I was traveling down the long dirt road behind my grandmother’s house when I saw it. It stood alone.
It was the prettiest tree I had ever seen, the sunlight hit its branches as though each was lightly wrapped in twinkling white lights. And, nestled in the middle, was a tree house. I wondered if it held a little corner to curl up with a good book or a place to study the stars, the twinkling branches becoming one with the twinkling sky. With no one around, I thought it harmless to take a quick peek. I excitedly climbed the tree house wondering what awaited at the top. I was afraid of heights, and had to talk myself through the climb. I allowed the promise of each nerve-racking step to thrust me up to what I hoped would be a great reward. When I reached the top of the ladder and took a step inside I filled my lungs with air. I took in the expanse of blue skies and was overcome with an emotion I had never encountered.
It was as though time stood still and I held the key to what happened next. I could forever remain present in this moment or turn the key and allow the minutes to begin again…each tick propelling me forward into the unknown. Funny, how turning the key in the direction of the past wasn’t an option I ever considered. Until then, I had never experienced a single moment worthy of reliving that hadn’t taken place inside one of my favorite books.
I was shaken out of my thoughts by a sound down below. I inched back over to the edge of the opening. A young boy with a mop of brown, unruly hair looked up at me. I knew what was about to happen before it actually took place. Grinning, he turned and walked away, holding the ladder and my only means back down.
I stayed up in that tree house for the rest of the day, alone except for the occasional bird who flew in and perched itself on a branch for a fleeting moment or two. As the sun began to set, I curled up in the farthest corner, next to an old barrel that was covered in painted scenes. I studied them until my eyes began to close just as I focused on a knight, sword raised, charging a fiery dragon. I drifted off to sleep imagining myself in that very scene. And, as the sun moved behind the clouds and the temperature dropped, I felt the dragon’s fire warm me to my very soul.
Suddenly, the heat is unbearable like the tongues of a thousand fiery dragons are licking my skin. I hear screams, and turn to see a woman yelling for help. She is running toward a water spigot, repeatedly looking over her shoulder. Between screams and sputtered coughs she grabs a hose and begins to drag it toward the flames.
I run toward her asking if I should call for help, but intent on forcing that hose to do her will she doesn’t hear me. She stumbles, and stops momentarily to hoist the remainder of the hose on her shoulder. I stand motionless as she brushes loose strands of hair from her face, and even through the darkened streaks of soot on her skin, I know it is her. I have spent years studying that face. Every expression, every line, every inch of her skin is imprinted on my retina. No matter how rough a day, as I drift off to sleep the image of her face has always been my last.
As I look at her now, I see a helpless young woman intent on putting out a fire that threatens her world. She screams and cries as she directs the water toward a barn. She stands strong, feet firmly planted on the ground gripping the hose like a battle-weary soldier fighting a war he knows he has already lost.
As the flames envelope the building, wrapping it in its fiery embrace, she falls to the ground and wails like a wounded animal being pulled into the darkness of inevitable death, fighting for its final breath.
I rush to her side, and kneel beside her. I am afraid. I have never seen her like this. I know I must reach out and try to comfort her, ease her pain but I’m not sure it’s possible. Her cries stop for a brief moment as she lifts her head from the ground and looks up at the burning barn.
In what is barely a whisper I say, “It’s going to be okay, Mom.”
She’s lost, mesmerized by the flames. As though in a trance, she stares straight ahead and watches a wall collapse as it surrenders itself to the raging fire. She sits on the ground and rocks back and forth, tears streaming down her face.
“Shhhh. Shhhh. It’s going to be okay, Mom.”
I reach out my arms to hold her, hoping to bring her back to me, my voice, my touch…as always, my fear of losing her forever dictating my every action. Slowly, she stops rocking though the tears continue to fall. She stands with all the effort of someone who is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. It is then I realize I’m looking up at her, standing before me, while I continue to kneel with arms embracing the air.
I yell, but she doesn’t hear me, can’t hear me.
I jump up and stand before her, looking directly into her eyes now shimmering pools of a pain so deep I’m afraid I’ll drown in it if I look too long.
“Mom! Please talk to me! What is happening?”
I can feel the warmth of my own tears on my face, my body trembling in fear.
“Mom” I whisper. She turns and walks away from me.