After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.
For the Eternal our G-d is a devouring fire…
This story begins with a lit match. Maybe it ends there, too.
Afterward, I will excavate the past looking for the source, for the moment when the fear stealthily took residence in an empty room of my mind. And waited.
Impressionable. That’s how I was described as a child. But aren’t we all back then, living in the hazy gap between innocence and experience? Riveting stories pressed images into my brain that later flashed like a warning light. She just has an overactive imagination.
Seventh grade. I become friends with a new girl in school. Rosalie projects an air of gloom and mystery. She tells me she once had an older brother. He died. She pauses, then says matter-of-factly, in a fire. He’d been sleeping in a basement room. Rosalie’s words become pictures in my mind—a candle burning, curtains on fire, smoke rising, a frantic boy. “There was only one exit,” Rosalie says flatly—or perhaps, thinking about it now, numbly.
Was this its origin? Where do our fears come from?
“Thus, all fears, and all infinite sufferings arise from the mind,” says the Buddha.
Years later, when I become a mother, the fear knocks on the door. I buy a fire extinguisher for the kitchen and an escape ladder for the upstairs. I insist my husband install the best-rated smoke detectors. No space heaters in our home. Matches locked away. I take my young children to visit our fire department where they get coloring books and stickers from Firefighter Dan. We practice “stop, drop, and roll.” Reasonable, right? I put my two-year-old’s hand on the oven door. He recoils. Hot, I say.
No matter what precautions I take, the fear coils inside me. At night, in bed, images of fire flash in my brain. When I can’t sleep, I mentally review my family’s escape route.
Assuming stable fuel, heat and oxygen levels, a typical house fire will double in size every minute. You might not be able to find the exit in a fire even if you’ve lived there for years since smoke can be extremely disorienting. Memorize your escape plan beforehand and practice it blindfolded.
When my children and I stay with my parents for the Passover week, I check the smoke alarms in their house, then replace each battery. My mother insists that the kitchen stove stay on during the first two nights of the holiday when orthodox Jews do not turn on and off electricity, or light a match, among other restrictions. Covering the low burner with a metal sheet, a common practice, allows one to warm food for the Sabbath meals. I do not like this idea. My mother and I argue. She tries to reassure me it is safe. The stove is new. She has kept the oven on a low setting every Friday to Saturday night with no problem. This information does nothing to quell my fear.
My mother is concerned about my “phobia.” It is not a phobia, I tell her. It’s rational. Who doesn’t fear fire?
It’s obsessive, my mother insists.
She believes in past-life regression and suggests that in a previous life I may have died in a fire. Maybe I should see a hypnotherapist, she says, who can help discover this.
I’d rather not know.
So, I lie awake in the bed of my childhood, listening to the sound of my children’s breathing. I worry about the flame of the stove’s pilot light. I decide we can escape out the bedroom window and onto the roof ledge. But what about my mother and father down the hall? Could I help save them, too? I try keeping vigil but eventually drift off. When I wake, the sun spills into my pink bedroom. Relief rushes over me.
We pass our fears on to our children. I know this, and do not want my children to be afraid. I work hard to appear normal. Always be prepared, is what I instruct them. Information helps us make smart choices. I consider my fire prevention lessons a part of general safety training, like learning to cross a busy street, or the proper handling of a sharp knife. As my children grow older, they come to know this fear simply as a part their mother, no different from her need for sunlight, or punctuality, or quiet in the car.
One summer evening, I’m sitting in the backyard when my son runs up to me. “Mommy, I smell smoke in the living room!” Indeed, he is correct. The smell is unmistakable, yet I can’t see the smoke. Electrical, I fear. I instruct my children to go outside on the front lawn. I call the fire department. I’m waiting outside with my children when the fire truck pulls up. My son thinks it is awesome. I watch the firemen in their heavy armor enter our home. Two minutes later, a fireman calls me back inside. He shows me the bulb inside a halogen lamp. “Fried bugs. Smells just like smoke.” Embarrassed, I apologize. He tells me they get a lot of calls for this problem. He smiles. “Better safe than sorry.”
There are other false alarms over the years, but each time the firefighter says, “No problem. That’s what we’re here for.” Then, one Saturday night, as my husband and I are getting ready to go out, I smell smoke. My children, the babysitter, and my husband smell it too, which matters because I have been known to imagine this. As it grows stronger, I become frantic. I order the babysitter to take the children outside. My husband checks around the house. He doesn’t want me to call the fire department yet, but I pick up the phone anyway. The firefighter finds the culprit in no time—the electrical panel of our dishwasher is burning. “That could have caught fire pretty fast,” he tells us.
