The picture is still sharp into my brain. I can conjure it up with vivid realness—especially as the leaves begin to burn bright orange and yellow and red before they fall to the ground this time of year.
It’s a silhouette of my Dad sitting in a chair staring into the flames of a backyard bonfire.
My Dad loved the simple things in life. A good meal. A good country song. A relaxing ride in the truck. The feel of the sun on his skin. A new Dewalt power tool (most of which I’ve inherited and have no idea how to use).
My Dad had a long list of things he loved about life. Although he never wrote this list down, I have a pretty good idea of one thing that would be near the top:
Yes, bonfires. My Dad was a firebug. He loved setting things on fire. I mean, not in a crazy pyro sort of way. It was always controlled and safe…well, most of the time.
I know why my Dad loved bonfires. He loved the popping and cracking of the logs as they turned into ash. He would be mesmerized by the flames. He would sit in a chair near the firepit he built in our backyard and be completely hypnotized by the fire. On a cool night, he might sit there for two or three hours and let the flames warm his skin, and he was in his happy place every time he was there. He didn’t need music. He didn’t need a cellphone for endless and pointless scrolling. He just needed a chair, a can of Coke, our dog Lucy by his side, and a stack of logs that he could burn through the night.
For as long as I could remember, Dad had an almost-nightly ritual of retreating to the backyard after the sun would set. Rather than settle in front of the glow of the television, Dad would often park a chair near our backyard firepit, load some wood into the wheelbarrow, and prepare for a relaxing night. And he always had a smile on his face.
As he spent more time near the firepit, his techniques and methods became more and more elaborate. Dad had always started his fires with a blowtorch, which is plenty effective enough for anyone who needs to start a fire. But for my Dad, a blowtorch just wasn’t good enough. Not quick enough. Not exciting enough. Not ridiculous or dangerous or powerful enough.
So Dad did what any man who watched way too many episodes of Home Improvement might do. He built a device that would start the fire quicker.
And by “device,” I mean a flamethrower.
That’s right. A flamethrower. And a homemade one at that.
What does a homemade flamethrower look like, you might ask? It’s basically a wand-torch device with a trigger that is attached to….a propane tank.
Of all the things I’ve inherited of my Dad’s, this might be my favorite. I’m completely terrified to operate it in the instance that I might burn all the hair off my head in a fiery explosion, but at least I have it. (My Dad didn’t have to worry about things like this because of that whole “bald at 30” thing he had going on…). Here’s a picture of me actually getting up the courage to use it one time after he died. Note…I mask the terror pretty well:
Dad was really proud of this flamethrower. I’m pretty sure Mom was utterly terrified that he was going to be that guy on the news with ash all over his face after a backyard explosion saying “I had no idea that my homemade flamethrower attached to a propane tank would actually explode…” I would often laugh and roll my eyes every time I would hear the roar of that flamethrower in the backyard. I knew Dad was at it again…and that I would have the family room television to myself for a few hours.
Dad’s experimentation extended far beyond starting devices, however. He also experimented with materials. At first, his goal was probably to find things to burn that would help the fire last longer. Then, that grew into an obsession with which natural materials would make the most interesting and loud noises if he threw them into the fire.
In a fit of excitement one year, my Dad and our neighbor Shawn planted a small patch of bamboo in our backyards. That small patch eventually grew into a bamboo plantation that could feed an entire zoo full of pandas.
One evening, my Dad got a bright idea to chop down some of the bamboo (which, by the way, makes it come back even faster and in ridiculous amounts) and see what would happen if he tossed it into his firepit. In a fit of childlike amusement, my Dad nearly lost his mind when the bamboo made an exploding pop that sounded like a firework. So, my Dad did what any mature, grown adult would do.
He chopped down stalk after stalk of bamboo for about three hours and tossed them all into the fire, laughing his head off every single time they exploded. The pattern became all too familiar if you were sitting inside the house listening: Pop from the bamboo, a series of vicious barks from Lucy at the popping noise, and a chuckle from my Dad. Over and over and over again, all throughout the night.
And sidenote…if you throw about thirty stalks into the fire at once, you might want to warn the neighbors that they are not being shot at first.
In addition to the bamboo burns, Dad also loved setting a good Christmas tree on fire—after Christmas, of course. For my entire life, we always had real Christmas trees in our house. My Dad refused to buy an artificial tree. Although he said that he always had real trees because they looked better, I think he also looked forward to January 15th when it was time to dispose of the dried out evergreen.
