Tragedy can strike us at any moment and like an unwanted guest it usually arrives when we are least expecting it. However, it is hard to imagine a life without tragedy. Without trials we will never really have a sense of who we are as individuals and in some cases who we could be as a whole. It is incredibly hard for me to tell this story, but it is time.
Every fall, after harvest and the leaves turn my parents host a renaissance themed festival. We wear costumes, play festive music, drink mead, laugh and tell stories by the fire, we set up a market, roast meat over an open flame, we celebrate the end of summer and we hold a competition between two teams.
The trees and their vividly beautiful autumn leaves stand as referees to our lawn games as we duke it out for the championship. Two years ago the skies turned on us and it rained the majority of the day, but we did not let that deter from our merriment. We moved the life-size Jenga tournament under the tent and forged on with our competition.
As the sun went down the victors were announced and the party raged on. We were in full swing, everyone was dancing and the libations were flowing heavily. There was not a care in the room and everything felt so perfect. We were alive and happy and enjoying the crisp fall weather.
I don’t know if because we were so incredibly cheerful when it happened that the blow seemed even more devastating or maybe it would have been harder to accept the reality of the situation if we were emotionally distressed already. I’ll never know for sure but I do know the evening took a very painful turn in an instant.
There were a few people who had already turned in for the evening and some who simply had too much to drink. There were tents set up but most people’s stuff was drenched from the all day downpour therefore other sleeping arrangements had to be made. Two of my cousins temporarily left the party to take the young kids to sleep up at the cabin for the night, which is on the same property as my parent’s house.
The music was playing so loud and the room was full of laughter that I almost didn’t hear him when my cousin came running into the party shouting “The cabin is on fire!” There was a slight delay while everyone tried to comprehend what he said and then the party cleared as everyone ran out jumping in the closest vehicle they could find and making the short but impossibly long trip over to the cabin.
I stood there in stunned silence as I watched everyone drive off. The music was still playing loudly but I honestly couldn’t tell you what song was on. I ran into the house where my mother was sleeping to wake her up and then I ran back outside to the cluster of my cousins and aunts standing staring at the top of the hill to the bright orange blaze flickering through the distant trees. I shouted at them asking if anyone had called 911 and I got no response so I grabbed the closest person to me and shouted again. My sister-in-law muttered a “yes” through her tears and I took off running toward the cabin.
I’m not athletic but I ran the whole way on the path that leads to the cabin from the house; splashing through mud puddles and choking on my own panicked tears. When I reached the top of the hill I could barely breathe and I saw my father on his knees clutching at his heart, I immediately ran toward him concerned he may have a second heart attack brought on by simple yet tragic heartbreak.
My uncle and my cousins and a few family friends were standing behind my father with devastation written across their faces. We were all so powerless and we could do nothing but wait. My oldest brother was holding onto my older brother to keep him from running into the blaze, we grew up in that building. This was a place that housed so many wonderful memories for us and we could do nothing to stop it from burning to the ground.
I helped my dad stand up and I stood next to him, an ex-fireman who had helped so many people when their lives literally had gone up in flames. There he stood, watching his own legacy licked clean by the intense and raging heat.
Most of it was a blur but I will never forget the heat. It was so severe and unrelenting. I had to look away because it was so intense that I could feel the burn in my eyes after staring at the bright inferno. I could hear the cracking of flaming wood and the popping and crashing as things inside burned to a crisp. The smell was unexplainable. Of course I could smell the smoke but it wasn’t only that, it was a scent of familiarity laced with the smoke and even though I can’t describe it accurately if you’ve ever experienced a fire you know the smell I’m referring to. I will never forget it for as long as I live.
There were cars parked that needed to be moved to give the fire trucks room. I climbed in to a vehicle and kicked it into reverse and backed down the long winding driveway of the cabin. I parked the car in a field off to the side and discovered a group of my female relatives standing on the road next to the driveway to help direct fire and rescue when they arrived.
I was so overcome with grief and I ran directly into the outstretched arms of my brother’s mother-in-law. It was only seconds later that I heard the sirens and saw the flashing red lights approach. I wasn’t allowed to go back even after begging the police officer to let me be with my dad. I tried to explain to her that he had already had one heart attack and I was concerned the overwhelming stress of the situation would cause him to have another. She denied me access and told me she would have an ambulance on standby.
I disregarded her order and ran down the highway back toward the driveway of the house and snuck back up to the cabin on the hidden pathway I had taken earlier. By the time I got back up the hill the fire was out and my parents stood among the smoldering wreckage with their arms around each other.
It was gone. The only walls left standing were in the back of the cabin but the roof had been eaten away by the flames along with everything else. I had never known life without that cabin. It was built when I was three years old and I had spent every hunting season there with my family, numerous holidays and sledding parties. My friends and I had sleepovers there when we were young, I hosted parties there growing up and ironically a lot of the firemen who helped put the fire out had attended those parties.
After the last of the fire trucks cleared it was only our family left and we made our way back to the house and sat in silence in the garage. We were all feeling so broken. The party had completely nose-dived, my oldest brother turned the music back on and we did the only thing we could think of to drown our sorrows quickly, we drank…a lot.
The next morning when I woke up my eyes were swollen, my head was pounding, my sinus’ were aching from inhaling all the smoke and everything around me smelled like ash. I was sleeping in my parent’s camper for the weekend so I made my way into the house and found my mother standing in the kitchen staring at the coffee pot. My eyes started to well up with tears and I asked her if it had been a dream to which she simply replied with a hug and whispered in my ear “no.”
My grandfather’s cousin had already been scheduled to arrive that morning to hold a church service prior to the fire and it turned out to be an incredible experience. He had a lot of kind words and comfort to offer and we were all very emotional. We wandered up to the cabin to survey the damage in the daylight. The ashes were still smoldering even though it had rained all night. Again, I found myself standing next to my dad as he held my nephew who was only two years old at the time.
My dad started to cry and that sweet little angel looked at my dad shrugged his tiny burden less shoulders and said “it’s okay Papa, we just build a new one” such simple and prolific words from the mouth of a babe. We were all so down trodden and this toddler had slept through one of the most catastrophic moments in our lives and his answer to the problem was so simple and so true. Just rebuild from the ashes and start over. The structure was gone but the people who had made it a home were all safe and alive. Every single person had made it out and we had no casualties, and that’s all that really mattered.
It’s the oldest saying there is but life goes on. And when you’re faced with something as devastating as death or destruction or violence you have to figure out a way to mend the pieces. Whether you do or you do not it will define you.
Standing there that night in the soggy grass I was surrounded by the people I love the most in this world and they were all alive to see the sun rise the next morning. Now, as we rebuild we’ve come together again to restore our legacy. We are slowly putting the pieces back together and I am so proud of my family for being there on various weekends at varying times to see this through, because it is not easy.
It is never the same crew every weekend and I am so humbled by some of the people who have stepped up to help. People have been so kind and so generous with their time and I am truly grateful for every single one of them who has put forth the effort to restore what was lost.