After they leave, I am still shaking, hard. I realize that the babysitter would have been with our children while we were out for dinner. What would you have done if we weren’t at home? I ask her, my voice sharp. The girl’s eyes widen. I take a deep breath, and while my husband waits, I review fire safety procedures with the babysitter.
After that incident, a shift occurs in my thinking. The fear of a fire takes on a tangible form, as if it is out there waiting for me. This fear winds itself into my writing, where I hold it up close for inspection. In one short story, “Fire Drill,” I imagine a mother so paralyzed by a fear of fire that she incites her own daughter’s obsession with it. The story ends with the curious child lighting a forbidden match and setting the kitchen ablaze.
A candle flame typically burns at around 1800 degrees Fahrenheit.
But it is the real stories, not fiction, that frighten me. The raging home fire. A burning Christmas tree. A space heater. A cigarette. A candle. Faulty wiring. Fireplace embers. Each tragedy gets filed in my brain. “Why do you read those stories?” my husband asks, exasperation in his voice. “What good does it do you?” But I cannot turn away. I am compelled to mourn the victims, examine the details. What went wrong?
Know your exits.
Providence, Rhode Island, nightclub fire, February 2003. Sound-proofing material ignites during a band’s act using live fire. One moment you are enjoying a concert and the next instant you are running for your life. Bodies pile at the single exit. I think of the victims’ last moments. I am horrified by the idea of being burned alive. But who isn’t? Is there a point, I wonder, before death, when you stop feeling the burn?
The heat from a fire alone is enough to kill. It can get as hot as 600 degrees Fahrenheit at eye level, hot enough to scorch your lungs and to melt your clothes into your skin.
* * *
A part of the traditional liturgy for the Jewish New Year is an ancient prayer called Unetanneh Tokef, “Let us speak of the awesomeness of this day.” It is chanted in Hebrew as the congregation stands before the open ark housing the Torah scrolls. The prayer begins by describing the holiness of Rosh Hashana, when angels tremble before God’s judgement of all creation. Then, in a somber melody, the cantor sings these words: “On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed—how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die…who by water and who by fire…” It continues with a list of calamities, misfortunes, and blessings for which an individual may be fated. At its conclusion, the congregation responds: “But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree!”
Who by fire? I have always been troubled by this prayer. When I glance at the solemn faces of those praying beside me, I wonder if they are troubled too. Can I believe in a God who dishes out horrible deaths to people who have simply made mistakes of being human? How does this God decide who drowns and who burns? What does it all mean?
The triangle represents the three components that fires need to exist: heat, oxygen, and fuel. If one is missing, a fire can’t ignite.
* * *
I was a teenager when I realized my father was a lot older than the rest of my friends’ dads. This spurred a fear in me that my father would die suddenly, despite his good health and vigor. Dad was unconditional love and predictability. I couldn’t imagine a world without him. I couldn’t imagine my much younger mother being able to cope with six children. Sometimes, when she got angry at my bad behavior, she’d yell, You’re going to kill your father!
Every Rosh Hashana, I was grateful that my father was still alive. Every Passover, at our family seder, I was grateful he was still alive. Every July, on his birthday, I wondered if he’d live to see the next one. When he had a stroke at age eighty, I thought his time was up. But he recovered. Then Parkinson’s disease hit. His legs weakened. His hands shook. Yet, the disease progression remained slow. And my father rarely got sick. Never complained. Never referred to himself as “old.” I believed he’d make it to one hundred. On his 90th birthday, I stopped worrying so much about him dying. He had managed to escape Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease. He no longer drove, so I figured he was unlikely to get into an accident. His heart still beat the same pride and love he always showed his wife, children, and grandchildren. His optimism and zest for life prevailed. He had achieved athletic and career success. A full life. Everything I wanted to say to him, I had said. And so, I began to do what we control-seeking perfectionists are good at—preparing. I prepared to say goodbye, as if I could write the script for the Universe. I imagined that I’d be at my father’s bedside before he left this world, or that when the inevitable phone call came, it would be news of his passing peacefully, perhaps while asleep. As his eldest child, the writer, I imagined delivering an eloquent eulogy.
The phone call came on a Saturday night in November.
My 17-year-old daughter and I had just returned from an evening of celebration in her honor. I remember wearing my favorite red shoes. I was just taking them off when my phone rang. Though my sister and I talked often, when I saw her name on the screen, I felt an immediate sense of doom.
She allowed me a moment of small talk before saying, “I have sad news.”
