Something’s happened to Billy!
I shot bolt upright in bed. He had just been here. I saw him standing at the end of my bed, but that was not possible: Billy lived miles away in the country and it was the dead of winter. How could he have gotten here?
I lay back down on my bed trying to piece together what had just happened. Billy had been there, long enough to wake me from a deep sleep.
I’ve come to say good-bye, I remember him saying. Tell everyone we’re okay. That’s right, he wasn’t alone. His little brother and sisters were with him. All of them fading back into the darkness.
I couldn’t shake the vision. Only ten years old, this wasn’t my first night visit, but I never quite knew what to do with them. I dragged myself out from under the comfort of my warm bed, and shivered down the hallway to my parents’ room. The first rays of a new day were starting to break the darkness. The phone rang.
Mom was sitting on the edge of her bed when I entered, listening intently as Dad spoke into the phone. She gestured for me to be quiet.
“Carl and Maureen? Are they alright?” My father spoke with deep concern. I knew it was tragic. “No, no. Oh my God.” He listened, shaking his head and tutting. “Oh my God. Well, thank you for calling, and please, keep us posted.”
“They’re both alive, but they’ve had quite the ordeal,” my father said to my mother as he hung up the phone, then turning to me, he pulled me closer, sitting on the edge of the bed beside my mother so that we were all at eye level.
“There has been a fire,” he started, “at your cousin’s house. I’m afraid it’s quite tragic.”
“I know, Dad,” I reassured him. “Billy came to see me. Just now. He said they’re okay.”
My parents exchanged that look; the one they always did when they didn’t know how to take me.
“Well, your cousin didn’t make it out of the fire. None of the kids did. All four……gone.”
The news that night showed the pictures. The house had been reduced to a rubble of ashes, and from those ashes men were carrying away four small stretchers bearing the remains. The remains of my cousins. I had never been this close to tragedy, and I really didn’t know what to do. That afternoon, in school, I’d broken down crying when the story we were reading talked about a fire. All I could picture was Billy and the little ones being burnt alive. The teacher had called my mother to come and get me.
“Come away from the TV,” my father commanded. “Damn them for showing those pictures! Can’t a family have privacy?!”
We turned off the set, but the images remained etched in my mind.
Billy’s parents weren’t at the funeral; they were still in the hospital recovering. It was just as well, I thought, this was one sad place. A single coffin sat at the front of the church, bearing the bodies of all four children who ranged in ages from two to ten. Billy had been the oldest, just two weeks younger than me. A line of sobbing people extended from the coffin and out into the cold February day.
I had no right to be there, so I shrunk back from the crowd, hoping no one would notice me. We always fought, Billy and I. He was full of mischief, with deep brown eyes that twinkled with trouble. He just had to look at me to fill me with rage. It was only two Sundays ago when we’d had our last fight. I wish you were dead! I’d told him. And now he was. I hadn’t said it quietly, either. I’d yelled it in front of all my other cousins and my aunts and uncles. I was sure they all knew it was my fault.
After the funeral and burial, we all gathered at another aunt’s house. While the adults drank tea and coffee and ate tiny sandwiches with no crusts, the cousins removed themselves to an upstairs bedroom.
“It’s just awful,” my cousin Kate exclaimed. “Can you believe it happened?”
“He’s okay,” I blurted. “I saw him, and he said he’s okay.” I explained my nocturnal visit.
“Why would he come to you and not to me?” Kate and Billy were closer, and actually got along.
“I loved him. You didn’t.”
“I loved him, too,” I protested, “It’s just that he made me so mad.”
We all fell silent. They knew what I meant. Billy was a tease, and could be a total pain.
I didn’t really want him dead, I thought. I just wanted him to stop pestering me.
The horror of our loss hung in the room between us, as cold as the icicles visible through the frosted pane.
“I wish I’d seen him,” Kate said quietly. “Then I’d be able to believe he’s okay.”
I had seen him, but I wasn’t sure that made it any better. The sorrow was still pretty raw. He was still gone from our lives, and every time we got together, his absence would be a huge black hole. Billy, who’d been so full of life, so wild, and energetic, was now dead. It just didn’t seem possible.
It was the winter of ’69 that I first learned that even though life exists beyond death, it doesn’t minimize the depth of sorrow felt at the loss of a loved one.