they were a favorite of mine. Sometimes little tattletales need to hear “did you know mind your own business is in the Bible?”
Craig had actually always known Bruce. Bruce’s parents and Craig’s parents had been friends since the 1930’s. Craig and Bruce grew up together. Craig introduced me to Bruce. Craig spoke of Bruce as a loyal friend and a keeper of secrets. If you told Bruce something in confidence Bruce didn’t repeat it.
Then it was my turn to speak, I walked to the platform trying not to make eye contact with anyone. There was a coin imprinted in the podium and rubbing my finger over it felt real, felt solid.
“To the firefighters, thank you for how you have cared for us. To the firefighters’ wives and girlfriends, we need to sit and have tea, soon. To my friends and family, I want to say I have no regrets. To my church family, thank you and I think I have gained a few pounds. Different thoughts have come to mind as I thought about what I wanted to say but I haven’t written anything down. Here goes. This past June, we went on a family trip to Indianapolis for General Assembly for the Church of the Nazarene. I had the opportunity to go to General Assembly four years ago and I knew if I was afforded the opportunity to go again I wanted all of us to go. So, we decided to make it a family adventure. The only problem became Meghan’s eighth grade graduation was Tuesday and I needed to be in Indianapolis on Wednesday. So, we made it an adventure and drove overnight. I can tell you two things – it was very dark and there are lots of big trucks. I had printed out my schedule and possible schedules for the girls and Bruce. I had a plan. Within hours the girls and Bruce had a different plan. I was disappointed and as I prayed the still small voice of God said “I told you to get them here. I didn’t tell you to plan their days.” So, we decided that dinners and evening service were together. And we had the best time. I believe the same is true for today Bruce got you here. Personally, I would have preferred a different way to get you here. We showed you God. And what you do with that is your business. God is a gentleman. He will never force his way in. We showed you love. The Bible says God is love. So, you have seen God.”
I returned to my sit during a standing ovation. Pastor Steve would give a sermon entitled “prepared in and out of season” in which he gave a strong Gospel message. One more song and the Benediction concluded the worship service. Pastor Steve invited the two city officials to read the letters from the Mayor and the Governor. I got my wish the mayor wasn’t present. Not because I told him not to come but because there were so many funerals. The two gentlemen I ran into at Squad 41 were present. They were very respectful of our wishes and I appreciated that. Before the colors were retired Captain Vomero of Squad 41, presented Emily with a Memorial Firefighter helmet and Charlie handed Meghan Bruce’s dress hat. Years ago, Meghan had secretly added a piece of paper to the inside of Bruce’s hat so that when he took it off at functions he would see it. It said, “I love you Dad” and was signed Megs.
Captain Vomero instructed the firefighters to file out and again there was a standing ovation and thunderous applause. And then Emily, Meghan and I walked out the side door followed by my family. I felt like I was leading a parade. There was a silence that you could almost hear. As I walked around to the front of the church the firefighters stood in formation, I heard only one sound my heels on the pavement. The firefighters stared straight ahead I offered a weak smile. There were people standing across the street, but the silence was what filled my mind. How can it be so quiet? Midland Avenue is a busy street. Silence except for my heels on the pavement. There was no bag piper. I decided I couldn’t do the bag piper that would have been the thing that sent me over the cliff. We reentered the church through a downstairs walkway for the reception. Cheesecake from the Bronx and coffee Bruce’s favorites.
Days before the service, Emily, Meghan and I came up with a code phrase just in case things got weird. We didn’t even know what that meant but felt it was a good idea to have a phrase. Our phrase was “Bubble moment.” You know how in comics there is a bubble above the person’s head not the dialogue bubbles, but the what I am really thinking or the what were you thinking when you just said that bubbles. If Emily or Meghan needed my immediate attention no matter where we were or what was happening “Bubble moment” was all they had to say. Thankfully my daughters’ friends from school, camp and church attended to be their support system as I navigated greeting people. There were no bubble moments just amazement at the number of people who attended and the distances they had traveled to be at the service. Friends drove up from South Carolina and were driving back following the service.
The postcards gave us a true sense of who had attended. Many were placed in the basket and many more arrived in the mail for weeks. The fact that people took the time to share stories and encouragement wasn’t lost on us.
The reality that our personal loss was part of something so much bigger was reenforced by the fact excerpts of the Bruce’s memorial service aired on the evening news and were mentioned in the newspaper.