I drove up to my parent’s house to drop off the children with my mother before heading to work. The minivan struggled to make it up the slick, icy driveway. The wind whipped drifts of snow across the yard, making the chilling cold temperature visible from inside the warm van. I saw a truck that I didn’t recognize in the driveway and wondered who might be at my parent’s home on a weekday morning.
I put the vehicle in park and wrapped my scarf tighter around me before exiting into the freezing morning air. I heard the dogs barking in the garage and wondered why they were locked up. The dogs were typically only locked in the garage if my parents weren’t home. I assumed they were home because of the stranger’s truck in the driveway, so my next assumption was that something must be wrong.
Something is wrong. Something must be wrong. I went directly to worst case scenarios as I went around the rear doors to unbuckle the children from their safety seats and head into the house, now frightened of what I might find. It’s my father. Oh no, I just know it’s my father. My father had his first heart attack at age fifty, followed by bypass surgery to replace five arteries. Not even two years later, two of the bypasses had failed. There were stents placed in his chest. My father, also a diabetic, might be lying on the floor suffering from heart failure inside the home I was about to bring his two young grandchildren into.
I couldn’t leave the children in the car though, certainly not with wind chills in the negative. I carried the two bundled up babes toward the porch. I suddenly heard sirens approaching in the background. Fuck. Those sirens are coming here. They’re coming to my parent’s house. I felt certain beyond doubt that the nearing sirens belonged to an ambulance intended to escort my father to the hospital, hopefully still breathing with a chance of living. Oh shit. Oh shit. The sound of the sirens more rapidly approached.
As I tightly held my two tiny children, his beloved, precious grandbabies, in my arms, my mind became a nightmarish film of the worst possibilities. As I walked slowly down the slippery sidewalk, each second seeming like a lifetime, mental images flashed before me of my father collapsed on the floor, clutching his chest, gasping for air, pain and terrible knowing present in the tight lines of his forehead. He held an open palm out to me and the children as if to say goodbye. I tried to calm myself and shake such awful images, but they kept coming to me, just like the snow kept falling down around us.
I was interrupted from such dreadful images when my mother opened the front door and came out upon the porch, holding the lapels of her coat tightly together with trembling, gloved hands. “I tried calling you,” she called to me, as I approached the porch steps. “I didn’t want you to bring the kids over right away.” I felt that my worst fears had been confirmed when she spoke – that those sirens really were for my father. “Well, get them in here anyway,” she continued, “it’s freezing out here, and a fire truck is coming.”
A fire truck. A fire truck, and not an ambulance. There was relief at this, but it was quickly replaced by a new fear. “What’s going on?” I asked.
“I think we have a chimney fire,” she said. “Your dad is downstairs with the fire chief.” I figured out that stranger’s truck in the driveway must have belonged to this man. I looked around the house, and everything seemed to still be in order. There was, however, the odor of smoke hanging in the air. “Get your kids in the bedroom, okay?”
I followed her commands as the other firefighters arrived. My daughter wanted to see the fire truck and the fire fighters, who were now up on the roof examining the situation. My mother began describing her fears to me, how she thought there was a chimney fire as a great deal of smoke filled the home and she went outside and saw more smoke billowing from the chimney than was normal. Ash had scattered onto the roof and fallen down into the snow along the side of the home.
She then began to complain about the response services. “I wasn’t certain if there was a chimney fire or not though, you know,” she said, “so first I tried to call the fire station. No one picked up there so I had to call god-damn 911. The lady just told me to get outside right away if I though the roof might be on fire. I told her I wasn’t going outside because it was way too fucking cold and it was just the roof, not the whole home. It’s fucking freezing out there, Angela.”
She was right. It was fucking freezing, but I tried to imagine being the emergency operator, who probably had a desire to respond, “Well, if you stay inside I guess you’ll at least stay warm because your house is on fucking fire. Get out, you dumb bitch!” However, now that I was now inside the house too, I recognized that the situation was not really serious and the threat of the fire spreading was minimal, so I understood my mother’s reluctance to get out of the house. I’m sure she would have exited had flames been licking the walls. Well, maybe. I mean, it was really, really fucking cold outside.
When my father and the fire chief came back in the home, they informed my mother that there was no fire after all. There had been smoke and ash because the chimney needed cleaning and it just expelled extra ash when she started and stoked the fire early this morning.
“Better to be safe than sorry,” they both said. My mother nodded. The three of them all expressed relief, and the fire chief excused himself, wishing my parents a good day.
As soon as he left, my father turned to my mother and said, “I told you to just let me check it out, Cindy. You don’t listen to me. I could have done that shit. I could have taken care of it.”
“Well, you thought there was a fire too,” she replied. “I don’t want my damn house burning down in the middle of winter.”
“I could have gone up on the roof,” he answered, although he also nodded in agreement that the threat seemed real given the amount of smoke in the home.
“Dad, you don’t belong up there,” I added my own contribution to their discussion. I sat feeding my six month old son a bottle while my daughter sat next to me eating a strawberry pop-tart and smiling at her grandparents, totally oblivious to the fright that had just occurred.
“No shit,” my mother seconded my concerns. “What would I do without you? That’s just what I need. My roof possibly on fire, and my husband climbing up there and falling on his dumb ass and killing himself.”
“Meh,” my father said, treating every serious situation with his strange air of brevity and dark humor. “You could have collected insurance then. You would be just fine.”
“No I wouldn’t,” she said, looking at him with eyes that asked him to be serious without a word needing to be spoken.
“Dad, don’t talk like that,” I said. I didn’t like him making jokes about death like this. He had said these kinds of things as long as I can remember. Whenever I would warn him about his bad eating habits given his diabetes, he would just brush off my gentle, loving discipline. He would sneak sweets while my mother was at work, and I would say, “You can’t eat like that. You’ll kill yourself.” His response, without fail, was always, “Good. When?”
“Yes, please don’t talk like that.” My dad got up from his chair and approached my mother, letting her know he was just joking. Yet, he continued on with his ridiculous jests.
“I think with our insurance, if it’s an accident, you can claim double,” he added, “You’ll be fine.”
My daughter picked up on this and excitedly threw her hands up in the air, screaming, “Double! Double!” with a great big smile spread across her face.
We all laughed, and then moved on from the excitement of the morning. I was so damn glad that while my mind tends to run rapidly toward worst case scenarios, those scenarios rarely become a reality. I still had my father next to me, beaming a smile at his silly, happy granddaughter in a house that was still intact. We were all together, safe and warm.