But I wouldn’t let her continue.
I began repeating the plans my family had for the next day.
Are you ready to listen? she asked. My sister tried to explain that, while she was out for dinner, she got a call from the local hospital. Both our parents had been taken there by ambulance. She didn’t have any information yet, she’s waiting to hear from the hospital—
I hung up on her.
My daughter, sitting on the family room couch, watched me pace the floor. What happened, Mom?
I couldn’t speak. My heart sped up as my mind invented scenarios. She just has an active imagination. My husband tried to calm me. Minutes later, when my sister called back, I begged him to answer. I can’t. Please. I’m not ready…
He took the phone into the hallway.
I stood in the family room, waiting.
Then I started to cry. Are they dead? I screamed. Just tell me!
I do not remember if my daughter said anything as she sat there waiting with me. She must have been scared. I did nothing to comfort her. I was already slipping away.
When my husband returned, I scanned his face for the truth. He moved closer to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and gently said, “They’re alive. Your mom is okay.” His eyes looked into mine.
The room shifted.
I waited for the rest of the story.
His voice was steady. He was trying to tell me what happened to my dad, but I only heard one word. Fire.
* * *
Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the fire’s lights.
The Jewish Sabbath ends after sundown on Saturday. To mark the separation between this sacred day and the ordinary weekday, religious Jews perform a brief ritual, Havdalah, meaning “separation.” It begins with the lighting of a thickly braided candle. Growing up, my brothers and I took turns holding the colorful candle up high in the darkened kitchen, while my father recited the Hebrew blessings—first over a cup of wine for joy and hope, then on fragrant spices which we inhaled to uplift our spirit as the Sabbath departed. And finally came a blessing on the fire. My brothers and I copied our father as he held his curled fingertips to the flame, the shadows dancing in his palm, a symbol of separation between darkness and light, the holy and the mundane.We watched him spill a bit of wine onto a plate (the loss of Shabbat) and then extinguish the flame in the small pool of liquid. We flipped on the lights, wished each other a shavu’a tov—a good week—and sang a Hebrew song.
On the last day of his life, my father spent the Sabbath with my mother in their Florida condominium. On the last day of their fifty-plus years together, my parents took out boxes of old family photos, reminisced, and sorted the moments of their lives atop the coffee table. On the last day of his life, my father wore his grey trousers, white shirt, and a blue cardigan.
Fire moves faster than most people think. It takes less than 30 seconds for a fire to become very difficult to control.
This is how my mother will later tell it: Saturday night, as my father is preparing to say Havdalah, my mother goes into the bathroom. My father waits for her at the kitchen table. He opens his prayer book, pours wine in a silver cup, places the braided candle in its holder. My mother remembers saying: Please set up Havdalah, but don’t light the candle, or something to that effect which would demonstrate her awareness that my father, with his shaky hands, should not be lighting matches. I’ll never know if she actually said this or imagined or wished she’d said that, or if my father simply didn’t hear her or got confused. He lights the match. It drops on his blue sweater.
What happens next is my mother’s futile rescue attempt—a cup of water thrown at him— a grab-stick to pull at his burning sweater. She flings open the front door, yells for help, calls 911. My father, screaming, cannot get up from the chair. The kitchen blinds catch fire. Smoke fills the room. When a police officer rushes in, he finds my mother, slumped at the table, in shock, and my father in his chair, smoldering, still alive.
I am in a Valium-induced sleep when my father takes his last breath, alone, in a Florida hospital at 2:20 a.m., now Sunday, on my son’s birthday. My husband has bought me a ticket for an early flight out of Boston. I am in a rush, I believe, to see my father, to comfort him, to be with him should this be the end. As the plane lands in Fort Lauderdale, I get a text message from my brother, who thinks I already know the ending. We need to talk about the burial. Disbelief knocks the wind out of me. The image of my elderly father on fire expands in my brain until I think I hear it snap in half.
* * *
My quiet father was not much of a writer or storyteller; my mother played that role. However, Dad had a few stock stories he liked to tell, but he wasn’t a man of many words. He was a great listener, though, and what he did say, you’d remember. This is why, during my last visit to Florida, I was surprised to find Dad at the kitchen table one morning, absorbed in thought, writing on a yellow legal pad. He told me he was working on his “memoirs.” This delighted me. I smiled seeing his shaky handwriting meandering outside the blue lines. He had already filled several pages.
Seven months later he was dead.
