Lindsay McKinnon, Contributor to Moving, for You: A Tribute to Empathy
My Two Treasures Inside of Tragedy
** No piece or part of this writing may be reproduced or copied without the direct permission from Lindsay McKinnon **
I’ve had many amazing and rewarding jobs in my life: a youth minister, a massage therapist, a childbirth doula, a Qoya dance teacher, each one a true calling. However, none of these jobs can compare to being a Mom.
Without a doubt, being a Mom has expanded me, rooted me, challenged me and delighted me in every way, every day. I am still an amazing Mom, and my husband, Tom, is still an amazing Dad, but our children died. On March 19th, just six months ago, we suffered and survived a fatal house fire. “The Mountain Fortress” and everything inside of its 4,000 square feet burned to the ground, leaving no trace of much of anything behind. The cause of that Fire remains unknown.
We were hosting friends for the weekend, the Montoyas. We were all looking forward to a weekend full of campfires, hiking in the woods, and perhaps some kayaking down the river. My boys, Patrick and Logan, absolutely LOVED the Montoya girls—they looked up to Zak and Christy, the girls’ parents, as mentors. Zak and Christy loved to play with them. After years of camping together and exploring outside together, the Montoyas have become a lot more like family than friends.
As the kids were winding down from the night’s adventures, Logan (almost six-years-old) came into the newly renovated kitchen where Christy and I were talking and reached his arms up to me. He was tired and could not settle in his body without some Mommy love, and I am the biggest sucker for snuggles. I could barely pick him up because he had grown so much, but he managed to wrap his legs around my waist and nuzzle his head under my chin and on my chest. I gave him a light back scratch and sang to him the way we did every night together. We whispered prayers and gratitudes for the day, gave kisses and one last squeeze.
I watched him leave the kitchen and shuffle into the Living Room. There, he curled up on the couch next to his big brother and the girls and quickly fell asleep. Patrick (who had just turned ten years old) was snuggled with Gia, the youngest of the girls. She was sleeping in his arms. (He’s a sucker for those sweet snuggles, too!) Christy and I collected the children and walked them upstairs to the bedrooms and tucked each one of them in, except Patrick. He asked to stay up a little bit later, and I conceded. The girls wanted to sleep in Patrick’s bunk beds, and the boys wanted to sleep together in Logan’s room. As I tucked Logan in and stole some more kisses I was in awe of how beautiful he was. My God, I could gaze at my children forever.
While Christy and I chatted on the living room floor, I gave Patrick a massage. He was starting to grow more hair on his legs. I always took notice of how long and lean his legs were, and he had the cutest little butt. I memorized all of his little birthmarks, freckles, and moles. He didn’t want to go to sleep when I asked him to, but he understood the next day was going to be a full one. Hugs and kisses, and as he ascended the stairs, he said,
“I love you Mom!”
“I love you too, Patrick.”
“I love you three and four...” he replied, and I smiled as I knew where we were going with this...
“I love you eleventeen, and to the moon and back again,” I said.
“I love you to Infinity and Beyond,” he kept going.
“Times Infinity, plus Googleplex, plus two.”
I could keep going back and forth with him as long as I had the last word. He smiled a smile that penetrated my heart. I will never forget it. I did have the last word, and that was the last time I saw him.
The adults fell asleep while watching a movie on the couch. At some point, Zak and Christy peeled themselves from the couch and went downstairs to the guest room. Tom and I were exhausted and not going to move.
In the wee hours of the morning, we woke up in sheer horror: our house was going up in flames. It took a second to actually realize what was happening. I jumped off the couch and pulled at Tom to wake him up. We scrambled to throw water on the fire to try and put it out until it became obvious that it was WAY out of our control. The entire house was rapidly filling with black smoke, smoke alarms were going off, and all the lights went out.
“EVERYBODY OUT OF THE HOUSE!” we yelled.
In waves of panic and chaos, we fought like hell to claim our children and reach safety. There were no heroes that night. Just parents desperately trying to find our children and one another, in a sea of blackness that was impossible to push through. We repeatedly ran in and out of our house, blinded, screaming, and choking on poisonous smoke that burned our insides with each inhale. We were disoriented and dizzy in our own home. I knew every inch of that house, and yet it was challenging to figure out which room you were in, much less which floor you were on. The flames of fire and smoke engulfed everything around us.
I was able to locate the girls and slide down the stairs with them on my lap. As if making its own... fierce... claim... the fire would not let us back up the stairwell to reach our boys. It literally pushed us out of our home with a force so powerful, it left us rendered in shock and in awe, helpless, traumatized, burned, and literally crawling on our knees. I knew exactly where my boys were, and yet I could not reach them.
I raged, I screamed, I begged for mercy. I drew hearts on the ground and rubbed my forehead inside of the heart as if in prayer... definitely in prayer. I looked up to the window of Logan’s bedroom and could not peel my eyes away. My head tried to trick me, that I might see something out of a horror movie inside that window, as if it wasn't horrific enough!
But my heart knew a deeper wisdom that overrides my intellect. A song by Jason Mraz came into my mind. “God Moves Through You “ is based on Kahlil Gibran’s words...
