We have learned that the fire follows us. Not every day, but enough days that we notice it. The fire was a single moment in time, the 4:24 pm on Thursday, June 28 when it consumed the house. One would think that the demarcation of life before and life after the fire would be on a single moment. The news and novels always say, “And in that single moment, their lives were changed forever.” Not so, that moment of demarcation is fluid.
It has been 12 weeks since the fire. Life has carried on. School started again, my spouse comes home reporting on how this or that class went, on how many students are enrolled, how many added, how many dropped, how many have been in his classes before and how many had friends or family in his classes before. In our house, it is the stuff of fixing dinner. It is time to report in on the day. Other mundane things have continued. There has been laundry to wash. Bathrooms need to be cleaned and the dishes, yet again need to be done; the dog fed, the car repaired, email answered and over and over the phone rings with a recorded message from a candidate for this or that elected position.
Then, something happens. Time crystallizes, the loss overwhelms and the moment of demarcation has moved in time. It is like we are followed by it the way a compass needle follows a magnet.
Curiously, the yet-again demarcation is put into motion by others, not by us. This yet-again demarcation is about discovery. It is discovery on two parts. The first is when someone discovers what happened to us and the second is when we discover how much that person care for us.
We travel a lot. We know people in airports across the county. Between 2000 and 2008, I traveled several times a month and always through the Salt Lake City airport. One of my perks for flying so much was free membership to the Delta club lounge. On September 11, 2001, following the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC and United flight 93, there was a complete ground hold of all planes from commercial jet liners to crop dusters. On September 14, general air traffic began to return. I flew on September 15. The normally bustling to the point of bursting Salt Lake City airport was deserted. I walked down the concourse and literally could not see anyone. It was an eerie feeling. It was like the world has come to an end and I had not yet found out. I shook off the feeling remembering that I was flying to be one of the people in America—citizens and immigrants and undocumented individuals and resident aliens—who believed that our life had not stopped and that the positive spirit of people would prevail. I wanted to make a statement for peace and trust by flying on an airplane when so many were cowering in fear or so angry enough that they could not sort out how they actually felt. I felt that we, as a nation and as a world would overcome the actions of a few individuals. It was perhaps the most patriotic thing I have ever done.
That day, as I walked determinedly down the empty concourse, I believed that I was alone. I went to the Delta airport lounge expecting the door to be locked. It was not. I pulled open the door and the employees were arranged behind the desk in a tableau against deserted room. Some were sitting at the desks, some were standing behind those who were sitting, a few were leaning over looking at computer screens. They all looked up at me with faces stilled by the events of the previous days. One of the employees, who has since has passed away, looked up at me and in an emotion-choked voice said, “You are alive!” I must have looked confused because someone else said, “We don’t know who of our regular patrons died. Each time we see one of you we are relieved.” That was the moment when I learned the power of shared experience.
We are visiting my spouse’s mom again this weekend. As is our custom, as we progressed through our flights, we stopped to chat with employees we know. One person said in a cheerful, welcoming voice, “It is great to see you today, isn’t the weather wonderful outside?” Of course, that led to a general conversation about the weather which led to us telling those we were chatting with that our house had burned. They were grief stricken. Tears welled in multiple people’s eyes and in concert with their sorrow, I began to weep. The moment of demarcation had followed me. It is when people we know learn about what happened. The fire is fresh and upsetting to them and with them the fire is fresh and new to us. The loss was overwhelming to these people that we saw a few hours a year when we flew through an airport. The grief was real and the sadness heartrending to all of us.
Today I refinished a scarred patch of my mom’s floor. Her chair had scraped on the one spot for 30 years. For the past 20 on a regular basis someone says, “We ought to do something about that floor.” On this trip I brought my new detail sander and today I did something about that floor. The demarcation followed me again. While I was on my hands and knees sanding the floor, I thought about my age and being without a house and knew that my chance to have the experience of fixing the floor where my chair had scraped for 30 years was gone. Again the demarcation was linked to the life of another and again, it was profound.