“A Great Guiding Light”
When faced with approaching death, where can we find comfort? In preparing for her mother-in-law’s passing, Nicole finds the answer to this in tending the flames of a small fire. Here, she contemplates life, death, and the journey of our souls.
It is a dark, spring night. Perhaps it is the night that has been inexorably closing in on us since my mother-in-law’s cancer diagnosis three years before. Debbie is declining fast, spending most of the last few days sleeping. The families of her two children are gathered at her small house next door to ours in a wooded, rural area. We have often gathered here before — for Sunday dinners, football game watches, Halloween parties, and just-because bonfires on autumn and spring nights.
Someone has built a fire tonight, probably some of the older children. It reminds me of the fire lit at the first Easter mass of every year. Easter is on its way now, but this is the truest Lent I have ever lived — laden with dread’s lull, waiting for the pall of loss to fall. I am outside at the fire, holding a new baby. I am lucky — a baby is a universally powerful solace.
I go inside but there is presently very little for me to do. Dinner is over, a light movie is on, and everyone is visiting — the various comforts and consolations of vigil. I mention to a nearby relative a sense of aimless obligation and spiritual weight. Do you remember the Von Trapps from The Sound of Music? They were such good Catholics. Didn’t they all stand praying at their father’s deathbed? She squeezes my shoulder and tells me she will pray with me — meaning sometime soon. I think that there’s really nothing better I can do at the present moment. So I hand the baby off to grateful minders and go back out into the chilly night by myself.
My husband earlier implied a wish that someone build up the small bonfire. I decide, rather than assigning it to anyone else, that I will tend it while I pray. Here, in this thin place, fire feels like a bridge between the world we inhabit and a world of mystery that we cannot touch until we cross irrevocably into it. It’s easy on this night to feel why, since ancient times, people have used fire for so many of their rituals. Fire is not some living thing, and yet it moves with both life and death. Fire is a meta-reality.
I feel the absence, the ignorance of past rituals like a void, but the knowledge of rituals that I have lived flickers and then blazes: baptismal candles, votives. A great guiding light. Tongues of fire. My voice intones in ancient prayers, barely audible as I stoke the fire. I contemplate the journey that the nearby soul is about to embark on, imagine its path marked and eased by the smoke I send up with my prayer, like the incense at the altar.
I hunt up dry limbs and twigs, feeding them to the orange hot spots, laying them so that they will catch in growing flames. They are the days I have had with Debbie, and those I have not had. All I have done and all I have failed to do for her and with her, I encapsulate my prayers in a final, sustained offering — willing it to be sufficient. Can she see the fire through her window?
When I am dying, if circumstances allow, I want a bonfire held where people will come and gather sticks for the flames and pray on rosaries. I don’t know if it will do me any good to see it. Perhaps I will be beyond awareness. But the way that it carries the wind into a greater awareness, a more intentional prayer, would, I fancy, be good for me and them both.
Fire consumes, both the holy and unholy. It purges. It illuminates. It shows that God is present.
It takes a fire and a night of vigil to make me know, anew and with force: we are not made for this world. How easy it is to forget this in the day-to-day minutiae. How hard it is to live in a manner mindful of this — in fact, we dare not too much, lest the weight of it overwhelm us, losing our bearing in the ever-turning time in which we have been placed. Yet our days will be tested as in fire, in the eternal now which is our destiny. In this moment it draws so close as to wrap me into its own turning, spiraling closer and closer as she turns soulward, slowly out of our reach, and yet we dare not let go yet.
The feeling of slow-wheeling finally pulls my feet out from under me, as I permit myself to sit before the bonfire, to get my bearings and settle wholly into the rhythm of prayer. The fire burns steadily. I half-imagine even my thoughts being consumed, nudge them into instruments of offering — unimportant distractions and passing little pleasures tossed to the flames like little twigs, like straw. Only Debbie matters right now, only lifting her up to God, as she goes the way I must also one day go. How this short life must blaze, and then snuff out, but not perhaps before setting aflame others around it. One day I will want a fire like this, to inspire the people to lift me up, praying me into heaven, as all that holds me burns away so that nothing keeps me back when my soul attempts its ascent.