... Your children will not be your childrenthey are the daughters and the sons of the beginning they’ll come through your womb but not be coming from you they will be with you but they do not belong to you...
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I trusted it and fought it simultaneously. My eyes looked up to the heavens, and I saw sparks dancing above our house. I listened even closer as two words came through, crystal clear:
We sobbed and watched the walls fall in, and three floors drop through.
I went toe to toe with God that night, in the rage that only comes from a Mother that has shared body, breath, and blood with another human being. I had it out with The Universe and All the Powers that Be.
“THIS IS NOT OUR CONTRACT!”
Kali had her way with me. It took mere minutes to steal everything we held sacred, and turn it into ash. Two out of four children made it - the girls. Our two boys perished in that Fire, Patrick Carlyle McKinnon (who had just turned 10), and Logan Hayes McKinnon (who was about to turn 6).
In moments like that, two things happen. You go numb, while simultaneously, all of your senses are heightened. From a distance, we could hear the sirens blazing as first responders and fire trucks flew down the road and navigated our crazy driveway. I could hear them, yet they sounded muffled because the dialogue that I was having inside myself was even louder. I was raging inside, in the most calm and lethal way.
THIS. IS. NOT. OK.
On our knees in our neighbor’s yard, lights flashed and firefighters showed up. I can only imagine what they were thinking, about the sight of our home on a mountain, ablaze. They could not get into the house, either. They could only gain control of the flames and manage the perimeter from continuing to creep into our neighbor’s yards. I cannot fathom what it was like for them, to sit with Tom and me, monitoring our oxygen levels, kneeling on the ground and watching it all go down, stunned faces and trembling hands stained with caked on soot. Tom was in total shock and unresponsive. I was taking in absolutely everything, more sober and wide awake than I ever had been in my life.
In the marrow of my bones, I knew my boys felt no pain, I knew they were together, and I knew they transitioned quickly. This knowing was the only way I could leave my home, abandon my boys, shuffle down the driveway, and into the ambulance. We were given no choice but to surrender everything. I stopped right before stepping up and into the ambulance. I took one long, last look at the powerful vision before me, and felt my boys in my heart and all around me. In that feeling, there was a longing, and a loving, and a permission that I cannot articulate, but will forever feel.
We were transferred from the trauma unit in Roanoke, VA to The Burn Center in Winston-Salem, NC, which happened to be my hometown. Never believing in coincidence, I was grateful to have instant, built-in community. In the days that followed, I sat in my hospital bed with burned vocal cords, no voice, broken ribs, injured sacrum, and a heaviness in my lungs that felt like I had smoked several cartons of cigarettes in a row. I still have that heaviness to this day, and I still cough up soot. I sat there in my hospital bed continuing conversations with my boys, not wanting to go to sleep after everyone finally left my hospital room, because I could feel them more strongly when I was alone. I just wanted to feel them. I didn’t want to sleep. I miss them terribly.
I asked them what they wanted in a Memorial Service. When I absolutely could not keep my eyes open any longer, I nodded off to sleep and they showed me exactly what they wanted. It was as though I was watching a Power Point presentation in my dreams. They downloaded one image after the next, after the next, at such a concentrated rate it was almost more than I could keep up with. They showed me two separate rituals. One ritual was dark and gritty and very primitive. It took place around the ashes of our home. There were drums and dancing, and our bodies were again, covered in soot. This one was meant to honor our land, and our home, and all the memories that we cherished there. It would bring healing...and it has.
The other ritual outlined their Memorial Service and manifested into a true celebration of the lives of two amazing children. There is tragedy, and there is treasure, and the two are braided together, intertwining. This Memorial Service that they designed was unlike any other Memorial Service you have ever been to. It was held outside, at camp, right next to the pond and the weeping willow tree. Over 500 people came, sitting in concentric circles around an altar. The boys even handpicked the priests who were to facilitate.
There was Communion with fresh, warm bread and wine. Kahlil Gibran’s reading from The Prophet, J. O’Donohue’s poem, “On the Death of The Beloved,” and the Sufi parable, “Tale of The Journeying Stream” were all read. The songs we sang as nighttime lullabies were sung. Their godparents, all musicians, showed up with frame drums and hand pans, guitars, and a stand up base, harmonizing and resonating beautiful vibrations across the water on the pond. There were prayers written down on strips of fabric that were then woven on a loom as a community offering. We released two white doves and watched them hover over us, flying in a figure eight pattern several times before they chose a direction. Figure eight, the Infinity Sign, and Patrick’s number on his travel soccer team.
Per Logan’s request, we all wore glitter on our faces and arms. Kids flew kites and blew bubbles. They painted their handprints on boards that now decorate our new temporary home and line the driveway. They skipped stones into the pond, got dirty and caught frogs. There was a potluck dinner that followed, and we all relaxed into one another, and into the next chapter of our lives.
It felt like a Love fest. In the midst of so much sadness, the boys wanted their family, friends and loved ones to feel the love that they always felt, and to be joyful in remembering them. And indeed we do.
** No piece or part of this writing may be reproduced or copied without the direct permission from Lindsay McKinnon **
Calligraphy by Amorosa5