This is the story of Lyndsey Carpenter, as retold by Dana Sitar.
My uncle and I had a quiet relationship; we spoke without talking a lot. I could almost always tell what he was thinking about the stories I was telling him. He never had to say when he was proud of me; I could always see it in his face. He called all of us “Kid”, and he had a very New England accent—like, the word sure always came out like “surah”. He worked with his hands a lot, and he was in the roofing business.
My aunt and uncle were like second parents to me. They would push me to be the best that I could be, and they were hard on me when I needed it. My aunt is one of the strongest women I know; I have always looked up to her, but I have a whole new respect for her now.
Last Spring, my uncle was killed in a fire. He had been alone in the house, welding something in the basement, when something went wrong with the torch. He lost his life saving the two dogs inside, making it just to his front porch before the smoke overwhelmed him.
I was finishing finals week at college at the time, but I came home the night of the fire to another aunt’s house, where my whole family was gathered. My family has always been close. We tend to have large gatherings with lots of laughter and games. We have to be able to laugh at something; that’s how we get through anything together.
For the past two weeks, my family has been working together to gut and clean the house, where my aunt intends to move back in with my cousins. Before the fire, my aunt and uncle had intended to build a new house, but afterward, my aunt and cousins decided to stay in the home where they’d lived and made memories with my uncle. It’s being entirely remodeled, though, with a whole new layout, so they won’t be living exactly as they did in the past. Trying to restore the house to just the way it was would feel like they were trying to move on as if nothing had happened. But, something did happen; they’re acknowledging it, remembering their life with my uncle, and going on with their lives as he would have wanted.
The first day that I joined in the demolition of the house, I found myself becoming fixated on certain details, objects, tasks that I needed to do. I got stuck on pulling a rug up from around the stairs. I wouldn’t rest until I got that section done. Everyone kept telling me that it wasn’t a big deal, and I know that, in the long run, it wasn’t. But, it was something that I had to do. And damn it, I did it.
Each of us had a task that we needed, in our minds, to finish. One of my cousins was determined to single-handedly get all of the sheet rock and moldings off of the wall. The other wouldn’t leave the house until the rooms were as clean as they could be, even if that meant risking her life standing on dangerous parts of the floor where she shouldn’t have been.
My cousin and I were able to get solid oak furniture out a second-story window by ourselves, some of my other family members worked in extremely moldy and dark conditions to clean the basement, and one of my cousins crawled through dark crawl spaces to get all of the old insulation. There was one point last weekend where we all found our way to the second floor and worked together to clean and finish the walls. We even worked through a few downpours. I have never seen a group of people work harder.
These victories were how we coped. Each person needed to focus on what we were accomplishing with the house, in order to not dwell on the tragedy that brought us there. When the big picture of why we are doing something is too much to handle, sometimes it’s easier to focus on the small moments, keep doing what we are doing right now.
Throughout the first day of cleaning, we would get stopped by certain objects we came across. So many things in the house, though damaged, held so much meaning because they were things my uncle once touched. They were things that brought a family together.
The charred list contains notes in the handwriting of both my aunt and my uncle. The champagne glasses are from their wedding.
My uncle collected model cars, and these are three that remain, damaged by the fire.
One day during the demo, one of my cousins was working on one of the bedroom walls, when all of a sudden she started yelling my name. I ran in and found her holding a hammer, staring down at the ground.
All she could say was, “Mice!”
She had knocked out a nest, and there were six newborn mice lying among the drywall bits—all still alive. They had been born just a few days before; they hadn’t even opened their eyes yet.
Some people might cringe at this, but for me it was a little poetic. These baby mice were something living in a place that looked like nothingcould survive in it. It was the start of new beginnings; it showed me that there could be life, even in the face of tragedy.
When I graduated last Spring, I held my diploma to the sky for my uncle to see. I know that he was the one who got me across the stage and down the stairs without tripping! I studied Creative Writing, and I write every chance I get. Shortly before my first day at the demo, I started a blog, and while I was working in the house, I decided to write this story. When the initial thought struck, I pushed it out of my mind—too personal. However, just as I had pushed the last of it out to focus on ripping things off of the floor, I came across a pile of debris. I was crawling around near the stairs that were the cause of my aggravation, clearing the pile away. I turned to put a handful of debris into the bin, and turned back to see a pencil that had not been there before.
I believe in these types of things, and so do a lot of people in my family. I took the pencil as a a sign. My uncle was telling me that I needed to tell this story. I needed to put it out there to describe in a way that no one else in my family could what we were experiencing as we worked together to clean that house. And I needed to let other people who are going through what my family is going through know: You are not alone.Content and photos courtesy of Lyndsey Carpenter and of the linden tree blog.