The question I always come back to is the date. Does it mean anything that these events all happened on December 21? In 1948, my father and his twin brother were born. In 1990, when I was eleven, my dad’s sister woke to her house on fire and by the time the sun had set, her husband and three of her children were dead. And in 2007, my grandfather died hours after my father and I visited him.
December 21 is the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. But the day is not actually any shorter—all twenty-four hours are there, it’s just that most of them are dark. My dad’s sister says she thinks of the date as a portal that opens up for all kinds of passage. She’s Catholic with a tinge of the mystical.
After the fire, my father and I drove three hours to the hospital in New Haven every weekend and stayed at the Ronald McDonald House while my one cousin who survived—a girl, my age, my friend (my double)—got skin grafts to mend the burn on her back and huffed into a plastic tube to make three balls of varied shades of blue rise in their distinct columns of air. She still has a cough that overtakes her at times.
My cousin and aunt came to live with us; we had a finished attic that made for two bedrooms. Dad said if it were not for my cousin, my aunt would taken a long swim in the ocean and never come back.
My aunt would look at me and her face would go red, crumple, and dissolve. I would hug her and say nothing. My family, with four kids the same age as her own, must have been an excruciating haunting.
My mom and aunt are the same age; they were pregnant together all four times. Our families were a mirror-image: eight kids matched up. We spent every summer together. Lived together, cooked together, slept in the same rooms; a family commune. At the end of sticky summer days, our parents would line us up outside in our bathing suits, squeeze handfuls of shampoo down the line, tell us to wash up, and spray us down with cold water from the garden hose. It was that kind of living: pure, hardy, and character building. It is hard to imagine such bodies vulnerable.
All my cousin’s clothes had burned, and Dad took me to the mall to choose new ones for her. She’d always been a tomboy in rugby shirts and khakis. I tried to pick things I thought she’d like. I taught her how to peg her pants and double-layer her socks and scrunch them down.
Once, Dad brought home a bouquet of flowers for her and I was unbearably jealous. I snuck into her room and stole bras out of her drawer. Training bras. What were we training for? Perhaps I did not want her to grow up, grow boobs, outgrow the rugby shirts. Perhaps I did not want to grow into a woman with a family to lose. Perhaps I was jealous of my father’s attention. I snatched that symbol from her and hid them in my own chest of drawers.
My uncle who died was one of my mom’s best friends growing up. They were teenagers together. He introduced my mom and dad to each other when she graduated high school. What must her grief have been, to have lost that friend? And then, at the age of thirty-eight with four kids of her own, she took her husband’s sister and niece into her home. Was there room for her grief?
I heard things about what happened that night and I don’t know what’s true. That my aunt jumped from the second story bedroom window and ran to the neighbors’ house for a ladder. That she fractured her hip when she hit the ground. That my uncle was supposed to wait at the window with the kids. That when she returned, the window was empty. That my uncle had a heart attack. That the kids died not from burns but from smoke inhalation. That my aunt was obsessed with collecting prayer cards when she was a kid.
That the fire started in the trash can under the kitchen sink, caused by something called spontaneous combustion. Oily rags used to finish the wood floor of an addition to the old Cape. A neighbor had been the one to apply the finish. The rooms of the house got so hot the walls burst into flames. That my other uncle (my father’s twin) helped bring a lawsuit against the floor polish company to ensure my aunt would not have to worry about money for the rest of her life. That the company settled.
I don’t know which parts are true.
I’ve been living inside these uncertainties and trying to outpace them. It’s not the pain of loss—grief is elemental and plain. I mourn plainly my uncle, my cousins, their short lives, their phantom friendships. But the other tangle, the fear of loss and the true and horrifying unpredictability of life, I can’t shake that.
Portals, as my aunt calls them, are like rings of time orbiting one another. Occasionally they conjoin and reveal a fissure where someone can make the passage from one to another. I’ve always wanted to live lightly for this reason—to live light, to be light, without excess of body or possessions or attachments. So that, should I glimpse the opening, I’ll be ready to make the jump.
As I’ve grown older, I have tried to understand how the events of the fire and its aftermath worked their way into my body. I am attuned to cycles. Cycles of bodies: birth, life, death. The push and pull of passion. Binge and purge. All or nothing. Silence and speak. Sweet and salt. Dark and light. Denial and reward. Cycles of seasons: During the short days of winter, birds take the place of leaves on the trees, one at the end of every branch. Clouds pass fast in the windy bright sky. The changes in light direct my moods. In the evening, fog settles and the snow becomes matted with mud and tamped down with the thick and textured soles of boots. Canada geese honk and flap and land in the yard and pick at the sodden ground, their own rubbery feet sloshing and sucking in the snow. The dark days of December leave me feeling bereft, like something is being taken from me.
I’ve sought discomfort because comfort makes me uncomfortable. Good things make me anxious. I’ve performed my days to make people proud and I’ve come home at night seeking release and reward. There is no correlation between being good and recompense in life. Life is not a competition to prove you are worthy of survival. I am not fully good nor fully bad. Things are rarely wholly right or wholly wrong. Yet, I’d rather be wrong than tolerate the anxiety of not having a right answer.
