What’s Left After A Loss

Ashes of memories.

My best friends and I combed through the sooty remains of the log cabin and wondered: What’s left? The fire had been so hot that it melted the window glass and incinerated pretty much everything else. We found the cast iron woodstove, the porcelain sink and tub, and the soundboard from the upright piano. (You can see it lying in the rubble there in the photo.)

We’d started coming to Sam’s cabin one year after Will’s 18-month-old died of a brain tumor. That first year was expressly designed to support Will. In future years, it turned out that all four of us needed some kind of support. We’ve returned each autumn to the Sawtooth Mountains to get off the grid, cook our favorite food, and enjoy cathartically honest conversation.

The day we went to see the remains, Sam took pictures and searched in vain for a river rock that he’d found a dozen years ago. Erosion had carved a smirking face on it that made everyone who touched it smile. I think he thought that finding that rock would work its magic one more time. Maybe take the edge off seeing this hand-made house, with its gritty chinking, reduced to ashes.

Will pushed back sections of corrugated metal that had once formed the roof and were now the floor. He found a candlestick, a fork, and most of a mug from the Twisp River Pub. He also found the enameled pot that we used to boil water in for washing dishes. I found myself wondering how many bus tubs of dishes we had done by hand over the past decade. Lots. Now they were crushed into mosaic-tile-sized pieces.

Andy kept repeating how it was surreal to see remnants of items that had been on the second floor now sitting at ground level. The coil springs from the mattress in the upstairs bedroom. The lead acid batteries that had stored energy from the solar panels. The antique chamber pot. Aluminum junction boxes. And lots and lots of nails. “It’s amazing how many nails held this place together,” he said, to no one in particular.

We felt a bit like forensic scientists, poking around in the debris that day. The pattern of burned ponderosa pines told the story of how the fire had leapt from treetop to treetop before it devoured the house. A house, ironically, made of ponderosa pines felled on those very acres. The forest had violently repossessed what Sam and his family had borrowed for almost 20 years.

The four of us agreed that we’d miss the house. Sam talked about insurance and rebuilding. Andy talked about reworking the floor plan to enhance intimacy and the view of the mountains. Will wondered where the clean-up crew would dispose of the cabin’s remains some of which were surely toxic. And I thought to myself, It’s not the nails that held this place together. It’s the friendships.

I closed my eyes and remembered the guest book that once sat under the smirking river rock. So many people had gushed about the view, the cabin, the property, and the good times they’d had. Like many camps, the immersion in nature, close living quarters, and absence of electronic technology had a way of amplifying friendships.

“Guys!” Sam shouted. “Check it out. It’s in pieces, but it’s here.” I thought Sam had found the river rock, but then I saw something quite different. On the ground by his feet lay a wide piece of chinking into which the builder had used a stick to inscribe an e. e. cummings quote: “ The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.”

And so the rebuilding began.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training .