Experiences I had as a child taught me many things about life. Most of these experiences were wonderful, filled with smiling loved ones, scrumptious smells, and the excitement of learning new things. Everything that happened in my life molded and shaped me from a young girl, carelessly twirling in my Sunday dress, to a strong, sure, young adult, somewhat calloused and jaded by the hard-knocks of life. However, my first experience with death catapulted me into growing up more than anything. I clawed desperately at the innocence of my past as the events that took place on January 25th of 1987 ripped my world from under me.
My dad was transferred from the military base in New Orleans, Louisiana back to our home state of Texas. We moved into my grandparent’s house while my dad did a tour on an aircraft carrier. My heart overflowed with joy as soon as I spotted the rusty, weatherworn windmill that stood watch like a tin soldier over their driveway. The crunch of the gravel under the tires gave me such anticipation and it seemed like a life-time before the car came to a complete stop. I erupted from the backseat like a jack-in-the-box and ran across that same gravel being careful not to slip on the pine needles that blanketed the ground. As I drew closer to the house, the aroma of the cedar planks that encased every inch of it filled my nostrils. The many slopes and angles of the roof intrigued me. It was unlike any house I had seen in New Orleans, let alone the small, picturesque town of Palo Pinto, Texas. My mom, brother, sister, and I packed into the main house with Granddad, Granny Patty, Aunt Diana, Aunt Dawn, Aunt Melissa, Aunt Jenny, and Uncle Daniel, while Aunt Lilli and Aunt Fawn shared the guesthouse. I loved that place. Everything about it filled me with peace for there had been nothing but happy times in that out-of-place modern house. I never imagined the terror that I would feel in that very same sanctuary.
We slept so soundly that night. It was the kind of sleep that I fell into effortlessly. My dreams were jerked away from me when I heard my granddad’s yells of urgency. My head popped up and straight ahead of me I saw my grandfather surrounded by flames and smoke that danced around him, morbidly teasing all of us into action. Just as soon as my granddad had appeared, he disappeared. I thought he had been swallowed up by the blinding, orange fire. I ran toward the door, instinctively, as my primal senses took their place in my tiny body. The heat was almost too much to bear. I felt as if my eyes were melting and from the smell that surrounded my head, I knew the wisps of hair that were flowing from my head were singed. More than anything, the sting of the thick smoke that filled my lungs began suffocating me and sent me into a panic. I didn’t know why and I didn’t know how, but I ran right throw those flames and out the front door. The chill of the January night shocked my system as I tumbled onto the sharp, jagged edges of the gravel. I saw my brother come flying out of a window as if being shot out of cannon. I scrambled to him, clumsily, and dragged his trembling body as far as I could from the inferno we had just escaped. For the briefest of moments, I felt relief. Then reality jumped up and slapped me in the face. Where was everyone else?
I tried to see through the flames and smoke and clung to the hope that my family was safe. I couldn’t see anyone. Terror draped itself around my shoulders and I shuddered at the thought of being alone. Tears spilled from my eyes and I pled with God as I stood there while the heat of the flames stung my face and the ice-cold gravel pierced my bare feet. My brother bawled uncontrollably and I wanted so much to do the same, but I knew I had to be strong for him. Suddenly, I saw figures making their way closer to us, distorted by the heat waves, smoke, and my own tears. All of our aunts rushed to us, scooped us up, and checked us for injuries. We all cried together and clung to each other with death grips. Although being surrounded by my aunts brought me some comfort, I still knew something was missing. I craved what any scared six-year-old girl does and that was my mama. I wanted my mama! As soon as I realized she still had not come out of the house, all rationality fled from me and I ran toward the house. One of my aunts grabbed me and held me while I flailed in her arms until I finally fell limp onto the ground. I no longer felt the need to be strong for I had given up on hope. I was a horrified, little girl whose world had just come crashing down.
“Mama”, I heard my little brother say. I looked up and saw a bloody figure walking our way. Yes, it was my mama! She was bloody from head to toe from all the cuts she gotten when my granddad pulled her through the window. I wouldn’t have recognized her had I not caught glimpses of the baby blue nightgown she always wore. I ran to her, threw my arms around her waist, held on tightly, and bawled. “It’s okay, Sarah, but I’m all bloody and now you are too,” my mama said. “I don’t care, Mama. I don’t care”, I told her in a trembling voice. I didn’t care. Being in my mama’s arms gave me a rush of comfort, relief, and peace that only a mama’s touch could give. Time stood still for a moment and I had all I ever needed or wanted. Out of nowhere, an EMT pulled my mama away from me and I found myself shivering and disoriented in the back of a police car.
All of my aunts, my brother, and I were brought to the police station. My eyes had grown so accustomed to the darkness of the night, that the fluorescent lights of the station blinded me. When my eyes finally adjusted and I saw that we were surrounded by , not only police officers, but men, modesty set in and I suddenly became very aware of the fact that I was standing there in just a T-shirt and underwear. I tugged Dawn’s hand and pointed out the fact that she was also only in a T-shirt and underwear. She asked for a blanket and as soon as they gave us one, we crammed ourselves into it, grateful for the shield it provided. The officers were asking my aunts questions about what happened that night and kept offering all of us snacks or drinks. I could see the faces of all the older people in the room scrunched with looks of concern. My thoughts kept drifting to my mama. Where did they take her? When would I see her again? Why wasn’t I allowed to go with her? Didn’t she want me with her?
I was so consumed with questions about my mama that I didn’t realize just how bad things really were. I instinctively hit the rewind button in my mind and tried to remember everything that happened and everyone I had seen. There was only one person I couldn’t remember seeing, my grandmother. She never came out. I never saw her in the house, outside the house, with my mama, or at the police station. She didn’t make it? I didn’t know what this meant, but I still had the tiniest drop of hope left in my aching heart. I thought maybe she had gotten out on her own and ran over to my great-grandparents house next door and maybe no one had checked there yet. I could not believe that she burned up along with everything else in the house or that she was somewhere in that pile of rubble. I just couldn’t believe that. The next day, my granddad told us all the devastating news. My grandmother’s body had been found. She was dead. Grief raged in me like a crazy person trapped in a padded cell.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the last time I saw my Granny Patty. It was just two nights before that I was in her bedroom telling her goodnight. I thought she looked so fancy and beautiful in her silky nightgown. I climbed into her massive bed and snuggled up next to her. Her familiar smell made me think of pretty things. She pulled a delicate box out of her nightstand. As she opened up the box, I gazed at the tiny, colorful dolls that were inside. These were worry dolls. I would whisper my worries or wishes to these little people and I was convinced they would take care of them all. That night, I wished that Dawn would let me ride her horse the next day. I kissed my Granny Patty and she hugged me tightly. She told me she loved me and I told her I loved her. “Goodnight.” If I had only known what was to come, I might have made a different wish.
Facing mortality was traumatic for me. I was so young and the death of my grandmother made my heart ache so deeply. I wanted to go back to before that night and be untouched by sadness once again. I not only had to deal with the loss of someone I loved, but also the loss of my home, and my family as I knew it. These losses forced me to grow up and realize that life would not always be happy, life certainly would not be fair, and life would sometimes hurt. However, these losses also taught me to never take anyone for granted, to make sure your loved ones know you love them, and to take advantage of the short time we have together.
I don't care what you do after you read this, but wouldn't it be nice to call someone on the phone or even someone in the very next room and tell them that you love them. You have nothing to lose if you do, but so much to lose if you don't.