My aunt says there’s no sense in trying to control things because, as we know, you can’t account for accidents. I’ve spent a long time trying to understand how you could go to bed one night—the longest night of the year—and wake up hours later to your house in flames and your husband and three of your children dead.
The year I turned thirty-six, my husband and I bought a one-hundred-and-forty-year-old house that needed some fixing. In the midst of repairs, I felt unsafe in a way that could not be solved by home improvements. A dire accident seemed inevitable. I’d wake at three in the morning and pace the dark rooms looking for warning signs.
Two years in—I was the age my aunt had been when the fire happened—a guy came to inspect our furnace and told me he’d have to condemn it. He said there was a hairline crack in the heat exchanger and it was leaking carbon monoxide. He’d have to dismantle it, take it out of the house in parts, and replace the whole thing.
It was late November. He was squirrel-y and had been eating Sour Patch Kids through the afternoon, sucking his fingers. I didn’t trust him. I told him to put my furnace back together and get out.
My husband and I entered what I think of now as a biblical period—forty days of testament and turmoil. I began to think of the furnace as a menace with the silent power to destroy us. I played out the events of the fire in my head. I had been waiting for this; something imprinted in me was finally unraveling. I put a carbon monoxide detector in our bedroom and waited for the alarm. I planned to jump from the second story window.
The stress was too much to bear. I called a different furnace company and told them to rip the thing out and install the best one they had. Top of the line, I said. I was determined to do everything right. We financed the Cadillac of furnaces and four men came in for an all-day installation. Guess which date? December 21.
On Christmas Eve, my husband said he wasn’t feeling well, went to bed early, then bolted up a few hours later thinking he was going to vomit. He made it out of the bedroom and into the hall before collapsing in front of the bathroom door. His body seized, his face seized, eyes open, drool coming from his lips. He could not hear me when I hollered at him and did not respond when I smacked his cheeks in desperation. I called 911. Though he could name the year and the president when the EMTs asked, we decided to go the emergency room.
In the ER, what looked like a seizure happened again. After an inconclusive CT scan, he was admitted to the hospital. After his tests and injections and anti-seizure meds, I went home to try to rest. I was alone in bed when the carbon monoxide alarm went off. The electronic knell shot straight through my chest and down my legs.
I am running down the stairs. I am out the front door. I am sitting in the freezing car. I am breathing hard. I am shaking. It is four in the morning and I call my dad. I think there’s something wrong with the house, I say. The air is poison.
I called 911 for the second time in forty-eight hours. I told them about the furnace. About the carbon monoxide detector going off. The fire department came. They swept the small house, detected CO levels of zero throughout. They gave me an oxygen mask. It made me feel better.
Dad said I was having a panic attack. Dad said it was probably not oxygen but carbon dioxide they’d given me to breathe. Oxygen would have made it worse. Dad said my husband likely had not had a seizure but that it was something called vasovagal syncope, which is basically an extreme form of passing out caused by stress or genetics. Turns out he was right about this. And the carbon monoxide alarm had gone off because the battery was low.
The following March, we sold the house. Around the same time, my cousin told me she was pregnant. When I saw her that spring, she was teary with worry. She’d come from the doctor’s where she learned there was an abnormality with the baby’s umbilical cord. Something called velamentous cord insertion, where the umbilical cord is not properly connected to the placenta or fully enclosed in the amniotic sac. As a result, the baby’s blood vessels were stretched along the membrane in between the amniotic sac and the placenta. What was supposed to be a protective barrier had failed. What was supposed to be safeguarded was, instead, exposed and vulnerable. He seemed ready to jump portals, his tether to this earth tenuous. When he was born healthy (nearly ten pounds) his presence in the world seemed audacious, defiant, and hopeful.
The day I turned thirty-nine, my husband and I said we really should try to answer the question of whether or not we wanted to get pregnant.
Instead, we went out and bought chairs for our apartment and, on a whim, a framed reproduction of John J. Audubon’s Blue Jay from Birds of America. Three birds are balanced on a branch in a pyramidal composition. The bird at the top of the branch bends her head, leading your eye down to the male below her. His outstretched wing gestures to a third bird, also female, and the tuft of feathers on her head points back up to the first female in a full circle—or triangle. A holy trinity; a family trinity?
Except there is nothing holy or wholesome here.
The birds are raiding a nest and devouring the eggs. The female at the top has cracked an egg open and the thick yellow-pink ooze of an unformed hatchling drips into the open beak of the male, who splays his wings and tail feathers ecstatically. The second female has speared and penetrated an egg so deeply that her beak is invisible, buried to the hilt in the shell. Entrapped by what she desired, her hunger and haste have left her muzzled. One pale drip begins to seep from the otherwise perfect orb. An invisible fissure that may soon bust, freeing her but also losing the sweet embryonic goo.
The whole scene is draped in vines of vibrant fluted yellow and pink trumpet flowers, open receptacles, spectacularly fallopian. When confronted with my waning fertility, this is the picture we bought and hung on the wall in our living room. Marauding creatures destroying another’s young before they could be born—this reminder of the unpredictable and destructive forces of nature.
These portals appear in birth, in life, in death. I wanted to believe I could prepare for them or avoid them. But I’m starting to understand that I can’t; it’s not up to me at all.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin. Final image of John J. Audubon’s Blue Jay from Birds of America provided by author.