Sometimes, it’s hard for me to remember how long the road has been to get to where I am today. I mean — I’m not running a 6-figure business or anything, but… I’ve had a lot of cool adventures, and been to some amazing places, considering I started out adulthood as a small-town farm kid, and highschool dropout to boot.
Twenty years ago tonight, though, I was going to bed still absorbing the shock that the house my sisters and I had lived in, that my grandparents and parents had built when they first moved to the farm, in which I’d spent countless hours from infancy on into my early adulthood — had burned to the ground.
Everything was gone. As in — that extra washing machine we’d been storing? Vanished. A few aluminum cans were left from the kitchen that had been insulated when something, probably the fridge, fell on top of them. Bottles were melted into unrecognizable, charred drips of glass; the bathtub evaporated in the intense heat of a house that collapsed into the concrete container of its basement as it burned.
But what kept me awake was that my youngest sister, Kim, had been staying in the house that night.
It was a typical January in Dunster, BC. We had plenty of snow, but it was clear weather otherwise, and she’d taken a break from studying at the university in Kamloops, a 4 hour drive south, to come home for the weekend. Three weeks prior I’d taken a job working in a camp at a hydroelectric dam, saving up money to launch my first business – mountain bike tourism – in the following spring.
She arrived mid-afternoon, and called down to my dad and stepmom’s house to let them know she was there and not to be concerned if they saw lights on. Their house was in sight, less than a quarter mile away. My older sister, Shelly, had gone out of town for the weekend.
Oddly enough, Shelly left Thursday. I’d told them both it was fine to use my computer, which was set up in a sort of ‘office closet’ in our living room, but to please remember to turn the monitor off if they’d be gone for any length of time. Shelly called me Thursday night, feeling contrite that she’d left the monitor on; I shrugged it off and told her not to worry — a few days wasn’t going to harm anything.
Little did I know that light would save our little sister’s life less than 48 hours later.
Kim says she went to bed and fell asleep, but awoke around midnight and looked down to see the heating vent on the floor glowing red. The house was built with a walk-in basement, which we usually entered through the carport. There was also a wrap-around deck, which you could access by stairs when there wasn’t three feet of snow on top; and much of the wood was rotting out anyway and it all badly needed replacing. In the basement were both the electric furnace and the wood-burning stove that served as back-up.
She came out of the bedroom and looked down the basement stairs into a basement full of smoke and flames. Disoriented, she struggled to open the kitchen door, which led out to the deck, not realizing there was a washing machine in front of it. We’d been shuffling appliances around and doing some repair work, so that was where it had ended up parked before I left for my 3-month work stint.
Following the walls, she found her way through the kitchen and then saw – through the smoke, and in the unlit darkness – a blinking green light. The blinking light on my computer monitor that Shelly had left on just the day before.
Knowing the computer was directly next to the living room door and the outside deck, she got herself out, slid down the carport into a snowbank, and then was able to run down to the farmhouse and get help.
Of course, it was too late for the house and all the stuff in it, but the fact that she survived what would have certainly been a deathtrap still makes me well up with emotion two decades later.
My sisters are some of my best friends, my closest people in my life, and most cherished. The thought that twenty years of my life might have gone by without my youngest sister to share that journey stops me cold.
It also keeps me going.
Wherever you are, whatever you are afraid of or are struggling to see through… keep going. Go by feel if you must, but keep going.