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I went to NYC for the screening of the finale of FX series Rescue Me at the Ziegfeld Theatre last month. I purchased tickets for a friend & myself, the price of which was actually a donation since the evening was a fundraiser for Leary Firefighters Foundation. Because my husband travels quite a bit for work we usually have a couple frequent flyer tickets stored up, which makes it a much more feasible thing for me to travel for something like this event, so far away from Texas. I also found out about a previously undiscovered (by me) hotel right by Central Park that was–by NYC standards–surprisingly affordable.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the series Rescue Me has been a thing for which I’m incredibly grateful for a lot of reasons. Because in & of itself, this television show was phenomenally written. It is the M*A*S*H of the recently post-September 11 TV-viewing America. I had thought this was an original idea, my comparison of Rescue Me to M*A*S*H, but when John Landgraf (the head of FX network) spoke at the Rescue Me finale screening event he made the comparison as well.

Which means great minds really do thing alike. Or that John Landgraf–in a desperate search for something meaningful & relevant to say about Rescue Me in his speech–came across my blog (about riding a recumbent trike in the NYC Marathon, Service Dogs & MS) & stole borrowed my idea.

Yeah, OK, not really.

As much as I’d love to believe that network executives rank among the couple dozen (on a good day) folks who regularly read my blog, I’m not quite that delusional.

The comparison of Rescue Me to M*A*S*H (one of the greatest television shows of the 20th century) is not exactly a great leap. In fact I think they dance in the same shoes, to the same song. M*A*S*H explored the people & politics, personal & professional relationships of medical/surgical intervention only slightly-removed from the frontlines during war-time, using storytelling & the medium of television. Rescue Me did the same for firefighters and other first responders in the aftermath of 9/11.

Just as M*A*S*H helped viewers understand, process, grieve & come together to effect social & political changes–so has Rescue Me. Art, at its finest, I believe.

I’m working on a novel based on my father’s experiences during the Texas City Disaster of 1947. There are amazing similarities between the historical events of the Korean & Vietnam wars, September 11 & the Texas City Disaster. Chief among those similar elements is survivor’s guilt, the exploration of how we keep going when so many others no longer have that option. Especially when one–or dozens–of the lost were your brethren, your neighbors, your coworkers, your family. Storytelling focused on those whose job, whose calling it is to rush towards the kind of danger & devastation that everyone else is running away from.

When what you train for, when what you do–day-in & day-out–is save lives, how do you deal with the loss of those you were not able to save? Especially those working by your side & your own loved ones.

Anyone can–many of us do–experience survivor’s guilt. But what I’m most interested in is this: how do you deal with survivor’s guilt associated to someone close to you, when you’re the one who’s usually the savior?

Speaking of “saviors” brings me to another reason I was keen to go to the series finale of Rescue Me. I’m a member of Team Leary Firefighters Foundation for the NYC Marathon. I don’t run like most of the racers–heck, I don’t even walk, since 26.2 miles is a mite long for Luke, my mobility assistance dog. I ride a recumbent trike as reasonable accommodation for a disability (MS). I’m actually the first person to have done so.

Look at me, making history at something! Who would’ve thunk that, eh? In truth, it’s not like I’ve not anything impossible. I merely did something that no one before had done in this particular race. Still, I fought hard for the right to do so (I’ll talk more about that battle in another post; quite a story, trust me). I hope that there will soon be many others–a fleet of trike-piloting racers!–inspiring other challenged athletes to join us.

I chose Team Leary Firefighters Foundation in large part because of my father & his experiences during & after the Texas City Disaster, but truth be told I’ve always been a huge fan of firefighters. Which tends to happen when your life’s been saved by one. (in fact, as a little girl I used to daydream that the firefighter who saved me would come back & sweep me off my feet like Cinderella’s prince did)

Again, you can read more about this in my previous post. And if you’re new here & want to know more about my efforts with Team Leary Firefighters, you can go to the About page for this blog.

