By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire – literally and intentionally. Dad stood nearby with his rake, and my brother, Kelly, was on the other side of him, holding a hose. Their gazes were on the big pile of leaves we had worked all morning to gather.
Smoke twirled from the center of the pile skyward, and it was a little mesmerizing. I wondered if the angels in Heaven got wind of smoke when folks burned leaves or trash. You know how annoying it is when your neighbors do it all the time – can you imagine what the smoke does to the folks in Heaven?
I pulled on my gloves and walked toward my dad and brother. “Here you go.” I had three bottles of water. Dad took his bottle, and I tossed Kelly his. Both of them immediately opened them and took a sip. I sat down on the ground next to my dad and started sipping mine.
“What was your mom doing?” Daddy asked, putting his bottle on the ground beside me. He wiped his forehead with a paper towel he had in his pocket. Kelly started raking again.
I shrugged, “Talking to Grace on Facetime.” Grace is my oldest sister. She lives in Georgia – we live in Texas.
“Lord, they’ll be talking for a while,” Kelly said. “Hey, Squirt, will you bring me the hoe?” I stood up, wiped my bottom off, and walked to the hoe that was leaning against a tree.
“Coming.” The flames on the pile of leaves got hotter and taller as my dad threw more leaves on top with his rake.
I handed Kelly the hoe, and took over with his rake, getting some leaves.
“Shay, what time is your doctor’s appointment tomorrow?” My dad asked.
I am in recovery for ovarian cancer. Tomorrow is my update after post-op and tests. “10 am.”
The flames caught my attention. Have you ever watched a fire? I’m not talking about like a ‘firebug’ or an ‘arsonist’ obsessively watches a fire. But have you ever just eyed the flames?
For a fire to be so dangerous, it can be a pretty thing, With the different colors – the yellows, the oranges, the blacks, and yes, even the reds, blazing and blowing, I can almost see an artist’s palette.
My brother’s a firefighter. My dad is a retired firefighter. I grew up around a firehouse.
“Who’s going with you?” Kelly’s deep voice penetrated through my daydream.
I looked up at my dad, and asked, “Are you and Mom going?”
“Yeah, we are driving you. Ooh, hear that cracking?” Daddy stood, leaning on his rake. Yeah, he was watching the fire too – like an old ‘smoke eater’ would.
Kelly was hoeing a furrow, or ‘fire break,’ around the pile. “I may stay the night and go with you. I don’t have to work tomorrow.”
Daddy looked at me, and I looked at him. Both of us raised our eyebrows. Kelly is a good brother, and everything, but he normally doesn’t get involved in stuff like doctor’s appointments or picking folks up from the airport. He’s a loner – sort of.
“Ooh, you really like me, huh?” I teased him as he moved around the pile.
Kelly rolled his eyes. “Well, it’s a big deal … to find out about where the cancer is or if it’s gone.”
The fire in the pile was losing its ‘steam.’ It wasn’t roaring, and almost seemed less ‘fearsome’
“When you guys get this going down, you can go grab us some burgers for supper tonight, and you can stop by your place and get you some clothes … you will need to shower before you get on your mom’s clean sheets,” Daddy said, and he added, “My treat.”
Kelly and I stole a glance at each other and started clearing up the mess a little quicker.
The leaves were crinkling under the fire.
It took another hour, and the fire in the leaves had turned into burning embers. Mom and Dad were sitting outside in yard chairs when Kelly and I left for town in his truck.
Fall was in the air, but that didn’t stop either one of us from rolling down our windows. “Natural air is so much better,” Kelly said.
The aroma of others burning leaves or trash, peanuts being harvested, and … chicken fertilizer filled the air. “Mmm. I know the chicken fertilizer helps, but whew.” I covered my nose with my shirt collar.
Kelly put his hand to his nose. “It is pretty nasty.”
We rode in peace until we were almost to Kelly’s townhouse apartment in town. “How are you feeling, squirt?” Kelly was looking at me.
I smiled, “For the first time in weeks, I‘m beginning to feel whole again.” They had removed a seven-pound tumor from my ovaries, and I had several staples down my abdomen. Instinctively, I put my hand on my stomach.
Kelly got quiet. “You know, I was scared. You were in bad shape, and the doctors were giving us all these negative reports, and my first thought was, what in the world we’d without you? You’re the one who holds this dysfunctional family of ours together, you know?”
I pshaw-ed him. “That’s crazy. I’m not that big of a deal.”
“No, kiddo, you’re more important than you know. Grace and her family stay so busy, and let’s admit, she really is more interested in herself than us … we live different lifestyles. I’m such a hermit. You’re the one that keeps everyone talking, informed and I know we give you a hard time, but, we really need you to be who you are.” Kelly kept his eyes on the road as he drove.
This was the first time I think my brother had been that expressive in a long time.
He got a little more reflective, quieter … reminded me of the blazing flames from the leaves’ pile. They had started out roaring, and then, got ‘calmer.’
“I realized that we’ve not done right by you, and I’m sorry. I love you, squirt.” He pulled up into his driveway and turned to look at me as he turned off the car’s engine.
After unbuckling my seat belt, I said, “Big brother, you owe me no apology. We do what we do, you know? I love you too.”
The silence between us spoke volumes.
“OK, now, that’s enough of that. Go get your stuff. I am going to go water your dying plants on your porch.” I said opening the door.
Kelly laughed, getting out on his side. “I told Mom I wasn’t a plant guy.”
And he was right. Mom had given Kelly some ferns and a few flowering plants, and they were all looking kind of brown.
“There’s not dead yet … everything has potential,” I said.
Once we had his plants watered, and grabbed his overnight bag, Kelly and I headed to the local Dairy Queen to grab some food.
While we were sitting in the drive-thru, waiting, I asked Kelly, “Have you ever watched the flames in a fire, and thought how pretty they are?”
“You mean not in a creepy, potential arsonist way? Yeah. The colors of the flames remind me of an abstract painting,” Kelly said. He asked, “Why?”
I shrugged. “When I walked outside and saw the leaves were on fire, my first thought was how cool they were, and then I wondered if the angels in Heaven smelled the smoke … I know, that’s silly, especially from the mind of a 36-year-old.”
Kelly snickered, “No, it’s not. You’ve always had a creative imagination – sometimes, it can be a little out there, but you’re a writer … a storyteller. That’s who you’ve always been and always will be.”
“Fire intrigues me … but not in a creepy way,” I said. Kelly pulled up to the window and paid for our food.
On our way home, Kelly said, “You can learn some very valuable life lessons from a fire … not just the obvious ones … the flames can be controlled in a fire like we did today, but one small look-a-way or mistake, that fire can still cause a heck of a lot of damage. That is why we dig the furrow around it … keeps it from jumping.”
He didn’t stop there. “Life can give us a lot of craziness too – we face all sorts of challenges – divorce, cancer, grief … and if we let those things get out of control – the feelings that come along with that stuff … well, our whole lives can wreck … our firebreak is God. We just need to let go of our own pride and stubbornness ...and let Him do the work.”
My brother could make a lot of sense sometimes. He may be the quiet one in our family of three and a little bit of an introvert, but when Kelly speaks, Kelly speaks.
And when the flames speak, we should listen too.