As a child I believed my parents never thought they would die because they never talked about dying. If I mentioned aging they would leave the house, mother with Horse, father running to the lake, bodies free from the earth that would one day hold them. Before working in an office I never considered my own death, and then I worked in an office. I remember my mother in the tree forts, some of the kids from rainbow farm giving chase, her gown splitting into kites as she ran over sections of wood not yet railed by branches, the danger of running on these sections even too great for my brother who stood with everyone else watching her run through the woods seemingly floating on air, never once thinking that at any minute a wrong inch-over step would send her flailing below.
I asked her once if she was scared of falling and she said no, how could that happen if what to do was to run the way she does. My mother was fearless, so when she took her own life I don’t think any of us were too surprised, she just did what she had to do, mother smashing the vase, mother stomping on the flowers, mother, who said the day before that she was bored with everything walking.
Are you scared of anything at all?
Of losing my memory, she said.
That doesn’t make sense.
Not that I can’t remember the past, but that I can’t imagine it. There’s a difference, you’ll see, but right now you’re too young to understand, you have to reach a certain age.
That is scary, I said.
My mother’s ideas on memory I later learned were nothing new, mainly, that everything from my childhood in a later attempt to accurately remember it would become something else. When I became a certain age where I would be the kind of person who would sit in a room and reflect on his childhood, which sounded both awful and boring but she guaranteed would happen, the memories would be fragmented, and then recreated fully in a false, usually more positive, set of images. This was normal, she said, it was a kind of protection so people could move into the future easier knowing that the past was better than it really was. As a child, her words were an incentive for me to try and remember everything fully that gave me a certain unusual feeling, my clearest example of this being the green lights.
The house, for all its old fashioned renovations done by father, still relied on certain modern ways, namely, electricity and gas. It always appeared strange to see our father writing a check to these mysterious companies, we could see how much he hated the process in his hunched shoulders and carelessly scribbled signature, so when both the electricity and heat went out during a storm I would later learn had drowned significant areas south of us, namely southern Manhattan, some of Albany, and the roof started to collapse and the basement flooded, he refused to contact these companies to fix the problems, instead guiding us to the tree forts where we would live until the lights and heat returned and he could repair our home without risk of injury. In my family, the woods were always safer.
Both my mother and father had anticipated such a disaster, my father had previously created an elaborate series of lanterns with green glass and white rope that my mother knowingly strung though the forest, along the tree forts, her movements rehearsed and calculated even in the downpour of slanted rain, lightning and thunder slapping the tops of the trees back-and-forth as me and my brother stood below looking up and into the endless storm. They knew exactly what they were doing, and several times my father said, after we questioned if this was necessary, that the house was too dangerous to stay inside of, the roof could cave in or an electrical spark could ignite a fire or hit us, so yes, it was necessary, the woods were safer.
For how dangerous the sky appeared, the moment was exciting, the rain itself somehow warm. My brother and I did a kind of rain dance, not wishing for it to go away, but for it to continue. We had no idea that something terrible was happening anywhere else in the world. Our mother cheered us on and did her own shimmy up in the trees, hanging theatrically from a tree branch while singing a song that was beautiful and also something we had never heard before and resulted in us shrugging our shoulders. The sky was dark enough that the tops of the trees ghosted into the clouds, and my mother exploded, momentarily, off and on, with the lightning.
My father instructed her to retie certain lanterns that appeared wobbly, and after she had done so, my brother and I, still in the soaking rain, the thunder and lightning beginning to quiet, he filled buckets with candles wrapped in plastic bags, each bag also holding matches, everything prepared, dry. These buckets were hoisted up in another mastered performance, mother able to light each candle while holding it inside its own bag, then moving in a manner where the bag matched up to the door of the lantern before being placed inside with minimal rain striking it. I remember this as a magical display, and wonder, if my memory is making it greater, that in the reality there was yelling, candles dropped, wrists singed, but I’m not sure it matters, because what I remember is the dark outline of the plastic bag, mother’s wet hands moving forward, and then the lantern blooming with green light.
The lighting of the lanterns took hours, but when it was finished long curved ropes of green light knitted the trees together and we had a place to live. When I climbed into the most well covered tree fort, the appearance of the lanterns shifted, and I swore the ropes, the lights, spelled out a word, maybe carefully designed by mother, but I don’t want to write about it here because it’s too sad. I walked from tree fort to tree fort, moments of heavy rain and cracks of thunder still random and jarring, the letters morphing into whatever my imagination wanted them to be, a word or phrase more positive containing the future.
