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Happy New Year!

By Brian Panowich | Illustration by Kat McCall

The champagne bottles are empty, the confetti is all over the carpet, and we’re starting a brand new rotation around the sun. I bet everyone out there has already started strong on his or her resolutions. The local gyms are booming with people looking to lose those extra few pounds, and I’m sure some of y’all are already a few days into leaving that pesky personal vice-of-choice back in 2019 where it belongs.

The start of a new year can be the perfect time to start on a new you as well. And that’s a good thing. It’s a great thing even, but maybe this year we can collectively try something new. Maybe we as a community can make a new kind of resolution – one that keeps more of us around.

Let me back up.

I was in New York City a few moons ago at a huge annual event called the Book Expo. Big-name books were being promoted, lots of hands were being shaken, contacts were being made in the publishing industry, and here I was, a brand-new author, doing my best to navigate it all. A wonderful publicist ushered me around, introducing me to all kinds of other wonderful people, most of them responsible for furthering my career. Well, I’m from Georgia, so I skipped the handshakes and went straight to hugging necks – because that’s how we do. It didn’t take long before that publicist pulled me aside and explained I wasn’t in the South anymore and that hugging complete strangers didn’t so much convey my gratitude, but made people uncomfortable. I didn’t quite understand why, but I took the advice and brought that lesson home with me. After all, I wanted to be a professional.

I wish I hadn’t listened. Let me back up a little more to illustrate why. 

When I was a rookie for the Augusta Fire Department, one Sunday afternoon my crew was dispatched to a medical call of unknown origin – which is never good – and off we went, just another day. What I didn’t realize as I climbed into that fire engine was that day was going to change everything I thought about my job, people, even my life. What we responded to was a horror show. But what happened that day isn’t the point of this story. It’s only important to know that I’m not the type to be easily rattled. But that day, not only was I rattled, but I was also pretty sure I wasn’t cut out for that kind of work.

No one warns you, and if they do, you never really get it until you see it up close.

As the scene unfolded and EMS arrived to take over, I sat shaking on the bumper of the truck and watched as the experienced EMTs did their thing. One of the people on the ambulance that day was someone I knew – a big guy covered in tattoos. We’d hung out a few times, mostly at tattoo parlors downtown before I came on the FD, and we had a few friends in common. He worked the scene like a pro, sniffed out the foul play involved, and within seconds the sheriff’s office was called to take over. Soon after that, our company was remanded back to the house.

I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I was a mess when we got back. No doubt about it. I wanted to go home, and to be completely honest, I never wanted to go back. Our company was put out of service for a few hours to decompress. We talked a little, but like most firemen will tell you, talking about what we see out there is not our strong suit. I laid on my cot for a while and was just trying to keep my act together in front of the two seasoned guys I was working with when the big tattooed EMT from earlier that day showed up at my door. He’d taken his own truck out of service to come and check on the rookie. He pulled me out of my head and gave me hug.

Man, I’ll never forget that.

That was the day Jordan Desario and I became good friends. He not only kept me believing I could do the job, but he helped me believe that there were people always a phone call away to lean on when it got brutal. And man, sometimes it did, and Jordan was always there to answer the phone.

Fast forward to 2019. I can count at least a hundred men and women in blue who would have picked up the phone for him, too, when Jordan took his own life. I know I would’ve. I spent months after my friend’s passing devastated, wishing I would’ve been as acutely aware of the pain he was in, just like he had done for me years ago. I wished I’d been able to return that hug he gave me at just the right time. Would it have made a difference? I don’t know. But I do know that moving forward I’m never going to adopt that New York attitude of keeping my hugs to myself.

So, my resolution for 2020 is to keep an eye out over my people, to love them as hard as I can and do my very best to hug the ones who need it the most – because losing one more of them is losing too many. I invite you to join me.

And for the record, I miss you, Jordan. And I haven’t forgotten. I never will.