Ray McNeill.

A few years back, I was walking into Montpelier’s co-op when a man walking out said, ‘Hey, you used to come in my bar all the time.’ He was Ray McNeill, a brewer and musician. In the 1980s and ’90s when I lived in Brattleboro, I spent many evenings at Three Dollar Dewey’s, the bar Ray and his wife owned, and then at McNeill’s when the brewery opened. This weekend, McNeill’s Brewery in Brattleboro burned. Ray McNeill perished in the total loss fire.

I’m not at all a fan of Facebook, but I’m included the passage below from Ray’s daughter Eve Nyrhinen. A passionate man, with a good heart, Ray is deeply mourned. And while, sadly, each tragedy is unique, this eloquent piece is reminder that decency and kindness endure.

I’m Ray’s daughter. I’d like to share some details and dispel some rumors about Ray Mcneill‘s death. He was told in June that due to the structural instability of the building, the fire department would not be able to send a crew in there safely if a fire were to break out. There hadn’t been a fire in his 30-some years there, and he had an extensive sprinkler system, so he chose to stay. Anyone who loved him knew that you couldn’t tell that man what to do.

He knew he couldn’t open the bar this winter, and he didn’t need to be there for construction (in fact, he was told the renovations would be easier if he moved out) so he booked a tiny beach house in Baja, and planned to drive out here to Reno to spend some time with his grandkids and then drive on to there. He drained the sprinkler system so the pipes wouldn’t freeze while he was gone. He had “a few more errands” to do, and there were storms rolling into the Rockies and around Reno this weekend, so he stayed a few extra days. It never occurred to anyone that it was unsafe for him to stay in his apartment after the sprinkler system had been drained.

The fire likely started from an old multi-port electrical outlet behind his TV, next to stacks of magazines. He was probably asleep when it happened, as he’d told several people he was going to bed shortly before. From the scene, it looks like he awoke to an apartment full of smoke and fire, and between the smoke and carbon monoxide he only made it to the top of the stairs before he collapsed. My understanding is that smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning makes a person giddy, happy, and unafraid in their last few moments, and I’d like to think that his death was like this, as peaceful as a death by fire could be. His body was not burned, and he was not trapped. It took at least 90 minutes for the fire department to break through the right part of the roof to sight him, and at that point they were certain he was dead. Due to concerns that the recently-burned and completely-soaked wood floor might collapse, they couldn’t risk a firefighter’s life to check. They even brought in an engineer to try to emergently assess the situation, and were told they needed to wait for a team to come in the morning before broaching the scene.

I was an EMT in college, and the one cardinal, inviolable rule was that you do not proceed onto a scene until it is cleared for safety. You cannot risk losing a second life. My heart goes out to the firefighter who had to climb back down that ladder and tell the crowd they’d done everything they could. As a doctor, I remember the names and families of every patient I have failed to save. Each one was followed by months where I tortured myself with alternate scenarios where they might have lived. The truth is, we do our very best with the information we have at the time. They didn’t know he was up there – none of us knew for sure, and there was some confusion at the scene about whether he was in Mexico already. Had they known, they still would have had to proceed in the same manner. I promise you no one in that fire station wanted my father to die. There is something called Second Victim Syndrome, which describes the way a doctor tortures themselves after the death of a patient they failed to save. I’m sure firefighters experience it too. I hope they are not haunting themselves with the what-ifs. Please extend your love and support to the Brattleboro Fire Department. They followed protocol. They made decisions that might have prevented losing a second young hero’s life.

The building was torn down immediately because it was a risk to the community. What if another fire had broken out? What if people had ventured in? Yes, they drove an excavator onto the main floor to demolish it, demonstrating that the foundation was sound enough for that, but their real concerns were the top floor and roof, damaged by fire.

And no, the fire department did not put things from the bar out on the sidewalk for anyone to take. They entrusted what could be saved to a few individuals, with my blessing, and those things are being stored until my sibling and I can go through them.

Our community is in mourning. I’ve heard rumors that my dad committed suicide, setting the fire because he knew the fire department wouldn’t go up there. I’ve heard outrage that the fire department didn’t “save him.” I’ve heard conspiracy theories about how they tore down the building to cover up their mistakes. These sensational fantasies and lies are not helpful to a small town dealing with a large tragedy. Please have some grace for everyone involved and the difficult decisions they had to make, with limited time, limited information, and high stakes. Please believe that everyone did their best, and extend your support to *everyone* involved. I know my dad would have.

Twelfth Month.

A woman steps out of Positive Pie on Main Street with a stack of pizza boxes and nearly bumps into me. Late afternoon, and a rainy twilight has gradually thickened all day. I’m walking home from a reading at the town Memorial building by an author who’s published a historical novel about Hardwick. Decades ago, when this town shifted from broke-back subsistence farming to the granite boom, the town fiercely debated the railroad construction (why let in the outside world?) and the economics of electricity and streetlights. Now, not so many years later, the tracks are torn up, the roads paved, the granite empire crumbled.

This afternoon, the streetlights are on early, the colored lights glowing at this junction of routes 14 and 15.

