Rising From the Ashes

October 4, 2012
Smoke. The type of thick black smoke that sticks to your lungs. The type of smoke that is typical of a house fire. The sirens come screaming from blocks away. The questions are fired at me – “was there anyone in the house? When did it start? Where is the rest of your family?” The answer to all of them is the same, “I don’t know.”
It began like any other day. My wife got the kids ready for school, they caught the bus to school, I went to work, and she filled in her day as she does every other Wednesday. Except today isn’t like any other Wednesday. I’d only been at work for two hours before I received a phone call from my next door neighbour. Get home now was all they said. You could see the smoke for blocks. The fire fighters were already there. Yet the sirens kept coming. I couldn’t think. I didn’t even know what to say. Where was she? Where was my wife? Why wasn’t she with the ambo’s? The neighbours hadn’t seen her all morning. The car was a melted mess in the garage. She couldn’t still be in there, could she? Surely she would have come out? Would have tried to save herself? Yet it hadn’t been her who had called 000, it was the same neighbour that had called me to tell me to get home as quickly as possible.
I couldn’t get any closer. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t run in there and start looking for her and no one had been brought out. What did that mean? Should I be worried? Scared? Or should I be relieved? I didn’t know if it was a good thing or a bad thing. What if she had just gone for a walk down to the shops and accidently left her phone at home? She’s hopeless with her phone. Yes, I’m sure that’s all it is. She’s down the road, enjoying a coffee with her sister, Bernadette.
The flames were under control now, the fire fighters went inside, they were able to see exactly what the damage was – the house wasn’t liveable, even I could see that from where I was. What’s going on? The paramedics are making their way towards the door. Why? Why aren’t they staying right where they are? Suddenly somebody grabbed me and took me away. They sat me down in the back of one of the ambulances. There was a police officer there as well as a paramedic. “Mr Wittner?” The police officer asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“We need to ask you a few questions,” he said, “about your wife”.
“Why? Is there a problem?”
“We’ve found the source of the fire, Mr Wittner” said the police officer. “Does your wife have a history of drug use?” I shook my head. I couldn’t believe it. My beautiful, perfect wife; use drugs? “No, never!” I exclaimed.
“Have you noticed a change in her recently Mr Wittner?” The paramedic asked gently, “Did she develop a twitch or tremble, was she often thirsty, vomiting, suffering suddenly from nightmares, or hallucinations? Did she have mood swings or fertility issues? Did she burn herself or run extremely hot baths for the kids without realising it?”
It took me a little while to take this in. I just sat there. I was so shocked. I couldn’t move let alone speak.
“Mr Wittner?” Asked the paramedic gently. “I need you to answer. This is very critical to what happened in there before the fire, and also your wife’s recovery.”
They were the right words to snap me out of it. “Yes.” I replied quietly, “she often ran baths that were way too hot for the kids without realising the temperature. I just thought she had a high pain threshold.”
“Was there anything else?”
“Lately she has had terrible mood swing. I just put it down to stress with the kids, and we have been really busy lately. She hasn’t been vomiting, but she has been nauseous and trembling – she just said she had been sick, that it would pass... She’s had a dry mouth and been thirsty, but I just put it down to her being unwell.”
“Don’t blame yourself” said the paramedic soothingly, “I’d do the same thing. We all would if there was no history there. Why would we have reason to jump straight to that conclusion? It may have been that she was simply sick and stressed and has a high pain threshold. But this is another possibility. The cause of the fire was this joint, however, we also found this crack pipe and a stash of what used to be heroin.”
“How can you be sure it’s heroin?”
“We can’t. I would like to ask your permission to search the house for anything else that may be of use in this investigation and to also do some testing.”
“Yes,” I said, still in a daze. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. “My wife, is she ok? Where is she?” I asked the paramedic.
“She has been taken to the hospital to be treated”
“I want to see her.”
“I know. You need to be prepared though, she is pretty badly burnt. We think that she was smoking heroin, but was dozing at the same time, she fell asleep, dropped the joint, and due to the way the heroin affects a person’s pain receptors, she did not notice the fire. It is possible that she may have also overdosed. We don’t know how, when or if she will recover due to the extent of her injuries. I would suggest that you don’t bring the children in until we know exactly what is happening. It is of course entirely up to you though Mr Wittner.”