Dad would take the ornament-stripped tree to the backyard, dig a small hole in his firepit, and stand the tree up for its ceremonial cremation. Then, Dad would take a blowtorch (or eventually his flamethrower), and light the tree from the bottom. Within 45 seconds, the entire tree would be completely engulfed in flames, the reflection burning bright off my Dad’s glasses as he smiled and laughed. He never seemed to tire of this after-Christmas tradition. Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely is your fiery death….
I think back over all those nights that Dad would spend camped out next to our backyard fire, with our dog Lucy barking at every single popping bamboo shoot as if it were some invisible enemy she could silence. I think of all the nights where Dad wouldn’t even have time to change out of his work coveralls because he had worked so long to provide for our family. I think of all the times when Dad would be mad that it had rained for a few days in a row, interrupting one of his favorite rituals.
And I also think of all the times when Dad would ask me to come sit with him by the fire and I would say no.
I wish that I had spent more time with my Dad near the firepit when I had the chance to do it. Dad would often invite me to come sit with him. I would occasionally take him up on his offer, but not as often as I should have. Most times, I would be too busy. Or doing something stupid like watching television. I desperately wish I could give back all of those reruns for a few hours and a stack of felled bamboo with my Dad in the backyard…
I think that my Dad sat by the fire so often because it was peaceful and relaxing. Dad could shut the world off and connect with his primal side: a man, his fire, and the stars and moon overhead. Life was simple when Dad was sitting around the fire, and Dad loved simple. Dad was at peace when he was surrounded by crackling flames, chirping crickets, and the beauty of God’s creation.
But now, after losing my Dad to suicide, I think those fire nights were even more important for my him. I never realized the extent to which the noise and cloud of depression had overtaken my Dad’s mind. The feelings of doubt and shame and fear had to be so loud every single day for my Dad. I’m sure there were so many times when my Dad just wanted to silence the world around him. When it came to the internal voices that told my Dad he wasn’t good enough or wasn’t worthy of love, I am sure that my Dad wished he could hit a button or flip a switch and turn those voices off.
I think a night by the bonfire was my Dad’s way of silencing those voices.
My Dad could sit by the fire and let the worries of the world and his depression melt away. There’s something strangely mesmerizing about a good fire, but there’s also something about a fire that takes humans back to our earliest roots. Sitting by the fire, I imagine, allowed my Dad to return to the parts of his life that were simpler and easier and happier and better. My Dad had many, many dark days in his life; but I’m so glad that he had many, many bright nights when he could relax, let his worries down, and sit in the warmth of a roaring fire.
I’ve grown to appreciate bonfires more and more since losing my Dad. Like I’m sure he experienced, they also calm my mind and quiet my soul. More importantly, in the life after Dad, a bonfire helps me return to the moments of happiness in life when my Dad was here on Earth. I’ll sit and laugh when I think of his flamethrower. Or his obsession with exploding bamboo. Or his Christmas tree infernos (I sold my soul to the Devil and use an artificial tree, which I’m sure upsets Dad even in Heaven, but someday I’ll buy a real tree and make sure I set fire to it just like Dad would have wanted). I’ll smile when I picture the look of happiness that was always on his face when he sat in a high patio chair with a glass of Coke in hand. I simultaneously cry and happily remember how Dad would stoke the fire with a rake or pitchfork while Lucy ran around him wildly grabbing sticks and chewing them into a million pieces as he laughed at her craziness.
This Fall, I’ll burn a fire in honor of my Dad. I’ll remember all the great times he shared around the flames, and I’ll long to relive and correct all those nights when Dad sat by himself and I should have been next to him. If there’s a firepit in heaven, I’m sure Dad has a chair camped nearby.
Let’s just hope God has a few forests full of bamboo for Dad to play with.
Dad, When I think of the things you enjoyed, I always think of bonfires. They provided you with such amusement, but deep down I think they also provided you with a lot of peace. Your mind and soul just seemed to be quieter and happier when you were sitting around a good fire. I wish I could take back all of those days when you’d ask me to come sit with you and I said no. I wish I had spent more time with you around the fire, but there never would have been enough time with you because you made life so exciting and full of love. It may not be around a fire, but I’ll spend more time with those I love because I realize that I should have spent more time with you when I had the chance. I love you, Dad. I miss you like crazy, although I don’t miss the constant bamboo explosions. Okay, who am I kidding…of course I miss those. Thanks for all the fires we did share, but more importantly thanks for keeping the fire in my heart going even after you’re gone. I’m looking forward to that first bonfire together on the other side…I’ll bring the flamethrower. But for now, seeya Bub.
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (NLT)