An adaptation of the book Heat: A Firefighter’s Story
Chapter 10: I’m Going To Make It
The story so far: The big fire is mostly out after burning for four days. A Hamilton police detective named Jeff Post investigates its cause to determine who might have set it. Bob Shaw has a sore throat and cough from exposure at the fire, symptoms that never go away. He retires in 2001 and takes Nathan to work with him on his last shift. Two years later, Bob is diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
Doctors recommended a vigorous attack on Bob’s cancer. First, surgery to cut out the cancer. Not just in the esophagus, but the stomach as well. The surgery took place at St. Joseph’s Hospital, on June 24, 2003. They removed all of Bob’s esophagus and half of his stomach.
He was in the hospital for three weeks after that, recovering. On July 31, Bob and Jacqueline met with a new cancer specialist. The doctor laid out the next set of options for them. He said esophageal cancer is a form of the disease that can spread quickly and there was an over 80 per cent chance of metastasis — that cancer would develop outside the original area. A combination of radiation and chemotherapy treatments should get it. But the side-effects would be considerable. It was likely to make Bob very sick, but he could stop the treatments at any time he wished.
When Bob left hospital after recovering from the esophagectomy, it was time to get healthy, to build up his strength in preparation for the radiation and chemotherapy. Bob had to learn to eat all over again with his stomach now partly gone. He progressed through liquids to puree. Bob worked his way back to regular foods, just not large amounts.
Even the medical experts thought the solid food would go right through him, but it didn’t. Bob’s system rebounded remarkably. He could speak fine, his vocal cords had not been damaged by the esophagectomy.
The diagnosis had been a big blow to the family. But Jacqueline remained optimistic. Because of Bob, his attitude, his will. The worst seemed over.
••••• In June 2003, the phone rang at the desk of Hamilton police detective Jeff Post. He no longer worked the arson section.
At first he didn’t recognize the voice of the woman on the line. Then she said her name. Now he remembered. She was an old contact from his days as arson investigator, someone who had her ear to the ground, heard things. A credible source.
“Hey, what can I do for you?” Post said.
“It’s been a while, but I thought you should know. There was someone bragging the other day that he set the Plastimet fire.”
Plastimet? A cold case. But even though Post was out of the fire business, the file sat in a brown box under his desk, a reminder of the big one he had not yet solved.
“So who said it?” Post asked.
Post’s ears perked up at the name. He hadn’t heard it in years. He had crossed paths with the arsonist before. And at one time, the arsonist had lived a couple of blocks from the Plastimet site.
Post wasn’t anxious to go on a fishing expedition. But this had something to it.
“Do you want to talk to him?” she asked. “Yes. I do.”
THURSDAY, JUNE 12, 2003
The arsonist felt his stomach churn as he watched the tall detective stride into the room carrying a video camera.
Jeff Post introduced himself, set up the video equipment. Post had actually met the arsonist before, years earlier. He had a history, had set a couple of alley fires. He had even co-operated with Post back then, had provided him with a tip or two.
Post turned on the video camera.
“Now,” said Post. “Tell me what happened that day.”
••••• On Sept. 10, 2003 Bob started a four-week radiation program. Then a second round of chemo. By mid-September his body was breaking down. He couldn’t swallow, lost his voice. Bob was admitted to hospital on Sept. 29. He had dropped 22 pounds in two weeks. And still, he finished the treatments.
Bob was back in the hospital in March 2004. Bob’s recovery had not gone well this time. His body, the temple he had built over the years, had taken too much. He continued to lose weight, his skin tone appeared grey.
But his thick hair and neatly trimmed moustache had somehow survived the chemo, nurses couldn’t believe it. Mentally he was, still, positive, believing that somehow he’d pull it out. That’s the way he was.
But the pain, it was incredible and constant. He was taking medication to manage it, but Bob wanted to keep his head clear, too, wanted to talk coherently with his family and friends.
As the weeks passed, visitors who came to see him at the hospital were fewer, just those closest to him. Boyhood friend Paul Anderson was by several times. Paul worked in the health care industry and knew it did not look good.
On Saturday, March 20, it was damp and mild, fog hanging over the city, rain falling off and on. Paul met Jacqueline in the hallway at the hospital. Tears were in her eyes. Bob was fading quickly.
“Paul. What am I going to do?” she said, her voice halting, choking on the words. “Bob is my breath.”
Paul Anderson never forgot those words. Her breath.
His chest tightened, he fought hard to keep it together. He hugged Jacqueline and walked down the hall and into Bob’s room.
Bob Shaw was out of bed, sitting in a regular chair. What? How could he even contemplate doing it? Somehow Bob had willed himself to use the bathroom by himself, this pale thin shell of the strapping athlete Paul had known, had done it and made it back to a chair by the bed, where he sat, exhausted, spent, his chin in his chest, slumped over.
Paul couldn’t believe it. Incredible, the excruciating pain he was in. God, he is tough. Nobody else could do what Bob Shaw is doing. Nobody. He was doing it for Jacqueline and Nathan, thought Paul, willing himself through it. Trying to make them feel better.
It inspired Paul to suck up his own courage, to say what needed to be said, to put the message in Bob’s head, his soul, while he could still hear. Paul kept his voice steady, fighting emotion.
“Bob, I want you to know that no matter what, Jackie and Nathan will be looked after.”
Bob raised his head slightly, looked at Paul.
“I’m going to make it,” he whispered. “We’ll get a golf game. Beginning of June.”
Bob paused and then added, “For sure.”
Paul said nothing, just looked at him, astounded, rendered speechless by the fight in the old Mountain boy. Bobby Shaw was a hero.
That same day, just up Concession Street, at Doc’s Bar and Grill, firefighter and long-time buddy Mike “Bronco” Horvath sat with a couple of the boys. He had an idea. Yes. He went down the street to the Tim Hortons. Grabbed two empty brown coffee cups, with lids, and a cardboard tray. He returned to Doc’s, told the boys he was going to see Bobby, then walked on the wet sidewalk along Concession Street to the Henderson Hospital. He walked in Bob’s room carrying the cardboard tray. Bob was in bed.
“Bobby, look what I got for ‘ya.”
He looked back with that drained look.
“Mike, I don’t think I could take coffee right now.”
“Coffee? Who said anything about coffee? Unless Labatt’s makes coffee.”
Bob felt a thin smile on his face. “You’re kidding.” Bronco opened a lid. “Try this.”
Bob put the cup to his mouth, felt the old cold friend on his lips, the tingling on his tongue, the liquid gold sliding down his raw throat, like a burst of sunlight entering his ravaged body. Had it ever felt so good? At that moment he was tipping a draft back in Doc’s with the boys, or on a golf course in the heat of summer, sweat running down his strong, muscled back.
“Blue Lite, Bobby,” Bronco said. “Cheers.”
And Bronco took the lid off his Tim Hortons cup of Canadian, tapped it against Bob’s. The firefighters sat there, drinking their beers.
To be continued Monday. Next Time: Destiny Of The Righteous
Detective Jeff Post wasn’t investigating arson anymore, but then he got a call.