I often mention that I’m working on a memoir when I publish a post here. I’ve been thinking that it’s time to share a little bit of what I’ve been working on. The following piece will most likely be included in the final manuscript along with other stories about my brother, Reid and my family.
It’s a hot and sticky July night. The clock on the nightstand reads 2:15. I get up to use the bathroom. Five minutes later, back in bed, I’m more awake than I want to be. I can’t get comfortable and the sleepy, middle-of-the-night brain fog that usually pulls me back into deep sleep is nowhere to be found. I search my mind, trying to uncover what I’m worried about so that I can tell it to get lost and that I’ll deal with it in the morning. But nothing rises to the surface. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, and pray for sleep to return.
A few minutes later, the deep rumbling of a truck outside on the street, gets my attention. Our neighborhood, though only blocks from a major road and the University, is always extremely quiet. It’s not a place you’d normally find a big truck beeping it’s way up or down the street during the wee hours. It’s not trash day and besides, they make their rounds during daylight hours.
When I open my eyes, I’m instantly aware of flashing red lights reflected on the ceiling, giving the room a surreal look. Anxiety begins to flood my core. I always have an eye or an ear out for danger and am ever more on the alert since I live across the street from a frail, elderly gentleman, in his nineties. I can’t help myself. I seem to be wired for worry.
Bill stirs. Opening the shutters, we see no activity, except for the disturbing sight of a fire truck parked in front of the house next-door. Its swirling red lights sweep through the night. Several firemen, dressed in full firefighting gear, emerge from the dark, get back in the truck and drive off. Whatever the emergency was, it’s over. I go back to bed falling into a restless sleep.
The next morning a call from my neighbors, away for the summer, explains the fire truck mystery. Their security company notified them in the middle of the night that their fire alarm had gone off and that the fire department was on its way to check it out. They found nothing. The alarm had apparently malfunctioned. George tells me the problem will be fixed in the next couple of days and sends apologies for waking up the neighborhood.
Later in the morning, checking my email and Facebook page, I stumble across an alarming post from my nephew’s former wife, and gather that there has been a fire at her ex’s home, but that everyone is okay. That would be the house that my brother, Reid, built and considered home when he was alive. I try calling Jesse, my nephew, who lives there now, but no one answers the phone. I try to rest in the knowledge that everyone is supposed to be okay.
Jesse finally answers the phone at 9 PM. Blessedly everyone is fine and the house was never in danger of catching fire. But the story he tells me is hair-raising. It seems that around 2:30 that morning, just about the time Bill and I were up and watching the fire truck outside our window here in Virginia, a thunderstorm went through the area of New Hampshire where he and his new wife are located. The big barn, I always referred to as Reid’s barn, was struck by lightning. Fifteen minutes later, when the fire department arrived to contain the blaze, the barn was fully engulfed in flames. All that is left is a large, charred patch of ground and a hole, where the barn once stood. That the fire department was checking for a fire next door to my own home, at the same time that Reid’s barn was burning sent a chill down my spine.
Because there was little to no storage space in the house, Jesse and his new wife, Lisa, had stored most, if not all of their belongings in the barn, including clothing, family photographs, books and Jesse’s extensive collection of vinyl records. All of it was lost, along with the remains of Reid’s things, his art work, several 12 string guitars, some clothing and the carpenter’s workbench our grandfather had built when he came to this country from Poland in 1912. Lisa and Jesse had just begun putting the finishing touches on several horse stalls on the ground floor for her horses that were due to arrive the following weekend. Thank goodness they were not yet stabled there. They would have most likely perished in the fire. Both Lisa and Jesse, feel sad, but that no one was hurt makes all of us feel better and fortunately, the barn and its contents had been insured.
I don’t know when that barn was built, but it was a fixture on the property when Reid bought the place over twenty years ago. After he built the house and his second wife died, he moved into the barn so that he could rent out the house to bring in some income. It was there that he lived until 2008, when he was diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer. He then moved in with his lover, Lee, who took care of him until he died in June of 2010.
Prior to that, on my occasional visits to New England, Reid never invited me into the barn to see where he was living. Bill had managed an invitation once when he was visiting there alone. He told me that the place was a mess. He described the barn as filled to the rafters with all manner of junk from scrap metal to cork floats that Reid had collected. There was very little room to move about because the stacks of lumber, tools and whatever Reid took a fancy to, just kept piling up. A number of old, dead Volvos were parked in the field next to the barn from which Reid removed parts to keep his ancient, Volvo sedan on the road. Reid was a hoarder.
