May God be between you and harm in all the empty places where you must walk.Egyptian blessing, 18th dynasty
This one has always been a favourite of mine and it is certainly getting some use these last couple of weeks on behalf of friends who are having to walk in very empty places right now.
Faith and my heart tells me that they do not endure this journey alone for those of us who have trodden a similar path will understand what is said but more importantly what is between the lines and the words left unsaid.
Those are the matters of the heart and the soul for which words are wholly inadequate and those who have not experienced the situation themselves may never truly understand the dark places one must endure on such a journey and why having any sort of friendly and caring companionship to share the walk through empty places is often the one thing that helps get to the promised better place down the path.
December 1989 was quite the wild month for winter weather in Southeastern NC and was quite the change from the sunny temperatures I was enjoying at the University of Central Florida in Orlando that semester.
Truth be told, the weather was all I was enjoying that semester in central Florida…I was desperately homesick and missed my family in Fayetteville terribly, especially my (much) younger brother and sister and their antics.
Academically, it was the darkest semester I had ever endured or would endure…I dropped all but one class (Anthropology) and even though the professor’s stories were certainly interesting, my heart just wasn’t in it and that grade suffered as much as could be imagined.
I’d also moved out of the campus dorms after my freshman year to share a flat with a roommate in Maitland so I was feeling more than a little disconnected and out of sorts. Don’t get me wrong…my roommate Mark was quite special and interesting but we were destined to walk different paths and adding a new 20 minute journey to UCF just compounded being a bit out of sorts.
So you can imagine my joy as I packed up my kit into my black 1988 Nissan Pulsar NX and turned her north for home on that very familiar stretch of road known as I-95. There is always a special feeling in my heart when I see the familiar tri-coloured flag with the date ribbons that make it unique and know that I’m finally home in North Carolina.
Truth be told, that bit of I-95 between “South of the Border” and that sign have been known to hear yells of sheer joy with the windows completely down which at this point of the year was bloody cold but well worth it! 🙂
It’s funny how being with those who you love and who love you can put you right straightaway. I will always treasure the friends I had at UCF but there are times that the wandering and wayward soul needs the familiarity of home and family.
As I said, the weather was generally dreadful and before the celebrated Christmas snowstorm that would dump 20 inches of snow on Wilmington and 4-5 inches in Fayetteville, there was an ice storm that preceded it and as they tended to do, they turned the front step and sidewalk into a NHL-quality ice surface.
Now, I’ve always had wretched knees and ankles and it wasn’t uncommon for me to roll and sprain my ankle on totally smooth and dry surfaces. Certainly, getting older and more panoramic in terms of physique through the years really hasn’t helped my sense of coordination but it’s not like it was amazing to begin with other than climbing high in magnolia trees in San Antonio and about giving my mother a heart attack when I told her I’d jump down…but that’s a story for another time, dear friends. 🙂
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I stepped really wrong and did a real professional job of rolling and spraining my ankle on that ice coated porch and step. Truth be told, it was a wonder I didn’t kill myself outright when I did the half gainer into the front yard.
It hurt like hell. And I’m not talking about some genteel hell…I’m talking about the Ninth Ring of Dante’s Inferno pain just to put weight on it, much less go walking round.
Give me a book or two, let me get in the bottom of the bunk I shared in my brother’s room and elevate and ice the Elements be damned ankle, thank you very much!
The next day, I got to appreciate in no uncertain terms how much it can suck to have a nurse that worked in the rehabilitation unit at Cape Fear Valley Hospital as a stepfather. One that had served as president of the NC Association of Rehabilitation Nurses, no less!
Here I am happily keeping that ankle elevated and thinking of when the next round of ibuprofen is due when he comes in and announces that we’re all going to be off to Cross Creek Mall. And by all, he meant *ALL* of us…including me and my bum ankle.
I’m really not into that idea at all. And whilst I was absolutely on board with his theories concerning rehabilitation would be better served by exercising that ankle and certainly agreed he was the expert on the subject between us…I was still of the mind that it’d be far more like the Bataan Death March than a family outing.
I think it was at this point that I realised two things:
- There were times where my stepfather could think and act remarkably like my father vis-a-vis the notion of democracy…i.e. he was here to defend it but had no desire to practise it.
- If I were to point out #1 to Lee, I’d never hear the end of it because personality-wise, the two of them could not have been more diametrically opposed!
Having resigned myself to defeat, I got out of the rack and followed my family all round the mall on an excursion that can only be described using multiple four-letter words of a blue hue. Mind you, not out loud or else I’d find my head involuntarily flying at great speed toward Hoke County with the rest of my body hitting the deck in Fayetteville. But let’s just say that my thoughts about him were very dark and vivid and just leave it at that, shall we?
