Someone once told me that to qualify as a true regret, an event or action has to go into your life vault for at least 20 years and then make you feel exactly the same way when you take it back out. I regret my inaction during a house fire twenty some years ago.
It was an hour after sunset on Mother’s Day. We had gathered at my in-laws house in the wooded hills above the Puget Sound. Great Uncle Ted and his bride Edith had been the first settlers on the heavily wooded property. Together they had cleared a flat two acres and built a beautiful two story log cabin by themselves. Ted was gone now but Edith was still happily making sugar cookies for the many grand kids who would trek up the hill to their cabin.
We heard it before we saw a thing. The loud unmistakable crackling was coming from up on the clearing. As we raced through the woods we could see the roof covered in flames. Some grabbed hoses, I searched the gardens for Edith. Not there. I found her inside the burning cabin, standing at the bookcase trying to select her reading for the night. The house was so quiet and normal that I thought I might be dreaming. No crackling. No smoke. No flames. I tried to generate a list of what to save in addition to Edith but my brain refused to work fast enough. “Okay,…pictures and her purse and…and silverware?” I scanned the room. It was like looking at historic personal camouflage that had been carefully designed over eighty years. Every square inch of the walls and every horizontal surface was covered with her memories. I feared that once I shattered this illusion of calm, she would be unable to help me find her most precious things.
Edith’s face went through a series of emotions when she turned and saw me standing in her kitchen. Her surprise turned to confusion then to delight with maybe a touch of embarrassment. “Hi Hon,” she said awkwardly as though somehow she had forgotten that she invited me.
“Hi Edith,” I said, trying to smile. “Hey do you know if your keys are in your purse?”
“I think so,” she smiled, “Why?”
“Well can you grab that for me? I need you to help me move your car right away? Okay?”
She knew right where her purse was. As we headed for the back door, I casually said, “Edith do you have more photo albums besides those by the piano?”
“What?” she asked, starting to wonder what I was up to.
I grabbed a blanket off the back of the sofa and a kitchen chair on the way out the door. “Let’s walk all the way over to that tree, okay?” I said, not wanting her to turn around. The women of the family took her hand as we left the porch and I headed back into the cabin.
To this day, I truly believe I was in no immediate danger. Fires burn upward. I knew that the fire upstairs would take hours to burn through the solid log floor before it collapsed. Then, as I shoved her photo albums down my shirt I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Flames were rolling like water down the log stairs. Down. I knew that was impossible. That is when my brain froze. I felt like my mind was slowing down. I walked into her bedroom looking for jewelry that her dear Ted may have given her. There were two dressing tables full of ear rings and necklaces. Instead of throwing it all on the bedspread and leaving with the bundle like any self respecting thief, I stood there paralyzed, trying to decide which pieces she would want. That’s when two large arms wrapped around my waist. It was Lloyd. “Time to go, Jimmy!” I am a big guy but my brother-in-law, Lloyd, is bigger. We were leaving, there would be no argument.
The cabin they built together burnt to the ground. Like a huge log campfire, it did take hours. We sifted through the charred remains and cleaned up some dishes for her. But, for the most part, Edith was left with some pictures, a blanket and a kitchen chair. That I regret.