It’s late, well after 11:00. But my best friends and one-time college roommates and I have been made to wait for this moment, when everyone else is asleep, so that we can revert to our 20-year-old selves without the witnesses of this present and properly adult life. Mandy and I live only a few hours apart but we don’t see each other as often as the distance should allow, and we haven’t seen Kristin in more than three years. Families and jobs and all the duties that accompany the real world always seem to conspire against reunion, but this time, we have made it happen. Our laughter is louder than it should be in a house where others slumber, and has not yet faded when I answer Damian’s call, the horror and desperation in his voice a jolting juxtaposition to my own lightheartedness.
“It’s gone, Babe,” he gasps. “The whole house. There was an explosion… I couldn’t do anything.”
My feeble “What? Wait, what?!?” stops both laughter and conversation in the room as I sink to the floor.
A brief conversation, assurances that he is unharmed, that I will be on my way home as soon as I can, and everything else a muddle of thought and emotion too confused and unreal for me to grasp. Even now we have no real answers as to the why or how of it, only that somehow a fire started somewhere in the house then travelled along the gas lines to the propane tank, which rocketed into the sky, trailing flame like a comet in reverse trajectory. I didn’t see it and yet, the images are seared into my brain:
I see Damian, coming from where he’s been helping a neighbor, running over the hill through an eerie darkness tinged with red. I see another neighbor carrying a bucket, a feeble attempt to douse catastrophe with pond water, an effort further mocked by the large crack in the plastic. I hear Damian’s rasping sobs as, in desperation, he runs toward the blaze, his life likely saved by a piece of barbed wire coiled in the overlong grass, grasping his ankle and tearing away flesh, awakening him to the fact that he is running toward probable death. It is only my imagining, but I see our home in the woods wearing a blanket of flames, can hear the fire’s bellowing roar and banshee shrieks as it consumes the house with gluttonous appetite. I see Damian, see into him. I feel him lose a small part of himself, while the trees catch flames off the wind.
During the sleepless night, it is impossible to stop cataloging everything that is now gone forever. Keepsakes and mementos, one after another they march across my memory, regret and sorrow following. I see the photo of my half-sister and me, taken by our father days after my momma died. The two of us faced the ocean, our arms around one another, our heads bent together, a frozen moment of love and sorrow, her silent solace at a time when words were meaningless. A Petoskey rock from the trip I took with my dad to Michigan when I was 16 and began to know him as a person and not just “my dad.” A love poem Damian had written for me, the first I’d ever received. But it’s a feeling beyond sorrow, a physical ache when I think of the ashes; not those created by this fire, but the ones kept in a plain wooden box. My mother’s ashes, which I had not yet had the heart to surrender to wind or water, unwilling to let go of this last physical remnant of her.
* * *
It has been just over a year since my mom died, and with her, a stability and derived strength which I had previously taken for granted. Hers was a love I never had to question, the only one with whom I believed I could be my truest self, whose unconditional support was echoed in her oft-used phrase, “I’m right behind you.” I adored her absolutely and without her I feel alone, adrift. Now she is ashes among ashes, two great losses mingled into one. An irony or a profundity, not really mattering either way in the face of a sense that I have now lost her twice. Her death has cast a shadow over my life, and in the many months without her it feels as though I am already clinging precariously to a hope that light will return. Now I have nothing of her, and I honestly don’t know if I can endure this second loss.
The following morning finds me on the road toward home, though what “home” now entails is a nebulous concept. And though there isn’t much she can do to bring certainty to this, Mandy comes with me, knowing as any true best friend does, that in moments of crisis it is not only the practical that needs to be addressed; it is the solidity of presence that offers the promise of solutions to problems of which we have not yet even fully seen the scope. It is the realization that no one wishes to ride toward disaster alone. A solidarity evidenced in a well-worn, well-loved teddy bear secreted into my duffel bag to be found later when I unpack all that I now own in the world.
As we make the journey south I am filled with a sense of urgency to get to Damian, to assure myself that he is safe and whole, at least bodily. He is standing on our neighbor’s porch when I arrive, looking lost and forlorn, and the gratitude and relief that surge through me as we hold tightly to one another is overwhelming. At the same time, it feels as though I am forgetting something until I realize that it comes from the fact that I haven’t, can’t, call my mom and tell her what has happened and assure her that I am safe and whole.
