Monday, June 18, 2012

An Anniversary Remembered


I am the grandfather of Hope (12) and Mackenzie (6).  On June 26, 2010 they, together with four other children - Abbigayle Smith (1); Emilie Smith (3); Lewis "Carl" Smith III (7); and Paige Cox (8) - perished in a house fire in Fort Edward, NY.  I am writing – as others have – because the circumstances surrounding this tragedy defy understanding.

When I was much younger – in college – I took a philosophy course.  During one lesson, the Professor posed the question: Why does 2 + 2 = 4?  We debated the issue for forty-five minutes without success.  At the end of the class, the Professor offered the simplest possible answer:       2 + 2 = 4 because it has to.  Everything – anything – else is chaos.  That is how I view the official conclusions that following the investigation into the deaths of my grandchildren. 

Please consider the following:

On the day of Hope and Mackenzie’s wake, their father, Lewis Carl Smith gave an interview with the media - (I believe it was Fox News but I am not sure.) – during which he credited Abbigayle's cries with waking him up.  That was the moment when grief met incredulity.  Before that I was content to hold my wife and cry, to comfort my daughter and to sit in the dark when alone remembering the smiles and giggles of two perfect children.  That was the moment I realized that baby Abbigayle slept in the same room as her parents.  Mr. Smith and Samantha Cox, her mother, escaped the building.  Baby Abbigayle died in that bedroom.  Consider that the first “2” in my equation.

Some months later, my daughter Florence, Hope and Mackenzie’s mother, stood by the side of the road protesting one of the many fundraisers involving Mr. Smith and Ms. Cox.  This one was on fire safety.  As she stood holding a placard for passing motorists to see, Carl Smith and Samantha Cox pulled up.  Ms. Cox approached my daughter and asked if she understood how difficult it was to (a) know your child was dead and (b) leave her behind.  Consider that the second “2” in the equation.  I cannot imagine knowing or thinking or fearing or believing my child is dead and leaving her in a burning building.  I can see leaving my keys, my wallet, my pants and my digital frame (one of my favorite purchases) but not my child.  During the last two years, my wife has told me repeatedly that she would have left me behind but not the baby.  Not only do I believe her, I understand completely.  Life would be easier for me if I could finesse these two paragraphs and make 2 + 2 = 4.  I cannot.

As an aside, the NYS Fire Report confirms that Baby Abbigayle died in their bed.

On June 26th, 2010, my eldest granddaughter (Samantha) turned 16. She wanted a beach party and I was in Roger’s Park in Bolton Landing hanging streamers and waiting for the DJ when the cell phone rang.  Our celebration ended with a crudely written sign on a paper plate: “cancelled due to death in the family.”  Two days later, Samantha cancelled her (6/28) trip with People to People.  On June 23, 2012 Samantha will graduate from High School.  She has asked us not to throw a big party.  Instead of a gathering of friends and family and teachers, counselors and coaches, the people who shaped her life during the preceding twelve years, she has consented to a small BBQ to allow her family to congratulate her and send her off to college. 

I sincerely doubt this letter will change anything. Conclusions are set and time marches on.  I have come to the realization that I will mourn everyday for the rest of my life and, in the natural course of time, will go to my grave knowing that I could not do right by my grandchildren. Worse, the system failed Hope and Mackenzie as it failed Baby Abbigayle.  Nothing will change that. Perhaps the only purpose of this letter is to let another human being know that.  

Thank you for listening.