The storm left, but the rain, light and misty, stayed for hours while we lived in the trees, each of us responsible for a section of lanterns to stay lit, entire towns and cities to the south of us on the local news showing blocks of unpowered black cityscape, and then us, never shown, not even known, in our tree forts, the green lights guiding our feet.
The storm brought us closer together because it was a tragedy, forced from our home, the space of the driest tree forts small and cramped, and also, it allowed for a kind of excitability because it was so terrifying. In a sense, it made each of us feel alive because we were, however partially or fully, aware of our mortality during the storm. We huddled close to each other and talked more than I can remember the family ever talking before, and laughing so much at one given time besides some of the bonfire nights. We were surviving something we couldn’t exactly name, but knew was something larger than us, a storm like no other, and we were doing it together in our own, original way. Our feet touched as the rain dripped through the roof of the tree fort.
My biggest fear was that my brother or I would slip on a wet plank of wood and kick one of the lanterns, potentially lighting an entire tree on fire, the flames spreading. But mother said this was impossible because the storm – she called it The Buffalo Storm because one black storm cloud that seemed to stay directly above us resembled a buffalo – had soaked every inch of forest, impossible that a flame could catch and cause damage.
During a game of tag, my mother versus my brother and I, where we couldn’t get anywhere near her, she was too fast, it was her, mother, who while turning a corner in the trees, knocked, with her arm, one of the lanterns from the rope. My brother and I watched as my mother scaled down one of the trees in a move we had never dreamed of doing before: she didn’t use a ladder, she just hugged the tree and in a motion both smooth and comical, hugged the tree, then glided down it, her face pulled as far away as possible from the shedding bark. At the bottom she ran over to the lantern where the candle had tipped out and lit a patch of leaves, the fire spreading outward in a circle, everything else wet and dark, the rain still a mist. What my mother did, in a way that wasn’t panicked or scared, was remove her gown and begin smothering the fire out, patch by patch, moving around the fire in tighter circles until she sat in the middle of the smoldering leaves, her hands pressed downward on the last finger of flame.
We promised we would never tell our father what had happened, although I’ve always thought either my brother said something to him or he already knew of the fire. But it was a secret between us and the memory of it I replay in my head so I won’t forget it.
After the lights came back on in the house, father announcing it because he had spent more time than anyone else watching the dark windows for light, we returned home to a disaster – part of the roof missing, the basement flooded – but the heat was on, and immediately my father began repairing the roof, and I wondered if leaving the house during the storm wasn’t for our safety, but because he wanted these new projects to work on, to distract him, from his life, and if that was the real reason, I now understood it.
I helped my mother take down the lanterns. I asked her if she thought the fire was going to burn down the entire forest and she said no. She showed me how to wrap the white ropes around my forearm and how to place the lanterns carefully into burlap sacks. I felt very adult doing this task with my mother, almost “too adult,” and thought my father should be the one helping her, and in the thought, if I remember correctly, felt I had taken on the role of a husband, which is hard to describe, and embarrassing, but the task with just us out in the woods collecting the green lights and the ropes made me imagine the future me, which was, in a sense, my father, helping out his wife. I took this feeling further and thought how if I was going to become a husband one day, then I would most likely become a father as well, that the three stages – child, father, and son – were, in a sense, not only three stages of life, but would happen simultaneously, in a future time. I wondered how it would feel, and how it would even be possible to navigate such a life, and this was one of many times that I felt so alive that I became extremely terrified because I was so aware of my consciousness, which also meant, even though I didn’t realize it then, that I was aware that I would one day not have that consciousness.
Where the storm had brought us closer together, the afterward clearing – days of blue skies and no wind – sent us into our own spaces, for example, father spent his time either above us (fixing the roof) or below us (de-flooding the basement), brother ran back in the trees, mother to her room, and myself, sort of wandering between the places, not willing to dedicate myself to one area or one task that would define me. I continued to replay the storm in my head, the fire, and the following clean-up with my mother, for weeks, and wondered how much my memory was already altering and shifting. I thought maybe if I would think something completely exaggerated, for example, my mother literally flying from tree to tree, that maybe my memory would lessen it, and just place her in the trees, singing and holding onto a tree with half her body, right arm and right leg outstretched and into the air.
As we walked back home with the green lights and white ropes I asked her again if she was scared, this time, referring to the fire she had started during the storm and this time she said yes, that she was terrified, was more scared than any other time in her life. It was exactly the answer I had originally wanted from her.
Really? I asked.
No, she said.