In a fire, there are no goodbyes. The devastation is swift, crackling and cackling its way through a house before there is any time to reflect on what is being destroyed. Instead, there is only fear, and if you are lucky, survival.
So it was for my grandparents the night their house burned to the ground, leaving only a blackened, unrecognizable monument to the life they had once lived. They stood on the street, watching their memories go up in flames, knowing from then on life would never be the same.
It was all gone – the letters my uncle wrote home from college, the first tooth my father had lost. The train track my sisters and I had played with during our visits, souvenirs from travels to China and Stockholm, and mementos of service to their country had all but disappeared.
She was a grandmother like any other Catholic grandmother, pulling you aside to press clippings into your hand of stories she thought you would like, cut out of a magazine named after a saint. She stashed boxes of sugary cereal and Little Debbie treats in the pantry for your visits.
And he was always like any other grandfather, telling stories of their adventures, falling asleep on the couch while watching football, oblivious to the noise and clatter that surrounded him, and tearing up as he hugged you at your graduation.
And so it went, birthday after Christmas after Easter after Fourth of July, until years later, a second fire struck, this one burning slower than the first.
In the beginning, the sparks were so small, my grandfather wondered if they were there at all. “What do I like to eat here?” my grandmother asked him, staring vacantly at the menu in one of their favorite restaurants.
Next their daily talks began to disappear in puffs of smoke, their conversations vanishing and leaving her with only one line to offer at a time.
“Why are you putting on your shoes?”
“What is this TV show about?”
“I love you.”
Eventually the fire began to burn in full force, erasing memories that had long been stored in the attic of her mind. Names. Dates. Faces. One by one, they melted.
Friends stopped by to see her. Family called to check in on her. “She looks great,” we said with a pat on my grandfather’s back. “She’s really not as bad as I thought she would be.” But then the door closed behind us, and he was left to hold up the weight of a home that was slowly falling down.
There are two options when facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The first is to move the love of your life into a home and let another shoulder the feeding, cleaning, and changing. The second is to care for them alone, hoping you will not be crushed in the process.
Both options, of course, are unbearable.
The second choice allows you to stay in your marriage as you have always been – together. The first takes the two of you apart, but gives you a chance to preserve the love that is left.
And so when the fire had taken most of my grandmother, she moved into a nursing home, leaving my grandfather to do things he had never done without her before. Take a trip. Go to the grocery store. Sing in the kitchen before 9 a.m., something she had expressly forbidden him to do.
He didn’t want to do any of it.
Life is different now. Lonelier. He drives across town to see her, not every day, but most. She does not appear to know who he is, but smiles brightest when he enters the room. He goes to see her without knowing if she misses her husband or will even remember that he stopped by. He goes to see that she is well taken cared for, hair brushed and smiling. He goes because, despite of everything, she is still his wife and he is in love with her. He goes to hold her hand.
This fire is not swift. This time they are living in a perpetual farewell.
Life becomes sweeter in the retelling.
Years after my grandparent’s house burned down, my uncle compiled a video of pictures he collected from friends and family – smiling in front of their wedding cake, their children playing in front of their first home, grandchildren dressing up in their old clothes. The pictures rolled by on the screen, their memories preserved by others.
There is an acute pain that comes from a life well lived, as without it, we would often be unaware of the great love we have experienced. But eventually, we all forget, and though our own loss and grief dies with us, the love lingers on.
My own children will never know their great-grandmother, a truth that makes me sad whenever I stop to think about it. They will see her pictures and hear her stories. Her blood and her love will pump through their veins, whether they recognize it or not.
“I don’t want your Mama to die,” my oldest son whispered to his Papa, after learning his mother was very sick. And in these words of concern I realized there are pieces of her that will never fade away.
When they returned to their house the next day, it appeared as if everything had been burned. It was only later, when the embers cooled and they were allowed to wade back through the house that the extent of the destruction could be confirmed. The structure had almost completely crumbled, and ashes were all that remained.
Sifting through the wreckage, they found one piece of paper that had been left mostly unharmed. Charred around the edges, their marriage license was still intact.
I want to tell you more about the characters in this story. The fights over whose turn it was to do dishes at Thanksgiving, the time my uncles shot a potato gun into the backyard, the treats my aunts would bake for every holiday.
But, there is no need. You already know this story. It is a story like every other.
In life and in fire we travel from the ashes of one loss to the dust of another. We go from pain to pain, learning our salvation – that through it all, love never ends.
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Front image by George Doyle, Top image by Valueline