“My mother will pick up the kids. I need to see my wife. Regardless of her condition.”
“Of course Mr Wittner. Here, I will take you.” I hopped into the ambulance with the paramedic. My wife, a heroin addict? No. She can’t be. They must be wrong. They have to be wrong. I would have known if she was. Wouldn’t I?
We arrived at the hospital and I was lead down corridor after corridor. I followed them blindly. Everything seemed so surreal. I was having a cruel nightmare. Soon I would wake up and everything would be as it normally is.
Soon I was shown into a room. The sterile whiteness of everything always startled me. I’d never liked hospitals. I’d always avoided them as much as possible. Everything was just so... Sterile. Almost as if it wasn’t real. That you had entered a new world.
On the bed was a figure hooked up to a million machines, all pumping different fluids into her. My wife. She looked completely lifeless. I forced my feet to move forwards, to the chair beside the bed. I sat down. Grief and emotion shook me to my core. Great big sobs came out of me, I didn’t know where they had come from and I couldn’t stop them. She was nearly unrecognisable. She was covered in bandages, you couldn’t see a single section of skin. It was all burnt. This was going to be a very long and slow recovery. Through my sobs I could hear a very faint voice. “I’m not dead yet,” it said. Slowly, the sobs stopped. “Rose?” I sniffed. “Yes” she croaked “You deserve to know the truth.”
“It doesn’t matter Rose”
“Yes, it does. Because it means that our whole life together has been a lie.”
“No, it’s not. I fell in love with who you are. Not what you may have done.”
“Alex, what I have done is who I am. I thought it was behind me. But I fell into that hole again. I couldn’t tell you. I couldn’t stand the grief it would cause you.”
“So you told no one and did it in secret?”
“Well, yeah. That’s exactly what I did. It’s what I had been doing all my life. I didn’t feel like I could turn to anyone.”
“Of course you could have come to me! We would have gone and found help together. I would have helped you.”
“I realise that now. But I didn’t back then. You see it all started when I was about 14. I was at a party, everyone was doing it. So I did too, I couldn’t be left out. But then I was hooked. It was a release for me. A release from everything that I was going through at the time, with my parents divorcing, my brother in the accident... It was my way of coping. The wrong way of coping but it was my way. Then I met you. I tried to give it up. And I did for a little while. But soon I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had scratched down to my bone. This was the only way of making it all go away. I should have told you. But I was too scared. I thought you would take the kids and leave me. I thought you would be ashamed of me...”
“Rose, you are the love of my life, how could I ever do such a horrible thing to you?”
“Because I have done this to you.”
“It doesn’t matter. I will never leave you. I will never take the kids away from you. We will find help. You will get better!”
Rose managed a smile. “Yes, I will get better.” She closed her eyes and fell back into a painless sleep. I stayed by Rose’s side, night and day. I held my promise to her; I would never let her go. We would find help and she would get better. But weeks passed and she didn’t wake up. Soon the doctors pronounced her brain dead. All that was keeping her alive where the machines, it was our call; to keep her on them, or to let her go. The doctors said she would never wake up. The kids came and said goodbye. So did our friends and family. They tell me the funeral was nice. That she had a beautiful send off... But I don’t remember. To me it was all a blur. If I had of known, we could have found help. She would still be here. But she’s not.
Today it’s a year since the fire. I am at your gravestone. I find comfort in coming here. I feel close to you. The kids are at school. I’m on my lunch break at work. Life moves on. But you’re not here to move on with us. You will never see the kids grow up, love and be loved, have their hearts broken, or graduate from high school. You will not see them get married, or have children, you will not be here to help me help them through the tough times. You always knew the right thing to say. You won’t be there to grow old with me and play with our grandchildren. I am lost in my thoughts, in my sorrows, when suddenly a warm feeling fills my body and I hear your voice in my head say “Oh, but I am here Alex.” It is then that I know I am not alone, that you are still with me now and will be with me always.

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