The woman with the pizzas asks me to open to her car door. I step off the sidewalk curb, breathing in the scent of garlic and bacon. Before she gets in the driver’s seat, she stands for a moment overlooking the colored lights and river. “December,” she remarks — that’s all — and then gets in and drives away.

In the brick courtyard, the kitchen staff is getting high, wearing t-shirts in the strangely balmy air. December: this descent into the amorphous darkness with no clear edges. Long after the stranger has disappeared, I stand beneath the building’s overhang while rain falls and light ripples across the wet world.

Days of Little Light.

Night has fallen down all the way by the time I leave work. Just below freezing, the wind cuts up with a taste of wet — the feel of sugaring season but the light is all wrong. It’s a month before the solstice, and now I’ve given into the darkness utterly. The truth is, much as I rail against the scantness of light at this annual time, I relish it, too. This time of year entices us to go deep, soul-search, spread out the cards and see what’s there.

Dark to dark, our days go. My daughter phones on her way to work, two stray cats yowling in her car. She’s bathed these hungry creatures and found a home for them, a tiny bit of kindness in the midst of a complicated world. Ever in her blur, she hands off these cats to a new home, blessing them in her own way, and moves on into her day.

“What does it mean to grow rich?… Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?” 

— Barry Lopez

Snapshot. Vermont Thursday.

In Newport, at the Vermont/Canadian border, a woman in a bubble-gum pink blazer strikes up a conversation with me in a parking lot about the snow falling into Lake Memphremagog. Mid-morning, dense clouds, fat snowflakes disappearing into the gray lake. I’ve never been around the Canadian edges of this lake.

In Newport, I stopped first to visit my new acquaintance Lila Bennett to check out the work she and her colleagues are doing at the Journey to Recovery Community Center. The center is suffused with natural light, alive with plants and colors, and it’s immediately obvious that they’re engaged in that old-fashioned phrase, “the good fight,” work that saves and salvages lives. Lila shows me the stack of my books, too, that the center is giving away for free, to anyone who wants to read it. I thank her profusely.

I’m in Newport, too, to find my way into a state building, up through a reverse rabbit warren into a large and light-filled room where the state’s staff tells Selectboard members and volunteers from Vermont’s tiny Northeast Kingdom towns about the chunks of federal money in the state’s coffers and asks how to get that money to the needy and broken places in our rural communities.

The room is packed. I sit in the back beside a state senator who offers me advice while I knit a sweater cuff. My blue and orange balls of fingerling yarn roll beneath a stranger’s chair.

The snow falls all morning. A woman I knew 25 years ago comes up and reintroduces herself and launches into her enthusiasm for the rail trail. I chat with the Department of Libraries staff member who reads my blog.

Finished, I hurry down to the lake’s boardwalk before I leave, to breathe in some of that cold wet air. Years ago, my little girl lost a flipflop in this lake. I was talking to someone from the farmers market where I worked, and I turned around when my daughter cried out. She had stuck her foot through the railings and lost her shoe. My friend tried to save her shoe with a stick, but the pink- and purple-flowered flipflop bobbed away, headed northward.

I can’t see my future clearly…

The road becomes itself

single stone after single stone

made of limitless possibility,

endless awe.

— Jacqueline Suskin

Election Day.

On this election day, I hang out the laundry in a bitter wind, sharply turned from the weekend’s balminess. Pinning up t-shirts and dresses, I think of Henry David Thoreau’s famous words:

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.” 

I read in Walden in high school and took that copy with me when I moved to Vermont. I simply never returned it, and imagined Thoreau wouldn’t have been particularly opposed to my theft. On this windy day, the laundry won’t need long to dry, which is perhaps just as well as the dark moves in now by suppertime. Last night, in the passenger seat of my daughter’s car, the early night pressed around us — enchanting or foreboding? I could have leaned either way. As I pin up the last of the kitchen towels, I keep thinking of the line There will be no catharsis. These words came in a conversation about a recent death in our town. How much we all seem to long for a revelation, the loaves and fishes thing, the who’s in the know and has the real scoop about the true and genuine causes of this or that unhappiness. History, of course, prevails upon all of us, pushing down our small lives, our dear dramas.

Like Thoreau, I am a New Englander, and November leans in with her force.We all might be the wiser for being out in her wind today.

Stitch, Stitch.

As the days shorten, I appraise my woodpile. Borrow knitting needles. Read outside in my coat, the sun on my face. Our cats sprawl before the wood stove, savoring radiant feline bliss.

My brother comes to visit for my daughter’s final soccer game. Nine years of games and uniform washing, and I still don’t understand fully the rules of the game. Vs of geese cross the sky. As we idle afterwards, talking, a flock of starlings sweeps low over our heads and disappears around the school.

Back at our house, I gather my things from the car — my jacket, her gifts of balloons and chocolates, the signs her sister made. Photographs. Near sunset, the sky is a luminescent pink that will endure for a few minutes, no more. Their coach, son of glassblowers, made each of the senior girls a glass. In our kitchen, we admire my daughter’s beautiful gift. I wonder how she will fill it.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” 

― Vincent Van Gogh