what matters most is– Charles Bukowski
how well you
walk through the
My brother did the shoveling while the gravedigger looked on. It was important he do the shoveling himself. To fill the hole. To cover her ashes. To stop the fire for good.
“So peaceful,” the gravedigger said, speaking into the wind in the trees.
The fire was out and no one else had died.
The first time my sister set her house on fire, firefighters found nearly every surface, upstairs and down, covered with lit votives and other candles. A stove with all burners on high. No one knew how many paintings had been lost. “I did not burn down my house!” she screamed, days after the fire, when we put back the matches she threw into the grocery cart. Her words sustaining a reality that kept her aloft.
“These manic episodes will cycle about every three years,” said the psychiatrist, measuring out what came to be the next twelve years of her life. “Exacerbated by her heavy drinking, they’ll get more severe each time.”
“Go live your own lives,” she screamed at us. And we did.
“Frankie and Johnny were lovers,” her husband crooned to his own piano accompaniment upstairs while she painted large canvases in her downstairs studio. Empty vodka bottles collected by the garbage can. When she burned down that house, her husband had to jump out the second story window. We never understood why the insurance company agreed to pay for that house, too. But they did.
A new house then, a new studio, a new series of paintings for an upcoming show. The way to crawl out of depression, we came to learn from her, was to lose the pills. Depression is not like feeling sadness or sorrow or fear, she said. Depression is not feeling. Prescriptions expired. After her husband died, there was no one to turn off the stove, no one to blow out the candles.
Once, neighbors spotted her walking in the middle of the street at 3:00 am, pulling a Radio Flyer wagon in the rain. She was naked. The police were called. Even then it was impossible to find a way to commit her. “She’s a danger to herself and others,” warned my brother from the other side of the country. “Each state has its own regulations,” advised public health authorities. The wreck was inevitable.
The last house my sister burned down wasn’t her own. She was in an assisted living facility after breaking her arm. As she sat on the front porch, afternoons, she told her smoking buddy, who lived in an adjoining house, “I am an artist.” Like one might say, “I live in Paris when I’m not here,” seeing in the distance a reality she was determined to reclaim. She and all ten women she shared the house with made it out of the care facility alive, just after midnight.
She “ran back inside, according to witnesses,” the local news reported. “Even more bizarre …”—and here came the shame compounding the horror—“the sixty-eight-year-old victim is also the prime suspect, allegedly starting the fire. And it wasn’t the first time.”
She ran back inside.
No one else died.
“She was the kindest person I’ve known,” said her smoking buddy, a Vietnam vet with early onset Alzheimer’s, who—the care facility reported—had given her the forbidden matches. “She was the only one who listened to me,” he said, hobbling down the hillside to her grave.
“She was the smartest person I’ve known,” said her best friend at the grave site, fingering the necklace my sister had worn into the fire.
My sister’s own house survived her, a snapshot of the moment she left for the care facility six months before: ashtrays clogged with cigarette butts, candlesticks and votives on every surface, half-filled glasses of who knew what, books opened and stacked on counters and tabletops, papers strewn. My brother, determined to save her paintings, her legacy, made his way through the rubble, pulling large canvases out of stuffed closets and from behind and underneath furniture.
But in her studio, at the end of a long hallway, order reigned. There was her other reality. One wall of shelves lined with oils arranged by color, another lined with pastels, a drafting table with sketches, a heart-shaped vase featured in several paintings. A recliner facing the center of the studio and the easel with the painting she had been working on just before she left home.
The color red drew you into the large canvas. It might have been Paris, judging by the photograph beside the easel. A set of doors with large windows, the windows reflecting the cathedral windows across the street, the cathedral windows reflecting back the red ornamentation of the doors. Reflections of light and color echoing, deepening all my sister’s warmth, all her burning fires.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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