Turning Point – Brian’s 50th Birthday

zb brina mikeAs we begin to wind down our tribute to Brian on his 50th birthday, you have to know that I am not a sappy short story writer. But when I can reach people’s emotions, I feel like I hit something. I feel like the first few posts went well, but maybe 17 days of tributes are too much. I feel like there were days when I was trying to say something and it just didn’t translate. Or as some who are close to us have said before, “Every time you guys get together, you tell the same stories.”  Yes, I am sure we do.  Between Brian and I and our friends, we have had some really interesting experiences.  There are some stories I deliberately avoided. There are some stories that hurt. There are stories that have no business really being shared.  And while Brian and I have always tried to be there for one another, there are also things you have to take care of on your own and just hope everyone else understands later.

In the early morning hours of July 14, 1976, our home burned.  The cause and origin was a television set in the living room.  Dad was in Toledo, Ohio on business.  Mom was there, Colleen was asleep in her room.  We had expanded the attic in our ranch home and that summer Brian and I moved into the upstairs even though it was still plywood floors and no sheet rock. Brian was asleep there.  I had stayed up late to watch Monty Python, which was on PBS back then.  There was a light switch that turned off the power at the wall to the TV set; there had been a number of fires in the area caused by the Sears instant-on TVs, and I guess because Dad was aware of that, we simply turned off the power to it when we weren’t using it.  That night wasn’t the first time I hadn’t turned off the power, but it was certainly the last.

When I heard Mom calling my name, my very first reaction was that it was trash day and the truck was outside. I jumped out of bed only to find myself in smoke.  The house was not air conditioned and in that hot July evening, the windows in our second floor attic were obviously the vent hole. I got down low, made my way to the unfinished stairs and then ran down them, through the hall, and under the rapidly extending fire in the living room.  Mom and Colleen were outside the front door and Mom was stretching the phone to the limit of the cord.  When she saw me she immediately asked, “Where’s Brian?” I automatically turned to go back and get him but she put the phone in my hand and told me to call the fire department, and she went instead.

As the huge bay window broke beside me, the living room flashed over and the fire was really rolling out of the front, fully oxygenated.  Mom and Brian were not going to get out the front door. I had the phone still and gave the information with the heat intense on my face. I gave the correct address, even adding that it was “Chief Mayers’ house” and told them my mother and brother were still inside. As I hung up, I could hear the call going out over the scanner that was just inside the front door and not yet melted. Running to the neighbor’s, I started beating on their door, shouting for them to wake up and get a ladder. Before we even had it out of their garage, Mom and Brian were making their way to safety. Fortunately all those days of playing on the roof (despite being told not to) paid off and Mom and Brian got out the second floor window and came down the pine tree on the A/B Corner of the house.  While Mom was leading, I don’t know that she knew how to get down once out on the roof, and she and Brian found themselves exiting where he and I had climbed so many times.

My grandfather was arriving at the same time Uncle Bill was, and the first due engine arriving.  I don’t know much about the rest because it happened so fast, but they got a quick knock on it and checked any forward progress. My memory was being so relieved that Brian and Mom were okay, and then all of us, Mom, Brian, Colleen and I being whisked next door, put into bed, and told to rest. I remember lying there in bed, all of us crying, and hearing the sounds of the crews overhauling the house. When we woke the next day, we discovered that all of our belongings, clothes, toys, pets, pictures, everything, had been lost.  Every door in the house was open and while the structure was damaged most severely in the front, the rest of the house had significant heat and smoke damage. We tried to salvage things but with the exception of a few things that almost 40 years later still smell like smoke, everything was gone.

This was certainly a game-changer. We had each other, but we also knew things weren’t going well anyway and the stress of the situation didn’t improve our family’s situation. It wasn’t too much longer and Mom and Dad were getting divorced. As sad as it sounds, Colleen seemed to survive and Brian and I just clung to each other. We had to start over, reinvent ourselves somewhat, and pick ourselves up from the ashes.  Nothing was the same after that and normal took on a whole new meaning.

When someone says that life can change in an instant, I can speak from experience, and say it is so.  I blamed myself for a long time for not flipping that switch that night, and I was left with that guilt for a long time.  It was even said out loud sometimes that I had “burned down our house” and while that might have seemed funny to say, nobody except Brian said, “We all did it, we all neglected to flip that switch- it just happened to be that night.” Brian stuck with me and reassured me I wasn’t alone, although to this day I feel like I got stuck holding the bag. It’s been so long that until telling this story, I had pretty much put it out of my mind.  When I look back on the turning point that occurred on that very moment, I realize that everything we do, everything we say, every little detail has meaning or impact. Like the butterfly whose wings flapping creates the impetus for a hurricane across the globe, it is the things we do or do not, say or not say, or efforts we put forth or our own inequities that create our futures. Nobody will be there to wave a magic wand and create change; we must create change.

When I needed someone, from then and for the rest of my life, it was Brian that I turned to, and still turn to. If there is a guiding element in my life, someone who has made me laugh when most everyone else has let me down, it has been Brian. And when he is hurt, I am the first to want to defend him and stand between him and whatever it is, because he has always been my brother, he has been there through everything, and I love him with all my heart. While we may have had brotherly fights before then, and there were certainly a few, I can honestly say that there is not a single time after that night that I can remember having a fight with Brian ever again.

Here’s to my brother, on his 50th, the best brother anyone could ever have.

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