The optometrist paused in shuffling through paperwork. “I knew a Bailey up on Drummond Island. She was a friend of my wife’s. Her house blew up.”
“That was my cousin.”
“What was her name? It started with a J.”
He gracefully changed the subject. I had a cataract. Just a tiny one, he said.
I immediately thought of eye surgery; after all, I have wanted lasik all these years. I am so nearsighted that my only focal point is about six inches in front of my face.
“We have to let the cataract grow,” he said. “When it gets big enough, they can repair it, and they will fix your vision at that time.”
I pictured myself as a bleary-eyed dog. Ms. Rip and her cloudy, earnest expression still hoping for biscuits.
Eleven years is nothing. But at age 11, Rip is old.
It has taken me two years to write about Jolene’s house, just because I was letting time do its good work of healing.
I am not sure how possible it is for my uncle, who is in his nineties, to heal. But he did show remarkable resilience when we spoke of it in summer 2014.
It was just a year and a day following the death of my dad, his brother. On March 31 2014, a resounding “boom” shook the community of Drummond Island.
I saw on Facebook that the explosion had rattled windows. The residents, so accustomed to blasts from the quarry, said that this was different.
Then, the news came. A house on the north shore had exploded; presumably (and later confirmed) from a propane leak.
When I say “exploded”, I mean this in the literal sense. There were pillows and other household items in the trees. The house next door suffered cracks and irreparable damage.
I received the news via text from my brother Dan. “Did you hear about Jolene?”
“NO!” I scrabbled back. “Don’t tell me she was in that house!”
And, just like that, she was gone. My cousin, Uncle Bob’s daughter Jolene, was 59. She had been preceded by her sister, Jeanine, who had died from cancer just a year and a half prior.
Jeanine at age 60 with her constant big, genuine smile.
I felt dizzyingly ill. Uncle Bob had built that house. It had taken Jolene and him four years to do it. I thought back to the long days of summer, his happiness as they toiled over at the old mill. Jolene worked hard as any man; dry-witted, donning rumpled, sawdust-dirty gloves.
Yesterday, I found the poem I had written on the day the house was no more. I had sent it to Uncle Bob later that summer. He never said what he thought about it. But what he did say resounded with me.
“I’ve had a good life. Losing two daughters were the only low points. We sure had a good time building that house.”
This is what he kept. Not four years of toil. Not the horrific waste of a sudden tragedy. Not the death of two daughters, one after the other, who should have outlived him.
My brother upon sending me the text, wrote, “I just want to say I love you.”
It was because he, in that moment, grasped what was really important; something Uncle Bob had a handle on all along.
I don’t think people who are younger can really understand how fast time goes. In your twenties, you think three years is a long time. In your thirties, you think six years or ten years is a long time.
The future yawns before you.
When you are in your fifties, you look at trees, still the same shape, curving and leafing out just as when you were a child. You begin to comprehend that we are here for just a moment.
They say in heaven a mansion awaits us. But I can’t imagine anything better than living in a house I had built with my dad.
I wouldn’t want a mansion
I’d take the house whose nails
Once rattled in a rusty coffee can
Whose walls skidded over the planer
Amid arguments and laughter
And bottles of warm beer
I’d take the house that smelled like the cedar
Whacked down on the old belt from my grandfather’s mill
No, no mansion for me
I’d take the house where every board
Was snapped and measured and fit
Piece by piece, one by one, with sweat and toil and long afternoons
I’d take that house!
And then before my timbers
Started creaking like old joints
Before my windows grew cloudy and dull
Before my paint wrinkled and weathered away
I would look out over the great white bay
Over the stones where my ancestors had tread
Over the trees bent and furled with time
Into the deep, wide northern sky
And find the sister with the wild hair
And a smile as bright as the sun.
For Jolene Laura Bailey Hine, October 3, 1954 – March 31, 2014
And Jeanine Louise Bailey, May 31, 1952 – November 17, 2012