My house is full of warmth and light this solstice day, this Advent vigil. The fresh pine aroma of the perfectly shaped, real tree, carried in waves by the natural heat of the house. It dazzles us with white lights posing as a million small icicles and snowflakes, magically not melting. It shines in the window as a welcoming beacon, never ceasing to amaze us with its beauty each time we come home. The fireplace is alit with hardy oak logs perfumed with cinnamon-scented pine cones, and our bellies are full of iced sugar cookies and eggnog. We are sated, we are content, and we are safe.
Somewhere, though, not far, stood a house, full of cold and darkness, empty and dank, dog carcass blocking what was once a hallway full of happy feet, anxious to open the presents under another pine-fresh tree, standing sentinel in the window. Into that house, now haunted by ghosts of Christmases past, the man stumbled disheveled, homeless, and drunk. Two days of wandering. The cell phones of those who cared jammed:
… like a cacophonous Christmas carol, out of synch, out of tune.
He was a veteran, and perhaps it was the savagery of Viet Nam that glommed onto his psyche with a grip that refused to let go. And so, somewhere along the line, he lost his soul.
It is sad because there were so many months of sanity, clarity, and sobriety, but as the holidays slithered in the bottle beckoned. It is powerful, that bottle. It is stronger than the lure of a new-found love affair. It is stronger that the pride of staying clean. It is the bottle, the bottle, always the bottle. On that night, he stumbled, lost in the mist, sleet, and cold; he was weary of body and soul, desperate for a warmth that was always cruelly elusive, yet sadly, a warmth that was hidden inside him all along, only he didn’t know how to find it.
The house was dark, yet had a roof, and offered some meager refuge from the cold and dampness .His clothes were soaked, and he trembled violently, though from drink or cold was impossible to tell. The smell of the dog’s rotting flesh was long since gone, and there was evidence of prior “residents” what with empty bottles of cheap vodka and newspapers crumbled up into crude mattresses. Onto a “mattress” he collapsed, ready to pass out into the welcome oblivion that promised no pain. But first, a cigarette. Always a cigarette, smoked this time only half way and tossed carelessly across the room, onto another newspaper mattress.
It was smoke he awoke to: heavy, smothering, acrid smoke. With whatever grip on reality he had left, he arose in horror and desperation to escape the flames that licked the living room floor, fueled by the papers scattered throughout the room. The way to the front door was blocked by the flames, but the way to the stairs leading to the second floor was clear, except for the smoke.
He read somewhere, or was it in his military training, move low, under the smoke, and put a damp cloth over your mouth. He placed his arm over his mouth, his coat was still wet. Still drunk, now sane, he stumbled up to the second floor, coughing and choking from the smoke that was threatening to overcome him. He flung himself into a room, a room that faced the street and slammed the door behind him, still trying to escape, trying to live, wanting to love.
“Never again. Please God. I swear, never again. Just save me so I can go to Emily.”
To the window, open it, jump – it was nailed shut.
“Someone help me,” his voice was a whisper.
And in that window he stood. His face pressed against the dirty window pane when the first fireman came. An off-duty fireman who wished he’d been anywhere but in front of that house that night.
“I saw him. He was standing in the window. His face, I’ll never forget it. His lips were moving. He said “Help me.” And then he wasn’t there. He was gone.”
The fireman tried to get in and save the man, but the flames and smoke were forbidding.
And so the man died that night. It got him. The bottle. He fought – hard, so hard, but it wasn’t enough. It never could have been enough. Those that knew him will be forever haunted by that man in the window. That man who tried so very, very hard.