* * *
Two days after the fire, I stand at the entrance of my parents’ condo and survey the accident
scene. The air inside smells of smoke. My eyes widen seeing the piles of snapshots on the coffee table, untouched by the fire. To my right, in the kitchen area, a plastic pitcher lies on the floor—my mother’s attempt to quench the flames. Guilt stabs me in the stomach. How could I have failed to make sure they had a fire extinguisher? The room divides itself into fragments: a charred floor tile, a tipped chair, spilled wine, blackened blinds, a cracked window pane, scattered ashes, a Havdalah candle, my father’s charred prayer book, his desk… My eyes well. Feeling faint, I brace myself against the door frame. Then I remember Dad’s memoirs. Where are they? Did they burn up? My trembling hands grab papers off his desk, searching for the yellow pad. I need to save my father’s words.
Then my throat starts to close.
During the following weeks, the need to know winds itself inside me with a tight grip. Rage rises from the broken narrative of this tragedy. I need to know exactly what happened to my father from the moment his clothes caught fire to the moment a hospital official declared him dead. I am a writer. Endings matter. My mother, in her shock, grief, and guilt, is an unreliable narrator. I press for details. I force myself to read the news accounts of the fire, then fall apart afterward. I can’t fathom the reality of those reports, or the police officer’s voice narrating the unspeakable. I grill my mother, my sister, track down the officer, consider calling the hospital—all in my attempt to uncover the truth. And then what? To assign blame? To make sense of the nonsensical? Maybe to understand what my father experienced, what my mother witnessed? No, it is more than that. I want to know, to feel, a sliver of my father’s ending. Don’t torture yourself, my brother says. Dad’s no longer in pain. But I can’t stop from imagining his pain, and when I do imagine it, I can’t speak, can’t move, can’t breathe.
In her book, Love 2.0, Dr. Barbara Fredrikson describes brain imaging studies that show how just imagining the pain of our loved ones causes the network of brain areas associated with pain processing to light up. This pattern differs when subjects imagine painful events happening to strangers. “By and large your loved one’s pain is your pain,” Fredrikson writes. “At the level of brain activity during imagined pain, you and your beloved are virtually indistinguishable.” Even now, a year and a half later, my mind occasionally jumps back there, and the image of my father burning sends a jolt through my body.
* * *
A couple months after the accident, in an attempt to re-enter the world, I meet an old friend for coffee. I was so sorry to hear about your dad. She asks if I am ready to talk. As I attempt to relay the layers of this tragedy, disbelief forms on her face. “Maybe somehow you always knew,” she says, “like your fear was a premonition.”
I do not like this explanation for the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Coincidence? Fate? God’s will?
I’ll settle for irony.
My mother sends me some of my father’s athletic medals, along with his favorite baseball cap. I place the medals next to the framed photographs on my desk, one of me and Dad at his 80th birthday, another of him with my three kids. Then I hold the inside of his hat to my face and inhale. Aftershave, suntan lotion, hair oil. I’m standing with Dad in the bright Florida sunshine, my head on his shoulder. A big goodbye hug. Take care of yourself, now. Love you.
The ache of missing my father has become its own daily presence. In my wallet, I carry a remnant of a singed yellow paper, my father’s words written in ball point pen, rescued from his desk. I do not feel sadness when I glance at this paper. Carrying a physical piece of him into the world each day is comforting. The burnt scent lingers to this torn page, like my grief— both of which will subside with time.
The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. ~Exodus 3:2-3
There are months of trauma therapy from a skilled and compassionate doctor. The act of finding words for my grief, and sharing them with him, helps to smooth its sharp edges. My jumbled mind bends and mends. In the spring, a fog lifts, widening my vision. Autumn arrives and the one year anniversary—yartzheit—looms. Loss and renewal circle me. On Rosh Hashana, I push myself to attend services so I can hear the memorial prayer for the dead. But when it is time to recite the Unetanneh Tokef, I leave the sanctuary.
Who by fire.
My father, a kind and gentle man, died attempting to divide time into the sacred and the ordinary. His senseless, painful ending splintered my heart, separating belief and doubt.
As my therapist predicted might happen, the fear of fire fades to a mere echo. How strange that, after years of living in the shadow of this fear, the nightmare-come-true would loosen its grip on me, no longer visiting in the middle of the night. When the television broadcasts the story of a local home fire, I watch with concern, but my body does not react. No tears. No trembling. No imagining.
Is this recovery or numbness?
Still, sometimes when I light a match, I hold it a few seconds longer than I should—just to feel the burn.
Fire facts source: “9 Amazing Facts about Fire”. FireRescue1.com and http://www.amazingfacts4u.com/fire/.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Derek Gavey