A father tried by fire

This I've been saving.

It's an article neither my father, nor anyone else, has ever seen because I've never published it. I wrote it a few years ago as a piece for a compilation book about fathers. Though it didn't get selected, it took a few years before I found out and could publish it on my own.

So I've been waiting for his birthday to publish it here.

All the following details are true. It was December 1979. A few weeks before Christmas. A month before my third birthday. Yes I remember it all. God saved us that night. And my father, in that moment, became my eternal hero. Two-years-old or not, you simply don't forget things like that.

Our two-story country home - the one my father built with his own hands - burned to nothing but ash. We had the clothes on our back and a jar full of twisted, molten pennies when the sun rose again. And we had our lives.

That was enough to start over again.

Here's the story of his heroism.

He had to be freezing.

I watched him through the windshield of our 1976 green Chrysler, a vehicle that neither had character nor charm. Sitting inside, safe from the wind and debris and ash, I sat on the icy vinyl seats repeating over and over, “I’m cold. I’m cold. Mommy, I’m cold.”

Outside, Dad wore only his boxer shorts. Barefoot and bone-tired, he was working feverishly to put out the flames devouring our home. As the glass exploded and the fire waltzed through the second floor window, we knew it was over.

The house was gone. But we had escaped.

As I shivered in the vehicle with my mother, brother and aunt, watching Dad bathed in darkness and fierce firelight, I knew he - somehow, someway - would make everything better.

Even then, just shy of my third birthday, I recognized the fighter in him, the man who never gave up and never let me down.

The fire had breathed and huffed and snorted until swallowing the house whole. The only thing left when the sun crescendoed to end the night had been a pile of ash, a smattering of deformed coins, and our lives. One man had saved us all.

I had gone to sleep that night without fear. It was simply another Saturday night, an evening in the country, one more day gone with Christmas not far behind.

Bedtimes had been followed. Dishes had been cleaned. Nothing had been abnormal.

Mom and Dad had tucked me into bed with kisses, like always. And sleep had come.

In the middle of the night, perhaps sensing danger, perhaps unconsciously aware of smoke, perhaps for a reason I’ll never know, Dad awoke.

He had always been strong – working with his hands and back and heart. It seemed no matter the challenge, no matter the obstacle, Dad conquered it with humility. This night, still a young man with a young family, the challenge would be merciless if he failed.

Dad had no second to think, no moment to waste. Life and death were under the same roof. One would win. One would not.

Through the chalky air in the upstairs hall, Dad stealthy guided Mom to my bedroom, not knowing the girth of the fire. It was underneath his feet, dancing against the walls below, hissing at each step of the stairs.

The first floor was gone, a playground only Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego could walk out of, and Dad knew it. The stairs were a deathtrap.

I huddled in my pajamas in the hall, confused and dazed, blinded and groggy, not knowing my conscious mind could fade any moment and be lost to the smoke. My hope was him.

Dad had built the house with his hands – calloused from hammering in every nail, strong from securing every board. Those hands would be the last thing he would consider as he placed them on glass window panes and shoved with every sinew in his body.

The window above the front porch popped out, gushing in oxygen like a tidal wave in a sinking ship. Collectively, I gasped with my family, unaware how long I’d stopped breathing.

One by one he herded us onto the roof, desperate to get me, my brother, mother and aunt, out of the house, yet not knowing how long the structure would stand.

He jumped down first, springing immediately to his feet and opening his arms to catch us one at a time. Though I was small, I cannot erase that site. Standing before the Oak tree, half clothed by darkness and concentration, Dad held out his arms.

Cold, scared, so young, yet so fiercely immovable, there he stood waiting for me to jump to him and away from danger.

I think we established our lifelong relationship in those seconds, if it even took that long. There he has been, when I’ve been faced with pain, with disappointment, with loss, with fear, when my entire world has been consumed by fire. He has been the protector. Those arms I’ve jumped into, ran into, crawled into and, each time, they have wrapped me in and pushed the world out.

I made it out alive. We all did.

There aren’t even physical scars as reminders, an uncontested miracle. Instead, I have a photograph in time burned into my brain by the flames of that night, a look from my father that said, “Tara Lynn, jump now. Daddy will catch you.”

After a test like that, everything afterward in our relationship has transitioned just a little bit easier. When it came time to learn to swim, I paddled toward him into the deep. When I had a splinter, I faithfully spread my palm before him and the awaiting needle. When it was time to drive, I trusted his “the coast is clear.” When it came time to date, I respected his warning, “I don’t like him.”

Even through the years of teenage rebellion when my make-up was too much, my clothes weren’t enough, and my smart mouth was just like him, I listened to his advice because Daddy was protecting me.

It’s been over 30 years since the fire that took everything from my family but each other. Since then, I’ve watched my father prove repetitively how you greet every challenge with a handshake and then go back to your corner and come out fighting fair.

That’s what he’s done. Through the tragic loss of family, the stress of physical labor, the emergency brain surgery, the war of life, he fights the good fight.

Yet still, no matter the calls from the battlefield, no matter the spoils, he stands as the one whom I can always trust – his heart, his love, his guidance. He not only taught me to trust him, he taught me to trust the woman he raised.

To me, my dad looks no different than he did that night. He’s the same man, same Irish blue eyes, same ornery laugh, same calloused hands, same welcoming arms that open when I need to jump.

Happy Birthday Daddy!