Monday, June 11, 2012

One Night With The Grandkids

Colin and Connor were in the dark.  They were whimpering, desperately trying to find their way out of the house.  It was so dark they were literally lost within their own home.  Colin took the lead as they made their way down the hallway.  Connor, holding his brothers shirt with a firm hand, followed behind offering advice.
            "Feel the doorknobs for heat.  Remember fire prevention week.  Feel for fire," Connor reminded his brother trying not to sound scared.
            "I can't see the doorknobs.  I can't see anything," Colin complained.
            "I know," Connor's voice answered wanting to sound reassuring.  He could not see his brother or even the hand that he anchored to Colin's back.  His twin's pajama top was white but it could just as easily have been black.  Maybe, magically, it was black.  Maybe it was as dark and as dense as the air around them.  Connor held tight to his brother's nightshirt; more than anything, he feared losing his grip.  If that happened, he would be gone.
            "Feel everything." he continued.  Hearing his voice gave him substance.  He found it reassuring.  "Slide your hand along the wall.  If it feels hot..."
            Colin pressed his small hand flat against the wall.  It felt cool.  Slowly he moved forward.  The wall was gritty and a little oily, different than he remembered when the lights were on but it wasn't hot.  He could smell smoke.  It was all very familiar like the campouts they went on with dad and grandpa, and he could hear the crackle and occasional pop of wood burning, but there wasn't any heat.  And no light.  Why couldn't they see anything?  Light should be getting in from outside.  From street lamps.  And fire glows.  It's orange.  Why couldn't he see the fire?
            Colin's hand found a door.  He stopped, moving his fingers up and down trying to find the knob.
            "What's the matter?" his brother asked tugging on his pajama shirt.
            "It's a door."
            "Is it hot?"
            "Open it."
            "I don't know where we are.  Which door?"
            "It doesn't matter.  Open it.  We have to figure it out."
            Colin turned the knob and pushed inward.  Light spilled out into the hall.  The boys could see up and down.  Everything was black onyx, slick and shiny, as if someone came in and painted their house while they slept.  In front of them, in the glow of their familiar New York Giants lamp was their room.  It looked normal.  Comfortable and inviting. Untouched by whatever had happened to the rest of the house.  Connor's Derek Jeter poster hung next to his bed.  Colin's bright red El Camino, his dream car, dominated his side of the room.  Books, magazines and the clutter that defined their eleven year old lives were strewn everywhere.  Laundry basket basketball left more socks and underwear on the floor than in the hamper.   Everything was as it was supposed to be.  Just as they remembered it.  Somehow, in the dark, they ended up back where they started.
            Colin began to complain.  They were trying to get outside, away from the house.  That's what they were supposed to do.  They planned and trained for this in school.  They drew escape routes - one hung on the back of their door -  but it didn't work.  Somehow, Colin had failed and he felt miserable.
            "It's good.  Everything is fine.  Let's go to bed," Connor answered sounding confident.  He started pushing past his brother.
            "But what about the smell?" Colin persisted.
            "That crazy guy next door must be burning trash again.  Let's go.  I'm tired."
            “Shouldn’t we look for mom?”  Colin asked, holding back his twin.  That was another lesson:  plan a meeting place...gather with your family...stay together!
            “They went out, remember.”
            “Maybe they’re back.  Maybe they’re sleeping.  We were sleeping.  Do you know what time it is?”
            Connor looked in the room.  His brand new digital alarm clock, the one with the iPod dock that he wanted and bought for himself, sat on his nightstand.  The time blinked 1:17 AM.  It kept blinking as the time changed.  1:17...1:18...
            "We must have lost power.  My clock says 1:19 in the morning," Connor noted looking as the time changed again.  Minutes went fast.  They better get to sleep if they wanted to sleep at all.
            "It might be much later than that.  Maybe 4:00 A. M.  They could be back," Colin persisted.
            “Then I wouldn’t wake them.  He’d get mad.”
            “You sure?” 
            “Yeah,” Connor answered sounding a little annoyed.  “I’m tired.  If it is 4:00 o'clock...I'm fucking tired."
            Connor grinned.  Cursing was something new for him.  He loved saying the word “fuck”.
            "Let's get to bed.”
            Side by side, my grandchildren stepped into the threshold.   A huge and wicked plume of fire enveloped the boys in a violent whirlwind of orange tendrils and white smoke.  There was something unnatural about it, like dancing flames from some very old cartoon.  The blaze swirled around them rising steadily, driven by unheard music.  One step...two step...two step...cha...cha... cha...  The ceiling above them burned and the blackened hallway filled with an eerie, unnatural glow.  Colin and Connor stood motionless, leaning forward against the force of the firestorm, their long hair fluttering madly behind them.  Their mouths hung open.  Their teeth, clean and white against ebony, reflected miniature, flickering portraits of the blaze while their eyes bulged wide and large; they saw and understood everything.  I am certain of that much.  For just a moment the boys seemed to take on an unnatural sheen, to glow the color of the flames, before darkening first to an ochre and then to the oily black of the hallway.  Their skin seemed to bubble and then to crack, curl and shrink from their identical features.  White wisps of wriggling worms…thin, insistent, persistent, present, ever-present, rapidly multiplying smoke-like creatures…more alive than dead, twisted and crawled through every crack, hole and crevice the boys’ possessed (or the fire provided) until they escaped into the crackling universe.  Then, finally, almost mercifully, the boys exploded. They just disintegrated into two giant orange puffs of ash, their dust carried away within the great swirling, all-consuming inferno. 
            And then, once again, I screamed.  I opened my mouth, stretching my jaw to the point of pain and issued a sound no creature has ever made.  Or was meant to make.  It was as mysterious and as mythical as anything I’d ever read in books or seen at the movies.  I could not stop.  I bellowed for hours and hours and days and days as the essence of my grief spread across my neighborhood and the lands beyond.  Birds fell from the sky by the thousands and stars, one by one, faded in the heavens.  The world turned as black as the hallways of hell.  My anguish knew no boundaries.    
            And then, once again, my eyes opened.  I was in bed lying next to my wife.  She was awake, but not because I shattered windows and frightened neighbors.  There were no dogs howling, no cats hissing at unseen dangers.  I tossed and turned and whimpered.  In this world, my grief was not majestic.  In this world, I was reduced to quiet tears and constrained moans.  It was all so very impotent.
            Brenda rubbed my back feeling dampness through the cotton.  Gently she whispered in my ear.
            “You should call the doctor.”
            “I can’t. Too much to do.”

58 & Thinking About Sex

A recent negative review posted on got me thinking.  Couldn't help was about my book, This Little Piggy Belongs to the Devil and, even though I shouldn't, I'm going to provide a little commentary.

"All he talks about is sexual and its just horrible. I wouldn't have bought the book if i knew the continent (sic)was so perverted. Don't waste your money if you don't want to hear about penis and sex through the whole book."

I am sorry that the book is not about sex.  I've written about sex before and it's a lot funnier.  I used to talk about sex in my stand-up routine...

("My wife couldn't be here tonight. She's suffering from RRSA:  recurring, remitting, sexual Alzheimer's.  Every time I suggest sex her brain concocts bizarre, unbelievable excuses: the curtains are open... if you're not laughing, don't feel bad.  No one ever got that joke.)

...but This Little Piggy Belongs to the Devil is a psychological thriller about a man, a sixty to sixty-two year old grandfather who slowly loses his mind as he wallows in the grief of losing his only grandchildren to fire.  It is a first person account during which he retells the history of his family from his own childhood through the deaths of his grandsons and beyond (as he targets the person he blames for the fire and plots vengeance).  It is an exercise in anger expressed in gritty language, pained and passionate sex, violence, a wealth of memory and (maybe) a little twisted humor.

Personally, I think the characters deserve so much more than reducing them to sex objects.  They have so much to say...before during and after sex!