The smoke detector chirped during nap time last week. I snatched it from the wall and pried out the batteries, silencing the shrill shriek that for ten years now has caused me to break out in a cold sweat that stinks of fear and rotting nightmares. I shook the chill off and congratulated myself that Maggie Rose, 3, and Howard, 1, were still sleeping, and proceeded to my desk to root around for fresh AAA batteries.
And then the phone rang, and the UPS man had a question, and a group of lovely Texan tourists stopped by for a tour of the honey extracting plant, and nap time was over, and I was elbow deep in honey and wax, plugging a plug out of the pump, and two days later I scurried over to my desk to print an invoice and there it was, two out of three batteries missing from its innards: the smoke detector.
The breath caught sharply in my throat and I thought to myself: Howard, what have I done? Am I starting to forget you? Am I not being careful enough with the lives of my children and my husband and myself?
The next day, down at Hillhouse, I caught a pan filled with vegetable oil on fire, and I couldn’t find the fire extinguisher, and Honeydew and I tried to calmly discuss the fire-smothering-merits of baking soda versus baking powder, and as the panicked bile in my throat rose along with the flames he finally wrapped his arm in a wet towel and flung the flaming pan out of the front door into the rain soaked yard.
And I again thought of my brother Howard, who died in a house fire just shy of his 20th birthday, on August 27, 2004, and berated myself for my carelessness.
Earlier this month, Maggie Rose had occasion to attend her first funeral service, for the inspirational matriarch of the St. Mary Valley, Mrs. Ruth Johnson, who employed Howard in the summer of 2004. Maggie Rose asked me why Miss Ruth, who lived to be 95, had died, and I told Maggie that all living things age every day, and eventually, everything and everyone dies, except the rocks, Chuck always says that only the rocks live forever. As a three year old will, she persisted in this line of questioning, and I tried to to explain that although Miss Ruth’s family and friends were sad she had died, and would miss her, she had been lucky to live such a long life, and to become old. I laughed a little at myself as I said this, as I was rubbing anti-aging glycolic acid into my neck as I talked to Maggie, who wanted to know if she would get old, and if I would, and Nan and Chuck, and her dog, and her doll, and so on and so forth until she asked about my brother Howard, if he would get old and die.
Ten years in, my grief for my brother Howard can still t-bone my heart without warning – I just know I’ve been hit so hard I can’t breathe and Maggie’s innocent question sent silent tears streaming into my open, speechless mouth. Luckily for me, Honeydew took over, and as we do every so often, tried to explain all of the different Howards in Maggie’s life to her — my uncle How/her uncle How, my brother Howard/her uncle Howard, her brother Howard/my son Howard. Honeydew told her that Mama’s brother, Howard, hadn’t been lucky enough to get old and die, that he had died young, and that Mama missed him so much and would always be sad without him in her life.
I’m gonna do better, Howard, about the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers and eating steamed broccoli and losing the last of the baby weight. I’m gonna live just as hard and well as I can, and raise children who won’t know you but will, and climb every peak in Glacier that I’ve got the nerve to, and sit on their rotten tops and revel under the impossible blue tilt to the sky and miss the hell out of you.
And I’m starting to think, ten years in, that it won’t matter if it’s been ten years or ten decades, missing you won’t ever hurt any less.
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