By the time the impromptu rehab session from hell had ended and we’re back on Morganton Road heading toward the house, I have to admit that the ankle did feel slightly better whilst I was moving. Sitting still in the car, on the other hand…not so much.
As we came out of the mighty (and brand-new!) gully that was the entrance to Devonwood and crested the hill heading toward Reilly Road, we could see a plume of smoke off to the left in the general direction of the house. As we got closer to it, the feeling of dread intensified.
Originally, we were not going to head directly to our house but rather to Aunt Judy’s (his mother, another long story…you know, I’ve got to find some short stories at some point!) in Loch Lomond a bit further down the road. But right as we got to where Evanston met Morganton Road behind the old Big Star strip mall, I leaned over to Lee and suggested that we run by the house to make sure everything was OK.
The look on his face said we were thinking the same thing…that smoke was way too damned close for comfort.
As we came round the bend, it was pretty obvious why…our house was in flames and had already attracted a crowd of onlookers enjoying the spectacle.
Some of them were down next to the house about to try to shove my car up the steep incline to street level but I managed to convince them to let me use the key and engine instead and barely got her out of the way before the fire brigade of Bonnie Doone Fire District turns up with their fire engine and proceeds to start blasting away with the water hoses.
To say we were in shock was a grand understatement. The next hour or so is spent watching the firemen do their best to save the place and our pets who were still inside the house when it went up…and occasionally resisting the urge to kill some of the more obnoxious and insensitive onlookers.
My favourite one was the aspiring journalist who was happily snapping pictures of our house being consumed by fire and completely missing the fact that up to that morning, I had *LIVED* in that house and everything I’d brought with me from Florida was going…going…gone. Along with pretty much everything my family owned…and here he is being all chatty Cathy about how cool the event was not realising or caring that some of us just might have a different view of it.
My stepfather actually stopped me from taking his camera and shoving it up that guy’s most notorious orifice where cameras usually fear to tread which is probably for the best. But between the two of us, I think he finally took the hint that if he valued his life, he’d be better served being somewhere else.
Most of the spectators weren’t jerks but there really wasn’t a whole lot they could do, either.
The house was a total loss and most of the pets perished though miraculously, the 55 gallon fish tank in the sunken living room near the flashpoint (and by all reckoning, the most intensely hot part of the fire) had actually survived intact and even though the water was full of soot, all of the fish were still alive.
The firemen who were in that part of the house couldn’t believe that tank and those fish had survived and I’ll never forget them yelling out that “I don’t know how but we’ve got live fish in here!” We found a cooler and filled it with water and transferred the oscars and pacu as well as the plecostomus algae eaters into it and took them to a local pet store who kindly took them in.
When you’ve experienced a devastating house fire, what they don’t tell you is that the fire is actually the easiest part of it because you’ve got no control over what happens and it’s kind of hard to pretend it didn’t happen when the truth is there for you and anyone else to see.
Sifting through everything that’s thoroughly blackened with soot to find the stuff worth salvaging and writing down the items for the insurance claim to come is probably the cruelest part of it all. And whilst you’re doing this, there’s this unmistakable dank soot smell that you will *NEVER* forget for the rest of your life. Thirty-two years on and I can *STILL* smell that smell and know exactly what it is.
The harder thing to get over is just how close one can come to an unexpected death. The fire had started on the western side of the house near the fireplace where there had been a fire built a week prior but the coals were still hot enough to ignite. The room my brother Ben and I shared was on the east end of the house. The firemen told us that given the intensity of the fire and smoke that had I stayed in that bunk bed with my ankle in the air, I would have likely been dead by smoke inhalation well before the fire itself would reach that end of the house.
Had Lee not insisted that I get my ass out of that rack and go walking on the ankle, I would have been dead. That’s a sobering thought, to be sure.
We were fortunate that Lee’s parents were just down the road and took us in whilst we sifted through to find what we could salvage. It’s amazing how you can suddenly appreciate having clothes that don’t smell like they’ve been used on the set of “Chicago Fire” or frankly having clothes at all.
That soot doesn’t come out in one trip through the washing machine. Truth be told, there were times a load would be done about five times before it got to the point where it was actually usable. How we didn’t kill Aunt Judy’s laundry machines is a testament to just how good Kenmore’s OEMs used to be back then…the washing machine was going constantly for days on end just to get to the bare minimum of a wardrobe for the five of us.