Together Damian and I walk up and over the small hill that separates our neighbors’ home from what is left of ours. Yellow grasses already crisp in the heat of August give way to blackened stalks that crackle beneath our feet. I don’t know exactly what I imagined I might see. I only know that what I see is worse. I’ve seen photos of bombed-out buildings that maintain more structure than the wasteland that spreads before us. All color has been burned away, the stark white of an enamel bathtub and a partially-melted washing machine the only contrast to the black and gray. And as we make our way around and through the space that once housed our lives, we discover that the only other objects that have survived were themselves originally black or gray, as though the fire has sought to destroy only brightness. A stapler, a manual typewriter, a cast iron pan. These are the legacy left to us.
We don’t speak, or cry, and even our steps are hushed as we pad over heaps of ash, now heavy with the water from fire hoses arrived too late. I try to recreate in my mind the delineation of each room, places where major pieces of furniture had rested. It all seems so much smaller now. The ache in my heart becomes sharper as I come to where I think the wardrobe stood, where I’d kept Mom’s ashes. From there I pace out the distance I feel must bring me to the place where our bed resided, to the spot next to where I lay my head each night. On the nightstand was where I had placed many of the mementos that symbolized the people and moments most dear to me. These and other tangible symbols of all that was intangibly beautiful in my world. Gone. Next to a photo of my mother had been a small enamel bell that had hung by a red ribbon on the Christmas trees of my grandmother’s childhood, then my mother’s, then my own. So delicate that, for years, it was the only ornament I wasn’t allowed to touch, eventually becoming a rite of passage the day Mom let me remove it from its box, pride and excitement causing my fingers to tremble as I oh so gently placed it on the tree.
Some tears fall in this moment as it truly sinks in that these things are not just gone, but obliterated. This is what “bereft” feels like, I think, my foot sifting the top layer of ash, creating mud as it mixes with the wetness just below the surface. Strange how something so light can become so heavy.
And that is when I see it, lying cradled in a nest of catastrophic residue. As it is mostly white it blends easily into the furrow my shoe has created. But on its face, painted in red and green and gold, the tiny angel is a beacon in this place devoid of color. I pick up the bell with trembling fingers. The red ribbon is gone, of course, as is the tiny clapper within, rendering it silent while its significance rings deafeningly. Dirty and scuffed, it has come through fire intact. I of course take it with me when we leave the site, and that night I set it upon a window ledge in the bedroom of a friend’s house where we are staying while we try to reconstruct some semblance of our former life.
* * *
A week or so passes and on a wet afternoon I return to our temporary sanctuary to sit on the bed and feel glum. Watching the rain through the window I see the bell resting on the sill. But this time I actually see it for what it is. I realize that it isn’t just one of the few of our possessions still remaining, isn’t a minor miracle because it has survived when so much hasn’t. It is just a thing, a piece of enameled ceramic that once hung from Christmas trees. In fact, in and of itself it is fairly worthless, as were the majority of sentimental items that had meant so much to me. But it isn’t the things themselves that are important, but rather what they symbolized. Their absence does not translate to the loss of the love or strength or hope that they embodied, doesn’t erase those moments significant to my life. Time spent with my dad, a moment of support from my sister, memories of Christmas with my mom, all of these exist just as they had before the fire, are still in my memory and in my heart, are forever a part of whatever it is that makes me the me that I am. I still have everything that truly matters in my life. That the bell survives is not the miracle. The miracle is that I have and have had people in my life who care about me, who are there for me in small and large ways.
And when my mother died, I lost her physical presence, but all that she had given to me in the way of love, the faith that she placed in me, the lessons she taught me, these still remain intact. It’s not the same as having her here with me, and never will be. Loss is an integral part of life from which few, if any, escape untouched. This knowledge doesn’t alter or prevent pain in my life, doesn’t enable me to simply take it all in stride. Maybe someday, but not quite yet. Sometimes I still wish I had those souvenirs of my history, fearing that remembering is not enough, knowing that memory itself may dissipate over time. And some days I can barely breathe for missing my momma. But knowing and accepting that loss and its after burn of grief are intrinsic to all manner of life, helps me to get on with the business of living, makes it easier to not just throw my hands up and turn away from everything. And I am able to see that I really didn’t lose everything in that fire. I still carry in me all that matters. And most days, that is enough.