house on fire

From December 2018.

The ever-churning swirl that is my brain won’t let me sleep tonight. Even the dog is pissed off with all my tossing and turning. God, I love him.

I suppose this happens to people all the time, but it’s so unusual for me. What is it you awake people do in the wee hours of the morning? So far, I’ve concocted a half-assed plot for a fictional novel. Made a grocery list. And, attempted a sleep meditation that always works for me but, this time, ended the way a lot of things do lately, with silent tears.

My mind just won’t shut off. I was laying there thinking about very important stuff — like how to get a book published, my to do list at work and Stephen Hawking professing that there is no God — and then it dawned on me that 40 years ago tonight, right about now in fact, our Rudy Avenue house burned down. I was 8. (Maybe don’t do the math here.) And, I was in Grade 3.

I had been sleeping for a few hours, kind of like tonight, when I awoke to my parents’ voices in the hall outside my bedroom door. Like any nosy kid, I wondered what they were doing up so late. I crawled out of bed, wearing the nightie I had gotten for Christmas, and walked out into the kitchen, just behind my dad. He didn’t know I was there.

We both saw the orange glow down the hall through the doorway to the family room at the same time. Smoke filled the air and drove us back. He grabbed the phone receiver out of my mom’s hand, saying we’ll call 911 once we get out. I remember she looked stunned by what was happening.

“Get out of the house, right now,” my dad yelled as soon as he saw me behind him. “Right. Now. Don’t stop and get anything, just get out.”

My brother was close behind and we turned and ran to what we called “the good living room” at the front of the house — the pretty living room where no one ever sat but where I sometimes held sleep-overs and laid on the plush carpet listening to records. I pulled open the heavy, wooden front door and banged on the handle of the frozen outside door, but it wouldn’t open. I panicked.

In the most vivid memory I have of that night, my dad came up behind us right then, flipped the lock on the door and kicked it open. He picked both my brother and I up, one by one like a couple of trash bags, and threw us into the snowbank that had blown across our unshovelled front walk. Mark grabbed me by the hand — for maybe the one and only time in our lives — and we ran barefoot across to the Bauman house where he banged frantically on the door and I cried silently, my feet freezing to their porch. My parents followed in their pajamas, carrying their lock-box, my mom’s purse and my dad’s wallet.

And there we huddled in the wee hours of that late-December morning in 1978. With our few possessions and the clothes on our backs. The four of us, reflected in this young married couple’s kitchen window, watching as our own windows disintegrated from the heat and as the firefighters chopped holes in our roof. It was the greatest tragedy of our little lives up until that point. And it taught us that nothing is permanent. 

“Things can be replaced but people can’t be,” I remember mom saying through tears as she put her arm around me and pulled me close. I remember thinking, even then, how hard it was to see her cry. “The main thing is that we’re all safe. This is going to be okay again. We’ll get through this.”

40 years later, with my mom being so sick, I feel a little like our house is on fire again. Just in a different way. I can see my reflection in that kitchen window again, this time, as I watch her house burn. She would tell me the same thing now. This is going to be okay again, too.

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