The days would find us sifting through the rubble to find anything worth trying to rehabilitate but honestly, it was rather a lost cause. Some of the family pictures survived and I remember one of Mom’s soot-stained memory books but by and large, it was gone.
The Christmas storm would come and go and we’d try to celebrate Christmas for my brother and sister’s sake but the fire had pretty much taken any sense of festivity out of the festive season for us.
The days and most of the evenings was spent cleaning what little we salvaged…the nights were spent trying desperately not to experience another round of nightmares of driving round the bend in the road and seeing the house in flames and smelling that smell and subconsciously dwelling on how much worse it could be.
The new year comes round with it’s customary inevitability and given that my previous semester was an exercise in debilitating homesickness, I had no desire to traipse off to Orlando for the spring semester whilst the rest of the family were having to deal with the many months that were to come.
I was told in the clearest possible terms that if I didn’t get my ass out on I-95 the following morning and hie my heiney back to school, he’d be more than happy to put a trailer behind his Bronco and tow my ass down there. And that once there, I’d better keep my ass there until I was summoned and not one moment sooner.
And lest you might think there was a reasoned discussion afterward weighing the pros and cons, I can assure you there wasn’t.
That was probably the most painful drive back to Florida I’d ever experienced until January of 2016 when I’d return to Port Orange to start dealing with my father’s estate.
So many emotions were swirling through my head that it’s a wonder that I didn’t have a major collision during that eight hour journey south. I couldn’t tell you to this day which one reigned supreme…anger, sadness, a feeling I was betraying my family by leaving them to walk through the empty places alone, regret at not calling my stepfather’s bluff and seeing if he’d back down and let me stay. More than a few tears were shed on I-95 that day.
The next few months were just plain miserable and I have no doubt I was not a whole lot of fun to be round (not that the previous semester’s homesickness did wonders for my social interactions!). OK, I’ll admit that I was shocked that my friends would even speak to me again but they knew better than I that the best way they could help was to let me walk through the empty places and have faith I’d eventually come out the other side mostly intact.
Here I was in Orlando living my life as if nothing had happened whilst they were in hell (figuratively and from what the shell of the house looked and smelled like, literally as well!). I’d get periodic updates about them moving into a rental house and the recovery and rebuilding of our house but there was always this pall of feeling there was much more that I could be doing for them than I was.
Ironically, that semester turned out to be one of the best I’d ever have at UCF. I’d switched majors from Computer and Electrical Engineering to Computer Science and found myself in having to take the third course of a three course sequence without having taken the prerequisite classes first. I’d end up working my ass off in that class trying desperately to fill in the gaps that I’d have gotten in the first two classes and was in pretty much every session of Dr Leeson’s office hours he offered that semester. That’s how I ended up with an A for the course even though I totally bombed the midterm but showed decided improvement on the final which is what Dr Leeson wanted to see. It turned out it was best it worked out that way…I was able to appreciate the two theory classes that preceded this class having seen practical implementation of the theory (I’ve always found it easier to reverse engineer things for that very reason). I also ended up fixing that Anthropology grade (UCF gave you two free shots at replacing a bad grade, I only had to use that one) to something much better.
The spring passed into summer and the house was eventually finished being rebuilt pretty much from the floors up and my family moved back in the latter part of the summer when I was finally given the OK to come home.
When I got there and marveled at how wonderful the house looked (and smelled!) compared to what I’d seen months before, it was at that point that Lee did something that completely floored me.
He apologised for sending me away even though he knew my heart was always back home in North Carolina and he knew how much it hurt me not being in Fayetteville for the family. And he admitted that there was nothing that could have been done about it…he would have followed through on his threat to tow me there had I not willingly gone back into exile.
But he went on to say that even though I wasn’t physically there to help with rebuilding, I was doing something far greater for them by continuing on the path toward the degree that was my destiny. For Mom and Lee, knowing I was back on the path I was meant to walk was far better for them psychologically and helped them walk through the empty places, if not in peace then at least with a slightly lighter burden to carry.
It took many years to truly understand the truth of what he said that day. And a few more beyond that to truly believe it in my heart.
But time keeps counting and eventually I would come to understand that wisdom at the time I would need it most.
Time and experience also helps one understand that even as horrific as that experience was for all of us, there are those who have to walk an even darker and more empty path.
For them, I would wish them to know that I *UNDERSTAND* the things that cannot be said and that they are not alone and have faith that this may lighten their burden at least a little bit.
And having faith that eventually the light will return to chase away the shadows and illuminate the way may well be the toughest ask, but it’s the way through those things that trouble our soul. May the light of that day come swiftly for them! 🙂