It’s amazing to me that a sound that causes my heart to race and my head to pound does nothing to rouse my slumbering sons.
I imagine I slept like that too. Before I hit middle age. Before the kids were born. Before.
Were there even smoke alarms in houses when we were kids? (“We” meaning all those growing up in the sixties and seventies or earlier.)
I can remember “fires,” but not alarms.
The first one came the Sunday that the whole family went to church. My dad, an agnostic half-Jew/half-Protestant; and my mother, a lapsed Catholic, blamed the fire on their unusual attendance. They never went again.
Four fire trucks were dispatched, and one of our neighbors, a teenage football player in a leg cast, threw snowballs into the flames until the fireman arrived.
It was the sashes to our Christmas dresses, placed too closely to the furnace, that caused them to ignite.
We were actually at home–upstairs in the living room, with the orange chair, and the fish tank, talking about the novelty of attending church together. Usually my parents sent us along to Sunday school without them. I was maybe ten, which makes my younger sisters, 7 and 4 and 1.
I think my father smelled the smoke first and went down to check it out, hollering up to my mother to call the department. (There were no portable phones on every floor back then.)
Ironically, my father had just enacted our first “fire drill” the week before to prepare us for such an event. Unlike the drill, we proceeded simply and safely (though anxiously) out the front door.
Not so, the other family in our small town outside Denver. Only one was safe, and he was thrown out the window into his grandmother’s arms. Luckily she lived in their converted garage apartment.
This little boy went to my school, and although I didn’t know him, his story lingers in my memory, thirty something years later. It still stops my breath to tell it–whether to my therapist or here, this morning.
Tommy’s older brother had roused him out of bed, threw him out the window, and went back into the flames for his sisters. They were in the shower–a last attempt for safety or maybe it was his mother that was in the shower and his sisters were in bed. I don’t remember where they found the father.
We had another one a few years later when we were visiting my grandparents house. It was the room where I was staying that burst in flames, eating away at my clothes in the open suitcase and burning through the walls to the brick exterior of the house.
Fortunately, I spent the night at my aunt’s place down the street where I was babysitting younger cousins. But I remember the phone call in the middle of the night. It was the fire department urgently checking on the whereabouts of family members. I remember the dark street and the flashing lights, and everyone standing outside in their robes. I remember my grandmother trembling, insisting it wasn’t her cigarettes that caused the fire.
She perished the next summer in a fiery car wreck.
It’s this history that’s tripped every time a smoke alarm goes off–which ours seem to do way too often despite the lack of cause. My husband changes the batteries regularly and vacuums out the dust as needed, but still they wake us at night, particularly in the summer. I suspect that bugs are attracted to their light.
And while the alarms no longer trip the anxiety that kept me awake for hours, I do notice my breath constricting and my body tensing, even the next day.
Not so my boys who sleep right through the whole debacle of their father running around the house at three in the morning to discover which alarm has triggered the others, leaving them scattered around the house.
I try my best not to think about it. Maybe we don’t need an alarm in every bedroom and on every floor on just this night–or however long it takes him to solve the problem this time.
But I have to admit, that although I can fall back to sleep, the sight of a smoke alarm on the table instead of where it should be, takes me back to ten years old.
The night after Tommy’s family died in the fire, I shivered in fear under the stairs of my house. I had taken my sleeping bag there to the cement crawl space in our cellar and stayed there all night until the sun rose and lightened my fears.
My own son turned ten this week and I worry that he has fears that keep him awake at night. I hope that he’ll reach out to me to comfort him, rather than tremble alone; but there seems to be some necessary gulf between parents and children as we come of age.
So instead, I head down to the cellar of my childhood, and find my own ten-year old self there, under the stairs; and listen to her fears and write them here, in the hope of softening yet another layer of memory as we tremble in each others arms.