I have been back from Trucker’s celebration of life for just over a week now, and I keep getting the same question: Pip, how was Hawaii? The person who asks doesn’t just say it like you normally would to someone who just spent a few days in paradise, though. There is fear in their voice, knowing why I was there. My answer hasn’t changed; Hawaii was life changing. That’s a huge part of why I am telling this story. In Trucker’s short life, he reached so many. I owe it to him to continue on the path he set for me. He may have had little feet, but the footprints he left in the sand were huge.
Back to our story. 555 is still growing–so much so that I start to miss friends’ and families’ posts on social media. But one day, a post from Shauna caught my eye. She wrote that sleepy NJ is so different from busy Manhattan. I remember pointing this out to Tracey and telling her to get in touch and see where in the Garden State they were. New Brunswick is home to two amazing hospitals, both with pediatric cancer wings. Lo’ and behold, Trucker was being treated at a proton therapy center in the next town over. This just happens to be the same place where my uncle was treated, and it helped him successfully beat cancer.
Again, some more back tracking is needed before I go on about Trucker and me. I have to speak about his amazing “BOYZ” in the FDNY. In a New York Minute, Trucker and Shauna were adopted by some FDNY houses. Ladder 13/Engine 22 happened upon them one day, and Trucker immediately developed a bond with Capt. Jim Grismar and F/F Francisco “Cisco” Ruiz. They were also taken in by Engine Company 44 when Lt. Bobby Jones saw them at a local race. It’s just one of those things that firefighters tend to do. We are helpers, we see people who need help, and we step up. These guys opened their doors to Trucker and Shauna, they connected, and became OHANA (family). The whole time, they thought they were helping the Dukes in their time of need; over time, we would all learn just how much these random acts of kindness would help each and every one of us become better.
Enough about the FDNY, though. Let’s get back to Jersey. I saw how Trucker reacted to hanging out with the guys there and immediately invited the Dukes to come spend some time at my station while they were in NJ. At that time, I was stationed as an LT at Engine Company 2. It’s a single engine company that isn’t exactly in the heart of the action. I was working a Saturday shift and the plan was to have Trucker come over in the afternoon. Sadly, Shauna called and said that they would not be able to come that day, because Trucker was feeling ill from his previous treatments. I let her know that I was covering a friend’s shift the next day, and if he felt better, the doors would be open.
The next day, Shauna let me know that Trucker was up to a visit. Needless to say, I was a bit unsure of how all this would go. I advised our Deputy Chief that we would be having visitors and waited for their arrival. I also let Mrs. Pip know that Trucker was coming. The boys were at a relative’s house, but her plan was to stop by as well. Shauna and she had been in constant communication by that point and had become friends. What I didn’t tell you about Mrs. Pip before was that she is one of the smartest medical minds I know. She is a Physician Assistant and has worked in emergency medicine for over 15 years.
My phone rang, and Shauna told me she was in our parking lot. I walked out and she greeted me with this warm, super long hug–one you give a friend you have not seen in years, but remember, we had not really met, until this point. She told me Trucker was still a bit sluggish, but he would warm up soon. So we started slow, hanging in the day room. I remember he had on these cute little skinny jeans and some fly kicks. He hung on Shauna’s lap for a bit but eventually started wandering around the day room and kitchen. Apparently his FDNY ‘Boyz’ turned him on to eating mac and cheese, which we didn’t have in our locker. I quickly found a substitute, though. A box of Apple Jacks belonging to another firefighter caught his eye, and the bowls starting going down faster than I could pour. Trucker was elated, while Mama Dukes was counseling us on how she tried to keep his diet all organic. My bad.
After a few bowls of cereal, Trucker asked to see the Engine, we played firefighter and went for a ride around our first due. The whole time, this little guy just seemed happy. He didn’t always smile; he acted more like one of the guys. Like he knew what was up. Here’s a secret you may not know and most of us won’t admit. We all really love driving around on the BRT (Big Red Truck). It may sound childish, but at the end of the day, it’s really cool. Trucker knew that. His mom knew it too. She went on to tell us how on Maui, Sundays in the station were spent with families. So, Trucker was very used to hanging with his dad at his station every Sunday he worked. Shortly after our ride, Mrs. Pip stopped by, and we all visited for a bit more. It’s a day I will never forget, and one that I’m beyond stoked we were able to pull off.
Now you’re all like “Wow, great guy, way to go, help out the kid and his family. Nice story, move on.” Somehow, our bonds grew tighter. Joshua thanked me for giving Trucker a fun day and commented on how much better my “Movember” ‘stache was than his. If I must say so myself, it was sort of badass, as was his, though Mrs. Pip and Mrs. Dukes do not share this opinion. Tracey’s bond with Shauna also grew. Shortly after Christmas 2015, the entire Dukes Family, Joshua, Indi, Jedi, and Mac joined the NYC celebs to celebrate the holidays. Tracey handled the plans, and one night we threw the mini Pips in the car and headed off to meet them.
Lightbulb moment on the drive in. After seeing my picture with Trucker on social media, 555 Fitness fan and now friend, Lt. Bobby Jones contacted me, telling me how he knew them and how his firehouse was involved in spending time with them. In case you don’t know about parking in Manhattan, it’s pretty much non-existent. On our way in I thought, let me call the Lou, and see if we could park at his house. It just so happened he was working, so I was finally able to meet him and his crew. The boys loved hanging in his house. My boys, the boys whose father is an LT, on an Engine Company that they can come visit whenever they want. But this one was different, and just like Trucker, they were made to feel at home and loved every minute of it.
That night is one Tracey and I will never forget. We went to dinner with the entire Dukes clan, so four adults, six kids in a restaurant; needless to say, there was a lot of apologizing to other guests. We also met Sophie that night. She was a Ronald McDonald House volunteer who the Dukes adopted, or maybe it was Sophie who adopted the Dukes. Either way, the bond she created with them is just another amazing layer of this whole story. But, I got to hang with Josh. We talked sports, beer, firefighting and fitness. Tracey talked to Shawna about, you know, mom stuff. The kids all played and colored and broke rules. At one point, I believe a Duke Boy and Mini Pip were standing on another table. These things happen.
We returned to the Ronald McDonald house, but leaving just didn’t feel right yet. The kids all ran around like wild animals. We met other parents whose children were being treated at Sloan, we met other kids who were in the same boat as Trucker. But watching them run and play? All that didn’t matter. They were kids, and they all played together. Race, creed, religion or ethnicity didn’t matter there. Finally, it was time to go. We said our goodbyes and got in the car to head home. I looked and Tracey, unsure if this was one of the best nights of our lives or one of the worst. We both knew the odds of Trucker beating this were against him. We both knew one day we may have to explain the worst to our kids, but we also knew how amazing it was to be around these loving people. It’s a night we will cherish forever. Bonds were made that will never be broken. Bonds between people who may have remained strangers, had it not been for this thing called social media.