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Day Thirty-four: Saudade

It was a feeling too big to hold on to. Every time I tried, the fingers of my mind would slip, like trying to hold onto soap in the bathtub. It was right in front of me, all around me, inside and out, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t handle it, make it make sense. I had lost everything. Everything. How do you hold on to a concept like that?

The fire department arrived about two minutes after I made it out. Those two minutes stretched into eternity, an eternity where I could see and hear everything I had ever worked for, everything I had ever loved, burn and die. In my mind, I saw the flames eagerly devouring hundreds of books, falling from their shelves as their pages fluttered through the air like the wings of brilliant birds. Books I had read and loved, books I had yet to read. The fire annihilated them, one at a time and all at once.

I remember the neighbors holding me down on the lawn as I screamed and tried to get in.

The rocking chair that my wife’s mother had left us. Solid oak, hand-carved by her father. It was the chair in which my wife had sat as a little girl when she learned her letters, when she read her bible. It was the chair I sat in when our little girl wouldn’t sleep, or our boy wanted to read. It was the chair I sat in on that last night, when the love of my life left this world. It was rendered down into char, stripped and eaten alive.

The fire department arrived in a flurry of noise and light. Three trucks, bringing flashing red brilliance to the night and an order where there was none. The flickering of the flames was brought to heel by the oscillating red brilliance. The aimless wandering of neighbors was undone by the men of great purpose who came to fight fire with water. They turned their hoses on my house, and kept others ready in case the fire spread.

Photographs in the dining room, all in an old Macy’s shopping bag that my mother had given to me. Some of them went back to the late 19th century, images of stiff and uncomfortable people trying to leave their mark on the world through this new and magical medium. My great-great grandmother, in her youth, was a woman of vibrance and mischief, a woman I never would know. If the flames didn’t get them – and I was sure they did – the water would seep in, find them, and insinuate itself. The moisture would warp and twist and inflate the photographs, and if anything at all was left, it would be only a piece. An eye. A hand. The top of someone’s head.

I sat on my lawn, as close as the firefighters would let me get. The night had turned cold, perhaps just in comparison to the waves of heat coming off the home I would never live in again. I was in my pajamas and my coat, the only thing I could grab on the way out. We had played that game, my wife and I – what would you save? And in my head, in the peaceful security of a glass of wine in the living room, I had mapped it all out. Despite the impending certainty of destruction, I would calmly and carefully gather the items I needed – wallet, phone, the bank book – and the items I treasured – the photos, my first edition Mark Twain, our wedding album.

I had none of those. Escaping the house was gone from my memory, erased in a moment of madness and terror. I had myself. I had the clothes I was wearing.

That’s it.

The lady from across the street brought me cocoa. I took it, and I think I said thank you. I sipped it as I watched my house burn. All that I had been, all that I was, was gone. Up in smoke.

So I remembered. I thought of the house, of each room. The living room we repainted three times because the green we thought we bought wasn’t the one we had in mind. The bathroom where our son almost drowned when he was three, where I pulled him back from death on a floor tiled with flowers. The bedrooms that we went back to night after night. The bed that we slept and fought and loved in. There was a cabinet door in the kitchen that didn’t shut right. A chair in the den that we couldn’t move because it would reveal the wine stain on the carpet. The huge dinner table that hosted Thanksgiving every year. That framed painting that our son did in college that a team of wild horses wouldn’t get me to admit was terrible.

It was all there, in my head. In my memories.

I sipped the cocoa. Several other neighbors had come by, asked if I was okay. I may have nodded. The firefighters were shooting water into the upstairs window, into the bedroom that our daughter defiantly painted black when she was in high school. While her mother and I were on vacation, of course.

The house was huge, in my memory. Room enough for decades. For armies of people. Everything we had was in there, somewhere. The feeling of the rag rug in my “study,” the smell of the incipient mildew in the basement. The hum of the refrigerator and the sound of rain on the skylight. It was all there, and bright, and real.

I sat on the lawn. I watched my house burn.

And I was at home.


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