He lived in a quasi apartment he put together on the top-level in the barn. There was no running water. A wood stove tucked away in a corner kept the top floor, his living space, warm in the winter. But in order to get up there, one had to make his way through unmarked passages, past piles of junk and then up a ladder. After hearing this, my mother, who was by that time living with Bill and I, complained of repetitive nightmares in which the barn caught fire and Reid was unable to escape.
The first time I was ever inside the barn was just a few months ago on a visit I made to Vermont and New Hampshire. I’d last been up there in 2010, for the memorial celebration after Reid died. I’d been planning to make another trip to New England for over a year after that, but all kinds of excuses would present themselves and I’d sigh with relief that I didn’t have to do it just yet. I apparently wasn’t ready to revisit my past life in Vermont, which was loaded with issues that I knew one day I’d need to address. As I began slowly writing and examining stories about my life for my memoir, I felt I needed to go, but lacked the courage to move forward until this year. Reid’s life and death were among the major items on my list that I needed to revisit.
During his last months, when Reid was very sick, but trying to make the most of his remaining life, Bill and I were moving into a new home. I was dealing with severe anxiety and depression. Just a year earlier I had discontinued taking Paxil, and was still struggling with the effects of withdrawal. My deep sleep patterns had ended when I began weaning myself off the drug and I had been sleeping for only three hours a night, for almost a year. I was also seeing a therapist who was helping me explore the trauma I’d experienced as a child. That I was losing my brother, with whom I’d had a deep love/hate relationship, didn’t help.
I was unable to be with him when he died. The rushed, two-day trip Bill and I made to New Hampshire to celebrate his life was too short a time in which to wrap my head around the fact that I would never see him again. Between bouts of tears, I walked my way through those two days feeling numb and unable to digest what was happening. At home again, I blindly dove into each day, getting settled into my new home, and planning my first trip alone in years. Two months later my diagnosis of endometrial cancer sent me reeling. I had set aside no time to mourn the loss of my brother or to connect with the deep compassion I had once felt for him, but was unable to express during the last year of his life.
Walking into the barn this past June, I was struck with all that I hadn’t known about him. For the first time, I accepted that Reid was a hoarder. Though Family members and friends had repeatedly told me about the way he was living, I couldn’t take it in until I saw it with my own eyes. Though Jesse had already begun getting rid of what Reid had collected, it was impossible not to feel Reid’s presence. I felt as though he had just gone out to do a few chores. There were notes he had left for himself on scraps of wood left over from his various woodworking projects. Lists of things he needed to buy on his next trip to town, to-do lists, and a list of friends and their phone numbers, that he needed to call. On one shelf sat an unopened jar of mayonnaise, which over the two years since his death, had separated into two parts, a small glob of white solid matter, submerged in a pool of thick yellow oil. His clothes still hung in a makeshift closet. A collection of tiny rodent bones and arrowheads he had found nearby were displayed in small baskets. Pieces of his artwork and the whimsical birdcages he built were hung from the walls and rafters. I was overwhelmed.
After leaving the next day on the next leg of my journey, I realized I had taken no photos of what I saw in the barn and had neglected to take a small memento. I had planned on taking one of his lists written in his big, bold handwriting, feeling that if I kept it in a pocket, I’d be able to connect with him, because for the first time, I understood who he was.
Though my visit to Reid’s barn helped my grieving process, I still find it difficult to comprehend that my brother, Zed, and I are the only remaining members of our family. It was a family larger than life in so many ways. The hurt and pain we caused each other has followed me through the years, scars that never completely fade. The barn is gone, as is Reid and both of my parents, yet I continue searching for the love our family so rarely offered each other. Sometimes I feel terribly alone, wandering through the scene of a crime I will never understand.
I am convinced that the burning of the barn was not just an accidental act of Mother Nature. To me it is more than coincidence that on the exact night, at the exact time that the barn burned to the ground, a fire truck drove its way into my sleep. Within the flashing red lights, I can see Reid, in full rage, casting bolts of lightning with his hammer, breaking the shackles that bound him to his earthly existence. He is now at peace and has also freed me from the myths we created together as we grew into our lives.