By Mina Rozario
There is an odd gap in my memory the day that fire started in your greenhouse. You ran, panicked, straight into the blaze, with nothing to protect you from the fumes except for a thin scarf wrapped around the lower part of your face. I hung back outside, rooted to the ground, unable to fathom what drives people to plunge headfirst into burning buildings. Love? A lack of self-preservation? After what felt like an hour of standing in a numb stupor, I finally dialed 9-1-1, desperately trying to remember the last thing I had said to you in case it was the last thing I would ever say to you. Something about trying out for the school tennis team? I’m not sure that you were really listening, but you yourself had told me more than once how hard it had been for us to bond when you were a young mother and I was a colicky infant. I sometimes got less than ten minutes of sleep a night, you would say, then add that you were so exhausted for the first two years of my life that you would suffer hallucinations. You’d top it all off with a small laugh, as if it were all said and done, but there would be a tight, brittle note to your voice.
I’ve been told that you started buying plants shortly after I started walking. Every time you sent me off to stay with Grandma, I would come back to find a new pot by the windowsill, a new patch of dirt freshly dug up in the garden. You would spend hours puzzling over the state of each plant, worrying over the amount of light it got, the temperature, the exact nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium ratio of the fertilizer. You would light up from within, the very picture of maternal affection.
I can’t remember exactly when you had the greenhouse built, but you never used it again after the fire. You emerged from the building long before the firefighters arrived, weeping and clutching a potted petunia. I put an arm around you, and you stilled, watching the flames crackle and pop within the glass. You whispered something to the petunia, a deadened look in your eyes, and I gently pried your fingers off the flowerpot, setting it on the ground. You didn’t protest. Your gaze was fixed on the burning greenhouse. The moment felt just right—the two of us, alone, sharing a consuming awe of the life-altering destruction in front of us.
That day, we were a team, confronting our own private tragedy together. I remember in perfect detail the sirens announcing the firefighters’ arrival, the charred, smoky glass left behind once the flames had been extinguished. I answered all their questions while you huddled on the sofa, shaking like a leaf. I later brewed you a cup of tea and slathered petroleum jelly on your burns. You gave me a brief smile.
You asked me, a few months after, why I had been so close to the greenhouse when you arrived on the scene, if I had been doing anything there. I remained silent, because while I can map every precise second of the greenhouse fire from the minute you rushed in, I can’t, for the life of me, remember what I was doing before the blaze started.