No Duffel Bags


I have a pretty steadfast, predictable measurement in my life as any kind of crisis or natural disaster is looming. Ranging from the number of duffel bags that end up in my living room, I can accurately measure the severity of what might be coming. In my experience, if it’s a big 2 day snowstorm, (2 duffel bags), a category 3 hurricane, (3 or more duffel bags), or perhaps nothing at all. (No bag packing is required).

I’ve been married to a First Responder for 28 years.  My husband Joe has been a firefighter/EMT for more years than I have known him – I’ve only been involved for the last 30 of them.  As a Captain for West Windsor Township Emergency Services Dept. and also as a member of NJ Task Force 1, there have been countless disruptions to our everyday normal life.  There is a rhythm that comes with the unpredictability of this life, I know that sounds odd, but I’ve learned to pick up on it, and when we face any kind of event that will disrupt us – I ask the questions I want to know the answers to, and if I don’t want to know about it, I don’t ask. This helps me manage what is in my control, and not worry about the rest.  Joe is a very calm guy. He doesn’t put on a front for me or our kids. He’s always honest with us, but he’s also steadfast and rock solid. There is a rhythm to our conversations and preparations before he is called in to work, or deployed with the task force, a bit like a music composition, taking on the tone of whatever may lie ahead.

As we’ve been wrestling this past month with the onslaught and unpredictability of the COVID-19 crisis, I have found myself thinking back over the past disruptions, I guess trying to help me find a way to cope a little bit better –  and here are a few.

9/11.  There was no time for talking because this all happened so fast. Off he went, we had a 3 year old preschooler. He was not yet a member of the NJ Task Force at that time, so he did not go on a lengthy deployment to NYC. Even though our lives were very disrupted, I felt very lucky.

Fast forward a couple of years to 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast.  He was actually out in New Mexico just beforehand attending a class, and he and his colleagues were watching the events, knowing they would be most likely sent out with their team.  He flew home, packed everything up (3 plus duffel bags), turned around in about 12 hours and left with the task force for New Orleans. We talked hurriedly as he re-packed everything. Shannon was just about to start kindergarten and Joseph was 2.  I remember standing in our kitchen as young Joseph held on to my leg and Joe made several trips out to his truck with his bags.  Since this was before the age of social media, I literally glued myself to cable news each night after the kids were in bed to keep up with what was happening.

In Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina

Hurricane Irene in 2011-  we knew this was coming and was going to hit NJ. He always makes sure we are prepared before he leaves, so he got the pump all hooked up and ready for the basement in case it flooded, and showed me how to turn it on.  We got big jugs of water to put in the bathtub (we have well water, so if we lose power we don’t have water either). We secured the rest of the outside, and then he went to work.  There was a lot of flooding, and we lost power for several days.  It was late August and Shannon was about to start 6th grade, and I remember going to orientation at the middle school while some neighborhoods (including ours) were still without power.

In the boat on Route 1 during Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Sandy in 2012 – this one scared me probably more than the previous storms, but I figured we had been through a hurricane the year before, so we could get through this one. (2 duffel bags). Joe left for work before it actually hit, once again everything was secured and ready, but I wasn’t prepared for how scary that wind would be overnight.  The kids and I slept in our bed and I couldn’t convince myself that a tree wasn’t going to fall on the house. Sandy was a wind event, but no flooding for us, and there were trees down everywhere. The power was out for almost two weeks, we had to get a generator because it was October and we needed the heat on. I remember sitting in my car charging my phone and doing conference calls with the staff at McCarter Theatre, where I was working at that time, to figure out when we were going to be able to open back up again.  The rhythm of this one was chaotic, unpredictable, and pretty dark.

His most recent long term deployment was for Hurricane Florence in 2018. The NJ Task force went to North Carolina, and this started with another bit of chaos since I had a work trip to Florida that I had to cancel, first because I was worried I’d get to Florida and not be able to get home, and though our kids are now older, we couldn’t have him leave without knowing when I could get home.  This was 3 duffel bag trip, and a calmer rhythm in our conversation because the storm wasn’t coming for us at our home.

Packing up to leave for his North Carolina Deployoment


So here we are in 2020, in the midst of this Global Pandemic.  This started several weeks ago with less worrisome conversation, but now is a serious silent undercurrent of concern at all times. As with everybody in this country, it has affected every facet of our lives, bringing Shannon home from college early, Joseph – a high school junior stopping every single activity that brings him the most happiness, (including soccer which is the center of our lives at the moment).  I am not traveling anywhere for work for the foreseeable future, when usually I am gone for several days each month. Life is very disrupted.

Yet there is not one duffel bag in our living room.

It’s unsettling to me, as the rhythm is off – we know that this crisis is out there, but he is home. There is no deployment, no marathon overtime hours, though all the phone calls that usually accompany those plans are happening daily/hourly.  His shifts have been moved so that he actually is working less frequently, which means he is home even more.

We take our job seriously as a first responder family. I am humbled by it, and this responsibility has always helped me to keep everything in perspective as well as understand my priorities. His job, and supporting him always comes first without a doubt. When our kids were young, my mom used to worry enough for both of us, she would ask me a million questions, and I would somehow be fine with all of it (which I think drove her crazy). I could handle the unpredictability; I found my way in understanding that I could not control the circumstances, but I could control my reaction to them.

But this is all out of control. There are no duffel bags to gauge the severity or longevity of the event. No context. I can’t say to myself:  Well, the last time there was a global pandemic, we did XYZ….  I am in uncharted territory, and not quite sure how to wrap my brain around the hour to hour changing landscape. I worry about every time he goes to work, yet I know worrying is not helpful.  My rational self knows what I need to do, but the irrationality of everything coming at me is sometimes overwhelming.  I have no doubt that every other family with a Doctor, a Nurse, an EMT, a Firefighter, a Police Officer or any other first responder or essential employee is feeling unprepared as well.  We don’t have a rhythm or a compass right now.  But yet, I know you are out there, and we are connected. We know what to do when we have to do it, and we know how to prioritize. We’ve got our support systems. So, I say with conviction, no matter what happens in the next month, we got this.

And maybe I’ll actually look forward (maybe) to the next time I see a duffel bag.