So, my point (yes, I do have one) ((finally)) is that I was beyond-excited to be going to the screening & after party. I hoped, too, that I might have the opportunity to meet Ann Leary, one of my favorite writers. She’s married to that guy–oh, what’s his name? Right, you know, the co-creator of Rescue Me. I dare say I was probably the only person headed to the Rescue Me finale & after party who was just as (even more?) eager to meet Ann Leary as I was Denis Leary.

Seriously, how much writing talent can you pack into one gene pool?

Denis Leary is, arguably, more well-known for his acting–and I’m certainly a fan of his talent in that area–but of his many talents, it’s his writing I most admire. With both Learys, their sense of humor is what pulls me in and keeps my attention. Those Learys are the kind of funny that has you guffawing one moment, then sideways slow-motion gut-punched the next, with too-true glimpses of everything from timely pop culture to timeless misunderstandings in personal, community and global relationships. Each Leary accomplishes this humor-edged commentary in their own way, and yet there is something–a kind of “echoing,” if you will–that resonates as more alike than different. It’s really easy to see why these two are a couple.

The Rescue Me fundraiser invitation didn’t advertise or promise anybody getting to meet the actors/writers/directors, etc. of course. But all of those folks were going to be in attendance, and, hey, one can always dream, right?

My friend Sharon & I had a divine meal near the theater & then arrived at the Ziegfeld full of anticipation for the evening ahead. I found Mardi Grant & Sharon Badal (of Leary Firefighters Foundation) & gave them hugs, then we found seats near the front, off of a side aisle, to accommodate a nap-sprawling Lukeness. The lights dimmed about half-way to encourage folks to take their seats & quiet down. I was leaning in to my friend Sharon & whispering about Chapstick of all things (how no matter how many I buy I never seem to have any with me when I need it). I noticed someone in my peripheral vision kneeling down in the aisle by my seat to pet Luke. The person was kind of behind my shoulder & I could only see his hands ruffling Luke’s neck fur, leaning in close to his face & saying something in that voice people reserve for talking to babies & dogs.

Luke was making happy-dog noises, those little grunting-sighs.

I honestly wasn’t paying too much attention because I couldn’t see the guy, and because it–people loving on Luke & cooing to him–happens all the time. I don’t mind people interacting with Luke as long as I’m sitting or standing still in a wide stance (so that the petting/interaction doesn’t affect my balance). It’s always better to ask before petting any dog, most especially a service dog, but in the getting-ready hushing atmosphere of the theater just then I wasn’t bothered in the least that somebody had paused on the way to his seat to greet Luke.

The lights dimmed even further and Sharon & I settled into our seats more thoroughly. The crowd in the theater finally grew still & quiet with anticipation. And that’s when I noticed that the voice, still carrying on to Luke about how wonderful he is, sounded *incredibly* familiar. As in, the guy I heard every week for 8 seasons of Rescue Me familiar.

As in Denis Leary. Feeling up my dog. Right next to me. And then he stood up & walked to the front of the theatre, because the screening was about to begin.

Luke’s gaze followed to assess whether the snuggling-&-sweet-nothings session was indeed over. He stood up & attempted to follow. I’m sure Denis Leary’s voice sounded just as familiar to Luke since he’d been watching Rescue Me his entire life.

I had to tell Luke twice to lie down, which he finally did with an exaggerated, wistful sigh, resting his fluffy golden head back on the carpeted aisle & settling in for a snooze. (his usual go-to position in theaters)

Before the film rolled John Landgraf read some of the glowing praise about Rescue Me from the NY Times & other newspapers. Peter Tolen (co-creator of Rescue Me) gave a hysterical speech, not missing a single opportunity to rib Denis (yes, we’re on a first name basis now that he felt up my service dog).

A large contingent from the FDNY took the stage upon invitation, in recognition & in thanksgiving. Niels Jorgensen made a very moving speech.  Niels, like many FDNY & other first responders from 9/11, has cancer. His friend, also FDNY, has the same cancer. The treatments cost 12,000 a month.  He is reimbursed by the city, but for less than $4,000 a month. A travesty.

