The Wood Story
(New England, USA)
Parts of a forest were delivered to our home during the summer of 2011. We bought a load of tree length firewood. To me it was an insurmountable mountain but to Michael it was like a best friend had just arrived. This wasn’t the first time a load of tree length firewood was delivered to us. But it was the first time since my husband had received a kidney transplant in 2008. His plans were to take up where he left off before dialysis rendered him tired and weak. During that summer, my husband cut and split every one of those trees by hand. I bought the wood to heat our home for the coming winter, but Michael bought the wood to bond with it. There was communication between Michael and the wood pile. The logs spoke and Michael listened. The log was cut into 24 inch pieces. There was a flow to the sound of motion. The chain saw loudly whined to life. At the end of the chain saw’s job, the log was in place, but separated into ten pieces or so. There were gouges in the ground from the saw as it finished the cut. Michael would split one in half, then split the half in half. Those quarter logs were some of the hottest burning ones of all. As Michael split, he threw each piece into a pile ready for the next step, stacking. Ask anyone who burns wood about his or her stacked wood pile and you’ll get a story. Some people throw it in place and let it be. Some people make a round “teepee” out of it and take it apart layer by layer. Michael built the traditional rows with block corners. Building the corners was a production in itself. The corner pile had only the best of the split pieces. These were the champions. When he was finally finished stacking, Michael had 4 rows, 15 feet long and 5 feet high of hand split wood. It smelled like the forest. A stacked wood pile is like money in the bank. The future is secure. It’s safe from the unpredict-ability of a cold New England winter. We had our heat, stacked right in front of us. We both stood and looked at it for a long time. We humbly touched it and walked a few paces to admire the individuality of each piece. We were silent as we appreciated what was in front of us. By late August of 2011, Michael had raked the working area. He left a small pile of stubborn cut pieces in their place. He later tended to the grass around them. It seemed they were a monument to what took place there. About a month later the wood needed to be moved again. This time it went to the back yard and literally, down the hatch. Our wood stove sat in the basement and we loaded up the hatchway with wood and then wheel-barrowed it to build another stack where it would be fed into the fire. It used to be a pleasant wait and a small ritual between us about when the stove would go on. Because once it was on, it pretty much stayed on until spring. So every once in a while when it was cold outside or inside, Michael would say to me, “Should we start a fire, Jan?” The first few times he asked I may have been non-committal in my answer because I just was not ready for the heat. Michael was always ready before me and he was kind enough not to start it before I was ready. I think he liked the anticipation of the wait.I can’t remember if we started our fire ritual in 2011. We must have because by the time Michael’s birthday came around on October 17th, I’m sure there were some cold days. But those few words we exchanged are lost among the memories that Michael and I shared. He is the only other person in the world who would know if we shared those words. I can never recover them by myself. On Friday, October 21st Michael went into the hospital with what we thought was an upper respiratory infection. On Sunday, October 23rd he died. The cause of death was plural effusion. The cause of the plural effusion was undetermined. So, therefore, for me, the cause of death is undetermined. I remember sitting in the back yard that first week on a warm orange day. The trees were quiet in their color and the wind was gentle. Maybe the early fall was warmer than usual in 2011 and we didn’t need heat. Whatever the reason the fire wasn’t started until October 29th,because all of a sudden it turned to winter. We had a snow storm that dropped close to 20 inches of snow on deciduous trees still full of green, red, yellow and orange leaves. My eyes had no real tears, or if they did, they came from the surface of my grief. My breathing was shallow and my sight was narrow. Even so, the surface of my mind was functioning enough to know that I needed to prepare for the storm. The predictions of its severity were ominous. The only thing I did was quickly fill the bathtub with water. I filled several cooking pots as well and three large pitchers. When I was finished it was about 5pm and just as I settled down to rest, we lost electricity. It seemed so fitting. It seemed so appropriate. My world had gone dark. There was no way of knowing when