Bringing my piano to this house has brought up thoughts
of another piano, another residence, another life.
In 1987 my late husband and I were living in Eastlake --
a four-plex -- with our nearly-one-year-old-son R.
It was January, 25 degrees. Husband M. was out
with friends, and I'd put the baby to bed for the night.
As I left his room I thought I smelled smoke.
Did the downstairs neighbor burn her toast, again?
Our smoke alarm, which sounded when someone lit a match,
was unusually silent. I was on the way to bed myself,
but decided to step outside and get a breath of fresh air,
then walk into R.'s room again, to see if that burning odor
persisted. By the time I'd walked to the front door
and walked back to his room --what? Maybe ten seconds?
-- his room had filled with smoke, but I could
see no flames. I swooped in and plucked him from his crib,
called 911, then called M.: Something. Is. On. Fire.
I grabbed a blanket from the couch for the baby, propped
the door open for the cats, and fled outside
into the frozen night as sirens grew louder every second.
My downstairs neighbor was already outside,
visibly disturbed: a plastic garbage can too close
to a wall-heater had ignited in her bedroom,
directly below R.'s crib.
A night janitor in the office building behind us let me into
his warm building, where I watched flames consume the back
of our apartment, my son awake, oblivious. M. appeared
at some point during the chaos. I remember firefighters
(62 responded to the call) on the roof with axes.
I remember news cameras, sparks shooting into the night.
Didn't know where the cats (three of them) were.
We ended up that night at my in-law's house, and various
relatives showed up, offering support and sympathy.
The next day we returned to find an immense pile of burned
belongings and furniture piled on the parking strip in front.
Inside, everything that was in the rear three rooms (and not destroyed)
was stacked -- neatly! -- in the living room. Two cats hunkered
down beneath the dining room table, clearly hungry and very put out.
The third cat I found halfway up a cedar, paws wrapped tightly around
the trunk, claws embedded for who-knows-how-many hours.
My Waterford crystal champagne flutes were still upright
on my sideboard, filled with insulation from the axed-open ceiling,
albeit on the opposite side of the room.
And the piano. A century old, black, ornate. I sat down and played
Chopin's funeral march. It was so cold! The stench of burn
was pervasive; nearly impossible to take a clean breath.
We washed things for a week solid -- every single item we owned
had to be scrubbed, or thrown away. Everything. Every cup, every
article of clothing, every knick-knack: Everything. Lots of books
went to the dump. Melted baby toys. Singed teddy bears, my stuffed
toy monkey named "Vincent" -- All ruined. But because I had essentially
pulled my baby from a burning apartment, I was on an adrenalin high.
I walked around for weeks -- months -- with an incredible sense
of capability. It was kind of odd: I kept waiting to feel traumatized,
but it never happened. Yes, it was horrible and terrifying, but I walked
away from it, literally. All I lost was stuff.
Even now, all these years later, it feels funny to say I saved my baby.
Feels like I belong on the Hallmark Channel: heartwarming family drama
where a young mother saves her toddler from a devastating fire.
But I did. And because he was so young, R. remembers nothing about
his near-singeing. His crib was scorched. All the handmade quilts
I'd been given as gifts prior to his birth: burned.
All his toys: burned.
But I still had him -- perfect and alive.
That lovely old piano ended up with my friends S. and R.
Lord knows where it sits today. But can you hear
that funeral march -- steady, somber, intoning the death
of a certain life, sooty shadow on its century-old felt pads?