It would have taken all night for Niels to recount the names of all his friends and associates who who are now sick from inhaling toxins during rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of 9/11 .  This is something that just doesn’t get enough attention in the press. It’s a disgrace the way our country refuses to assist our heroes: firefighters, cops, other first responders & all those involved on September 11 & for weeks, months following. Our veterans are treated similarly when they return home from war, injured & suffering. As a nation, our tendency has been, and continues to be, to look away.

But on the night of the Rescue Me finale, the stage was filled–shoulder to shoulder–with firefighters. Applause was echoing throughout the theater, a standing ovation. There were animated, vigorous whoops & cheers, foot-stomping & ear-splitting whistles.

I’m confident that I was not the only one crying and clapping at the same time.

I will never forget the sight of all those firefighters. The sound of recognition, appreciation & love that rang out that night. It was worth the trip all the way from Texas, and the screening itself had not even happened yet.

I will always remember one thing in particular–like italics in my mind–that Neils Jorgenson said. As a firefighter & on behalf of the entire FDNY, he told Denis Leary & Peter Tolan, John Lundgren & all of those who made Rescue Me possible:

“Thank you for telling our story, never leaving us behind, and believing in us.”

From the way the invitation read I thought the after party mentioned was going to be like a “wrap party.” I’ve been to plenty of wrap parties during my years involved with theatre and I’ve even been lucky enough to attend a few wrap parties for films, but none of those festivities prepared me for the experience of the Rescue Me after party. Not by a L O N G shot.

Let’s just say I felt a bit like Dorothy picked up & spun around, then dropped into a strange new place she never could’ve imagined. Instead of crooning little people there was bass-thumping music so loud that my friend and I could barely hear each other, even when we cupped our hands and hollered directly into a straining ear.

Instead of a yellow brick road & the occasional crossing of paths with witches, lions, tin men or talking scarecrows, there was no discernible pathway to walk, only a swaying, bobbing crowd of people that seemed to grow larger & closer and multiply with each next chart-topping song spun out by the DJ. I liked the music selections well enough, I just didn’t want to feel every note jumping in the pit of my stomach & echoing from ribcage to skull to the tiny bones in my feet & back again.

The bass was humming & throbbing in my hip sockets, my jaw & collar bones. I could feel the metal links of my silver necklace buzzing against the skin of my clavicles. Like tiny almost-invisible wings of bees & humming birds trapped just under my flesh, hiding out between neck & shoulders on either side of my throat. Their motors revving in sync with the music, their engines trapped in-place.

I know, I know, I sound like an old, wildly unhip lady talking about music & crowds this way. I can’t help it. Not even in my teens or twenties did I find music of that high of a volume to be entertaining or desirable, and I’ve never liked places or events where tons & tons of people are in attendance.

It’s even worse, now, with a mobility assistance dog, because in crowded environments folks just don’t see Luke & end up bumping into him, or worse, stepping on his tender paws. People in smushed-together spaces also bump into me, throwing off my balance and it’s challenging to utilize Luke properly to keep my equilibrium in check when there’s not enough room for him to fit comfortably beside me. Plus, when it’s crowded like that, Luke’s posture is stiff, every sense & muscle on full-alert.

He’s such a devoted creature who takes his responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. He can tell by the way I’m holding onto the leash (or harness) & by the sound of my voice how I’m feeling, how well–or not–I’m ambulating on a given surface, through a passage, in a crowd. Whenever he senses I’m anxious, he becomes stressed, too. Given how miserable I was with the crushing mass of bodies & the crashing loudness of music, I could only imagine how Luke was feeling with his more sensitive canine ears, with his level of hyper-vigilence & concern ratcheted up because of mine.

Sharon, my friend who’d come along, braved the line to one of the bars & brought us both a glass of red wine. We tried to talk but just couldn’t manage a conversation over the music. She motioned me back toward the entrance of the restaurant by the street, so that I could hear her tell me that the environment was too much for her & she was going to head home to Brooklyn. While I completely understood her wanting to escape the music & the crowd (because I felt the exact same desire), I really wanted to try to find Mardi Grant again and see if I could meet Denis to thank him for the writing on the show, as well as the opportunity of being with Team LFF.

