Sarah Kilch Gaffney
We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.
When my husband Steve and I bought our first house, we were young and strong.
That first spring, we ordered six cords of tree-length firewood and tackled the project with energy and exuberance. Steve grinned and donned his bright orange hard hat with built in ear protection and face shield, a necessity of his profession as a builder of hiking trails and a teacher of trails skills. He wore dark blue chaps over work pants, the high heel of his loggers added a couple inches to his already six-foot frame, and his close-cropped gray hair belied his mere 26 years.
A dear friend, who had recently purchased a farm about an hour away, brought his gas-powered wood splitter and we got to work. Steve ran his beloved chainsaw and cut the trees into manageable rounds one by one while we split and stacked.
Back then, we could do the whole lot in a day or two. Everything smelled like bar oil and sawdust and sweat and the rhythm of our movements was like a song. Those nights, we slept like kings and queens. I always like to be ahead and prepared on matters of importance: with our small house, I reckoned, that first six cords would get us through at least two winters.
The following fall, after a Sunday afternoon hike, Steve had a seizure and was briefly unable to speak. The following day, an emergency MRI revealed a tumor the size of a lemon taking up nearly a quarter of his brain. Our first house together would also be our last, our only.
We ordered tree-length wood one more time. Eventually, he could no longer lift the weight of the chainsaw for any length of time and his fingers could no longer tighten the bar nuts. Safety became a concern. Always a bit wary of power tools (to this day, I'm still a little afraid of my sewing machine), I had insisted on not learning how to run the saw despite Steve's frequent offers to teach me. The spring that I ordered the firewood already cut and split, I cried.
While I have significant deficits when it comes to anything mechanical, I have always prided myself on being strong. As Steve grew weaker and more fatigued, the entirety of the firewood fell to me and I embraced the task. When our daughter was little, she and Steve would sit up on our side porch and watch me stack wood across the yard. I would stick headphones in and stack away, piece by piece by piece. I'd look up during water breaks or trips with the wheelbarrow and give her a little wave. When she got a little older, she would sometimes help with the kindling, or, testing her own strength, practice moving one log at a time.
A few months before Steve died, we sold his saw to one of our closest friends. She named it Annabelle and we knew it was in the best of hands.
Some people complain about stacking wood. It is a chore, certainly, and one that is time-consuming and effortful, especially when done alone. Then there is the old adage that wood heats you three times: once when you cut it, once when you stack it, and once when you burn it. There is also so much peace in the practice of stacking, pausing occasionally to seek out the best fit in the puzzle, the sturdiest structure, but continually returning to the repetition of the process.
I remember during our first full winter in the house, the front-most wood stack in the cellar collapsed. We had not put quite enough back-tilt into it and the upper portion had spilled across the cellar floor, putting a dent in our new dryer and leaving us with more work to do. We worked together, re-stacking and laughing at our own ineptitude and the mess. Over the years, we fine-tuned our stacking skills, gaining experience and working with the land and the house to figure out what worked best, and we never had another stack collapse.
Steve died early one spring at the age of 31, but I think of him every time I stack the next winter's wood.
Our first house together would also be our last, our only.
Sarah Kilch Gaffney