Monday, September 21, 2009

Capacity, By Erica Orloff

I used to believe in God. We weren’t on a first-name basis, so perhaps, to be fair, I should say I was a healthy agnostic.

But Michael O’Malley believed. Every Sunday, you could find him in a wooden pew, except when he was at the firehouse. And he held tight to Luke 12:7. I had to look it up.

And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are more valuable to him than a whole flock of sparrows.

For the sake of journalistic integrity, I should tell you that I knew Mike enough to quote his favorite Bible passage. But not so much that he reached out to me at the end. But for a while, I was his confessor and friend.

After 9/11, I was assigned to his firehouse. I followed the remaining firefighters around for six months. I went to seven funerals. I talked to seven widows. I watched the firefighters for signs that they were cracking. I did it to tell their story.

I wrote six articles on the firehouse. And in all my interviews, Mike was the one I worried about. You write about crime and pain and death for long enough, and you see it in someone’s eyes.

“I had pulled out a woman. On my back. And when I went to go back in . . . all that was left was ash. Like Vesuvius.”

That was another thing I learned about Mike. Luke 12:7 . . . and the History Channel.

About a year and a half later, I heard he had taken medical leave. So much crap in his lungs that when he went to sleep at night, he felt like he was drowning.

We had lunch, grabbing gyros at a place down in the Village, drinking Savatiano out of jelly jar glasses.

“My wife left me,” he said softly.

I shook my head. “Sorry, Man.”

“Took Gracie with her. Said I wasn’t the man she married.” He coughed and winced.

“Maybe counseling . . .” I offered it feebly.

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. I’m not the man she married. I’ll never be him again.”

After two more glasses of Savatiano, we shook hands. I didn’t expect to see him again.

My life got busy. I left the Times and got a job writing for a magazine. I got a book deal on the side. Not enough to live on, but enough that I could catch up in life, put something aside. I forgot about Mike most days.

Then, on the anniversary, about three years ago, I heard from him.

“Want to meet at the Greek place?” he asked. I could hear something in his voice. Elusive. Happy.

Over lunch he told me he started a charity. He had a buddy who pulled two kids’ bodies from an apartment fire in Harlem. And he had this idea. Smoke alarms for the poor.

“I heard of that,” I said. “Saw something . . . CNN maybe. That’s you?”

He nodded proudly.

We drank Athiri this time and skipped the gyros. I wished him well. He smiled and reminded me of Luke 12:7. “He wouldn’t let me fall.”


“God. He knew I was reaching my limit. My capacity. Couldn’t take much more. God gave me the idea. Gave me something to live for.”

Mike’s charity grew. I mean, took off. Donations poured in. Some movie star gave him a hundred grand. It spread to other cities all across the United States. He got invited to the White House.

And an investment banker said he could take all the charity’s money and double it. Triple it even. Seemed like a smart move.

And then . . . poof.

“Gone up like paper in a flame,” he told me. No gyros or Greek wine this time. Boilermakers in a gritty place near Clinton.

“I’m so sorry, Mike,” I whispered.

“Kids will die.”

“But that’s not your fault.”

“But whose fault is it? The investment guy? He was a liar. The banks that let these guys do this? The SEC? Who? Whose fault? When 9/11 happened . . . it was someone’s fault. It has to have a fault.”

When we shook hands this time, it was me . . . I quoted Luke.

“God’s for suckers,” he said.

The picture in the Times, one of my old colleagues said, was the last known photograph of Mike. Shortly after a photographer from the Times took it, Mike was hauled off in handcuffs. He screamed the whole way to the station house. “Whose fault?”

He hung himself in a holding cell.

I went to his funeral.

And now . . . every Sunday, when I can, I drop in a church near my apartment. I say a prayer for Mike’s soul. Not because I believe in God. But . . . because no matter what Mike said, I don’t think Mike really thought God was for suckers. And maybe someone has to remind God of sparrows.


Sarah Laurenson said...

I don't know what to say except - Thank you.

E. Flanigan said...

Such a powerful topic, and very well done. You treated Mike with respect, not pity — even though his situation was so, so sad.

Your story honored 9/11, but was also a reminder that the events from that day have not been "settled" or "resolved" in any real way. For the survivors, the story continues.

Perhaps God had numbered every hair on Mike's head, but we — the community around him — have failed to. The saddest part of your story is that it's true.

Natasha Fondren said...

That's so sad. Heartbreaking!

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, Sara. I hadn't intended a 9/11 tribute, but that's what popped into my head.

Erica Orloff said...

I have been pondering a couple of friends under extreme stress lately and thinking about human capacity, so I do feel Mike is deserving of respect.


Erica Orloff said...


LurkerMonkey said...

You know what I really liked about this? That it wove in so many of the threads of modern life. In the past decade, we've been buffeted by so many Big Events, from 9/11 to the financial crisis and the Iraq War and just all that stuff. This story was very "there," it was very of the moment and I think it contained so much of the pathos and sadness of our times in so few words. I felt "literary."

Merry Monteleone said...

Very well done, Erica - I just finished Fruedian Slip like two hours ago - what's with you and the sparrows? :-)

Sometimes you have to wonder if God misjudges what we can handle... or maybe it's us who are misjudging Him. Big questions with no concrete answer are always the most fun to explore.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks! I feel a collective pressure over the world in terms of modern life . . . so this was intended to reflect that thread you picked up.

Erica Orloff said...

I love the imagery of sparrows. Of course, I am borrowing it from the Bible, but still . . .


Melanie Avila said...

This is a very touching story and like Lurker and Erika said, I love how you've incorporated events that we're all familiar with, yet have let slip to the back of our minds.

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, Melanie. Grief is usually one of my major themes so it cropped up here.

Jude Hardin said...

There's an old saying that God only gives us what we can handle, but the book of Job teaches us that that's not really true. Sometimes people get more than they can handle. Much more. Job also teaches us that it's okay to get angry at God sometimes, question Him, even doubt Him. It is sad when someone so completely loses faith that they take their own life, though. Understandable in some ways, but sad nonetheless.

Powerful themes here, Erica. Nice job!

Erica Orloff said...

Thanks, Jude. Have known too many people who gave up. :-(