the light would return. With or without light, we needed heat. After all that work, Michael wasn’t the one to start the fire for the first time. In fact, I don’t know who started that first fire. I think it must have been Alex, Nathan or Rachel. I know that eventually I felt the heat of the wood spiral up from the basement to keep us warm during the darkest of those early autumn days. Each piece of wood we put into the fire was emotionally excruciating. Each piece was about Michael. During those dark days, I went to the funeral home to get my husband’s ashes. There was only one place Michael would have been if he was alive, sitting by the fire. I put the lovely bamboo urn in the basement, by the TV that Michael watched during the cold winter days and nights. I wanted him close to where he wanted to be. It crossed my mind that maybe it was disrespectful to put my husband’s earthly remains in the basement, but there was no where else that felt right.We didn’t have electricity for eleven days. Michael’s wood kept us warm, Alex & Kimmy, Rachel, Jen, Ella and Isabel stayed at home because they didn’t have heat or lights either. Nathan took pieces of his dad when he left. He took a favorite worn hat and a wrist watch along with a lifetime of love. I turned the wood management over to Alex. He stepped into his Dad’s shoes when he worked with the wood that year. Some people said fondly that Michael brought the storm just for the outrageousness of it.I thought of how early Michael put the wood in the basement that year. I thought about all the kindling he gathered and stacked which was unlike any other year. I thought about how he was taking care of us, even when he couldn’t be there. It took me two years to burn that wood. After the electricity was restored I let the fire go out. Alex and Rachel went back to their homes. I still had some wood in the basement, but didn’t have the heart to keep a fire going when my internal fire had gone out. During a few cold snaps, Alex came by and started a fire to get the chill out of the house. During a couple of weekends I started one to get the house a little warmer. Oil heat just didn’t get warm the way wood did. Our house was empty and cold and I couldn’t tell the difference if it was me or the house. After months of grieving and waiting, spring arrived. There was a half of a row of wood left in the basement and 2.5 rows of wood outside. That year, I ignored both rows, inside and out. 2012 was the beginning of a new year of grief. We didn’t get snow again for the rest of that year. After spring bloomed, summer grew and autumn returned. I had a few murderous thoughts of getting rid of the wood one way or another. I thought of selling it, abandoning it or giving away what was left. Those thoughts were bursts of anger that drifted in and out of my emotional life. During minutes of calmness, I knew positively that I would burn every last piece of Michael’s wood. So ultimately, little by little, I burned the rest of it during the winter of 2012-13. I started this story at the end of Michael’s wood pile. There were only 6 pieces of wood left from that mountain of trees. They were in the basement, and the fire was roaring. A few days earlier, the outside stack had been moved and brought down the hatch. What was left outside were pieces of bark and wood chips. Instead of cleaning it up, I ignored it. The last row in the basement went quick. Like Michael did. I stopped for a minute to honor my husband as I looked at the remaining logs. They were the last ones that held Michael’s spirit. They knew Michael. They felt his hands and his breath. As much as I wanted to hold onto them, to save them as a piece of my husband, I couldn’t. I needed to send the wood on it’s way to where ever it is living things go that have died. The door of the stove was wide open and the fire inside was waiting. I put them in one at a time. I watched as they caught on fire. I thought about the cremation of human bodies. I saw Michael swinging his axe. As the flames grew, the logs crackled. For the first time since early autumn of 2011, when Michael stacked wood in the basement, it was empty. There was nothing left to do, I closed the door, adjusted the flue and swept up the bark and wood chips. Michael and his wood pile were gone. The ashes to Michael’s wood are spread around the yard and among the living trees. His ashes remain in the basement, in the place where he was warm and safe. He told Rachel that he wanted his ashes to be spread in the back woods. Rachel has never forgotten her dad’s words. I can’t do that, not yet anyway. I don’t want part of his ashes here and part of them there. I just want him safe and whole. When I’m outside in the yard, I look at the trees we planted together and the ones that have grown for longer than we have been alive. I think they are more fitting to represent Michael. I see Michael more in life than I do in fire.