Participating in the NYC Marathon had long been a dream of mine back when I was doing Triathlons in my late teens and early twenties, but when multiple sclerosis came into my life & I no longer had the balance to run, I was forced to leave that goal behind on the side of the road. Then I discovered recumbent trikes and began training, and when I contacted Team Leary Firefighters Foundation they not only welcomed having a challenged athlete on their team, but also advocated for my right to be able to ride the trike as reasonable accomodation for a disability with New York Road Runners (who host the marathon).

I wanted to tell Denis Leary that the experience of making my formerly-abandoned NYC Marathon dream come true was life-changing; that I’m grateful I get to participate again this year; that I hope I’ll be able to do so every year, till I cannot ride anymore.

I also wanted to tell him that what he did–taking his personal grief and transforming it into a foundation that changes the lives of so many firefighters & their families, helping save lives in our communities by getting firefighters the training & equipment they need–is what I consider grace in action.

And though I’ve corresponded with Ann Leary via email & “talk” with her through her blog discussions sometimes, I wanted, as I’ve mentioned, to actually meet her. For many of the same reasons I wanted to meet her husband. Not because of their status or celebrity. But because nothing takes the place of looking someone you admire in the eye & saying how much their art means to you, how much it has entertained & transported & comforted you. How much what they have said or done or created has altered you and made a difference–that you can point to–in your life. Has in fact healed you, made you stronger, woken you up, and perhaps even better, led you to action of your own, and to the art inside of you.

Maybe it’s a writer thing? Or an artist in general thing? I don’t really know how to explain it.  That desire to make a personal connection with someone who’s gifted you with the way they see the world, with what they do in the world to effect change. I do know I believe very much in extending gratitude to those who make a difference in our lives, to the people who inspire & motivate us, to those who cause us to strive towards being more authentic in our art, more impassioned & resourceful & creative architects of crafting rich, deep, significant, “out loud” lives.

A few years ago, in 2002 I think it was, fortune shined on me and I got asked to be on the Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about why Michael J Fox is a hero of mine. It was a transcendent experience, to be able to look him in the eyes and say Thank You. He even got up out of his chair on stage and came to the front row where I was seated to embrace me. I still carry that connection–of being able to express my gratitude in person–with me. When an obstacle feels like too much, I often bring that memory to the front of my consciousness and I mine it all over again for motivation, for comfort, to feel more empowered and less alone in the journey.

On days when training for the NYC Marathon feels more like torture than an exercise in freedom and independence, the experience of that personal connection with Michael J. Fox gives me the extra mental fortitude I need to keep going. Knowing that I’m doing it for firefighters, to help Denis Leary’s foundation efforts carry as far as possible–training and equipping as many firefighters as possible–that fuels me, like supercharged gasoline.

So, Denis & Ann Leary, if you ever make your way to this little blog-corner of the big, wide blog universe, Thank You! For so much.

Back on the night of the finale and wrap party for Rescue Me, when it became clear that I’d never be able to find either Leary, much less be able to be heard while thanking them in the chaos of the event if I did find them, I decided to take a very tired & stressed Luke and a very fatigued & in-pain me back to the hotel.

Sure, I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get to meet those Learys, but that doesn’t take away anything from what the event was all about. I’ll always keep that evening at the Ziegfeld Theater in the memory-file of experiences I’m thrilled to have had. The image of the firefighters on the stage, the heartfelt outpouring of love & respect & thanksgiving to them–so fierce and true that it shook the floor beneath my feet & ricocheted off the walls. And the firefighters’ thanks to all those who honored the FDNY–all firefighters–so well through the stories of Rescue Me.

The whole night was one big gratitude-filled celebration, and I’m so glad to have been there to witness it.

Lastly, I just have to say, I’m really gonna miss the Rescue Me theme song playing through the opening credits. One of the best. Ever.

Mardi Grant & James McCaffrey

Luke’s rainwear for NYC (above), and his bling for the finale event (below).

***Please support my ride with Team Leary Firefighters Foundation in the NYC Marathon. I will be eternally grateful ~

It’s less than 3 weeks away, which I can hardly believe!