Controlling the Burn

 

“Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.”
Luke 17:30-33

I

Who lit the match? It must have been my father. We didn’t have lighters; no one in my family smoked. He kept wooden matches in a rusty coffee can under the sink with the mousetraps and steel wool. Who else would know how to safely burn the tinder-stalks and desiccated seedpods dried in the ditches, the craggy stems and root remainders of cultivated grain? He came up on the land; certainly he knew best how to tame it.

Our land stretched from the dark woods and orchards that circled the homestead to the Lutheran church my ancestors had built. There were miles of burning to do. We stood on the gravel drive, my mother, brother, and me, and watched as the fire moved like water along the ditch, believed with a fervent faith that the fire could be put back into the genie’s bottle. We felt the heat and heard the crackle.

I expected flames, but instead the dried brush turned black inch by inch, less a fire than a creeping spread like an encroaching tide. Still it seemed to me a precarious undertaking, an event that might also require a mad dash into the house. Maybe I had read too many stories about dangerous California, warnings from Smokey the Bear, but deliberately setting a fire seemed exactly the wrong thing to do.

Each Minnesota fall, we waited for the wind to calm, deliberately choosing the right day to burn the fields. When the land was dry and the weeds were high, it wasn’t uncommon to see clouds of dark smoke polluting the blue horizon, farmers smothering the countryside by any means necessary. It was more efficient than mowing. It was safer than poison. Still, I had been taught that fire was inherently wild.

II

The night after his birth, after everyone had gone home to their beds, and my hospital room was empty, it seemed blasphemous to turn on the television to quell the church-like quiet. I had been awake for nearly 36 hours. And I didn’t know what to do with the inconsolably crying baby I held in my hands. Sure, I’d held babies. I hadn’t been one of those expecting mothers afraid she wouldn’t be able to care for her own. But at that moment, he was wailing, and burning.

I was stunned by the heat of his body, the heat absolutely emanating from his still beet-skinned body, burning my hands, burning the skin on my palms, his own self a fireball. I can look at my hands just now and feel exactly what I felt that night, how scorched, how branded, how I knew then, with certainty, that he was me even after he’d exited my body. Some people call the essence of a person their soul, but he was a whole being of newly-born electricity, lightning in a body.

In time, I would know that burning sensation in a different way. I would feel the heat of his skin on the palms of my hands, on the tips of my fingers, when he was in the throes of a seizure, as his temperature escalated and he dropped farther and farther away from me, as his legs twitched and his mouth chewed, as his lips turned blue as death, as the wiring in his brain short-circuited and needed an efficient reboot. Not the neurological truth, but coping is never scientific.

His temperature was the harbinger of trauma; my anticipatory fear threatened flashover. My baby’s brain didn’t behave, riffed wildly on the hypothalamus’ wise method of burning away a virus, making itself better. In fact the antithesis: the seizures likely burned away some of his brain over time, maybe even some of his days. Again, what do I know of neurology, but it seems simple enough that malfunction leads to malfunction. We used drugs to tamp the fire when it burned but we could do nothing to prevent the spark from catching.

III

Imagine this: I am a mystic. For 10 years I have muttered prayers, and served the poor, and tithed my savings, and preached my faith to anyone who would stop to listen, and even those who would not. I wear a pelt of sharp stones to remind me I am of this depraved world, not a blessed being. I shave my head to remind me of my humility. My desire is not redemption, instead a miracle. I beg–my mouth a constant raving motor: God make my son whole. I beg for him to gain the life he will never know he has given up. I sacrifice myself to the possibility that one might will a miracle into happening. So rabid is my belief.

I grind between my teeth my need until it is pulp for a poultice that will not staunch the infection that boils within the fierce animal that is my heart. My hope flows in as pure as a cool hand on a flushed cheek, but pumps back out as a toxic despair. A civil war rages within me and I am made sick by the fury of my love. Still, there is no change. The seizures happen. The inadequacies mount. And my fear, it rages.

Suddenly, it all becomes clear. Surely, I must have shown insufficient sacrifice, surrender. I still want too much a life for myself. That is the message I receive, like a firework salute banging in my ear, like the brandished sword of Gabriel. I am not Abraham asked to sacrifice Isaac; I am Lot’s wife asked to sacrifice everything that has come before. She was asked to give everything up, but her nostalgia won out. Her wanting won out. And in wishing my son healed, I am also wanting a release from my servitude. Yes, I want him better. I want him more. I want him all. What I don’t say but God knows is maybe sometimes I don’t want him at all.

Lot’s wife was never given a name, so I will give her mine. But I will turn not to salt, instead to ash. No spontaneous combustion, but self-immolation fired by guilt. The route has become clear. Now there is bravery to be called upon, and gasoline to buy. Whether I drink it or douse myself in its pungent perfume is a matter of the moment. Certainly as the woman who birthed this child, there was something I could have, should have, might have done differently that would have changed the course of his history. Absolution will never be mine. No phoenix, but my ashes will take flight on the wind.

IV

I notice my age most obviously in my hands. As I type, as I cut vegetables, as I stroke my dog’s fur, as I dress my child. The skin on my fingers puckers now, my nails peel, and the scars from IVs and cat scratches and glass shards are a scroll of memories. My hands are not simply my hands; they display evidence. Soon, I will likely add age spots to the backs of my hands where, when I was young, my mother placed pennies while I practiced piano. (The trick was to keep good form in your hands, keep the pennies from falling. I don’t remember why.)

There is no part of me exempt from this revealing. I just look less often at the rest. I have turned the corner and, it seems, must begin the downhill walk. I assumed the second half of life would spin out at a steady and eventually slowing pace. I thought I might be tiring–it has not been an easy life–, ready to shift into neutral. My destination a place of mirrors that reflect back the face of who I once was because there is no one left to become.

Sure, I expected some fallout. I’ve never been naive enough to think I might age without any comeuppance for my years. My past self smolders within my body. My knees burn. My eyes burn. That place in the back of my shoulder burns. My body burns hot in the middle of the night until I’ve soaked the sheets and water pools in my curves. But I have been taken by surprise by the heat of my desire. Instead of wanting less from life, I want more. I want to taste, and touch, and learn, to feel, to have, to know again the rippling heat of longing drop through my belly.

Life has suddenly become a sprint. I must beat the clock. I must beat back the clock. I want to do it all again. Not the years, and not the choices–this is not about regrets–, but to go back to my youth and revel in its intensity, bathe in its brutal state of panic. Maybe that was what Lot’s wife looked for when she hesitated. She wasn’t yearning for Sodom, but instead she was saying goodbye to the self that had led her to the crossroads between doubt and faith.

I thought it might be noble to age contentedly, coolly, without a fight, but instead I want to set myself alight.

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