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Dealing with death at a young age

The first time I was 'around' death, for want of a better term, I was seven, maybe eight years old. For whatever reason I cannot recall the specific age I was or the exact time of year, all I know is that it was 2002 and it was either autumn or winter because of the series of events that led up to the deaths. If it was autumn then it was before my eighth birthday, if it was winter then it may have been after I turned eight but my birthday isn't until late August, the end of winter, which leads me to believe that it was before then so I may have been seven. I cannot for the life of me remember though. 

It was a Tuesday, I do remember that, because the evening before, I had been at the local girls' club, doing arts and crafts and socialising with girls from other schools and areas of town. This setup was similar to Girls Scouts, except this group didn't focus as much on badges. We got together for a few hours each Monday evening at the Baptist Church Hall, sang some songs, did some crafts and baking etc. 

At the time I was sharing a room with my five-year-old brother as my mum, back in January had had another baby and so my other brother got the second bedroom while myself and Zachary were sharing. I woke up at my usual time, climbed down the short ladder of the bunk bed and went down the hall to the living room, expecting to watch my normal early morning before school cartoon with Zach, who always woke up earlier than I did. He was watching Johnny Bravo, I remember that (funny that I can remember these specifics but not my exact age), and the TV was turned down to a lowish volume so not to disturb the baby in the next room. We had a small house with paper thin walls so it made sense to not blast the telly.

Mum was sitting down on the couch next to Zach, which in itself was odd. My mum has never been much of a TV person, and before school in the mornings, she went into super-organised-mother-mode and wanted to get everything done ahead of schedule so we weren't late for school, and getting two young children roused and ready for the day can be a difficult task.

I remember as I walked into the living room, mum looked at me and I saw sadness in her eyes, but I didn't know what it was or why she was sad, all I knew is that something was wrong, but I didn't understand. She took my hand, looked at me, brought me in for a hug and then she said. "The twins in your class died last night in a house fire." 

These two girls were the only twins at the Primary School my brother and I attended (it was a small school, less than one hundred children). Everybody referred to the sisters as 'the twins'. I had never been around death before that incident. I had no idea about death or grievance and mourning. Obviously, I knew that people died, but I never gave it much thought beyond that. What seven year old does think about things on a deeper level? In a child's mind, things are what they are and everything is taken at face value. 

I didn't know how to react when mum told me, no one I knew had ever died before. People in my family live long lives. My great grandmother recently turned one hundred and shows no signs of giving up yet. As a seven-year-old, I had never known anyone to die, I had only heard about it, but I had never been affected by it. What is the appropriate way to react when you hear that someone has died? Is there a 'proper' way to do it? 

I laughed when mum told me. I didn't know what she was talking about. In my child's mind this was a joke. People I knew didn't die. My friends didn't die. They met me at the school gates each morning and we talked about the hours since we had last seen each other, and then we ran to class so we could learn and secretly whisper about boys we liked or write poorly constructed notes to each other to pass from desk to desk. 

I laughed for less than five seconds, it was two ha ha's at the most and then I cried because after that it must have registered with me that mum wasn't joking, and this was a serious thing. I don't know how long I cried for, but I know that mum was crying with me, and so was my brother Zach, even though he had only just started school and had nothing to do with my class and my friends. Mum managed to calm me down and I think I ate a little food, but I don't exactly remember. 

She explained to me about the phone call she had received and the bits of information she knew. It being less than twelve hours after the fire, rumours were circulating around the small 'city' I grew up in. (To others from larger countries than NZ, 10,000 people is a town). Mum told me what she knew, that the girls were having a bath at the time and their older brother was in his bedroom and ready for bed, having already bathed. We didn't know then how the fire had started, we just knew that something had caught fire, it had spread and the twins hadn't made it. 

I didn't want to go to school that day, I wanted to stay home with mum, but she said that she would arrange for our nana to care for the baby for a little bit, and she would come to school with me and stay with my class for the morning. She explained to me that my friends would be hurting also, and we needed to stick together. I didn't understand then but I do now. Mum made a comment about it being something I couldn't hide from. A lot of other kids in my class weren't at school that day, and one mother made a comment that it was 'in bad taste' for mum to send me to school providing how close I was with the twins, but mum did things her way, and the only way she knew how, which was to face the reality and try and help others and find answers, and I thank her for that.

The twins didn't have many friends, they chose to keep to themselves and do what everyone else in my class called 'secret twin things'. Myself and another boy called Zachary (not my brother) were their only close friends. I don't remember much about school that day, only that my teacher Ms Birkchan pulled me aside at lunch time and asked if I wanted to talk about anything, given my close relationship with the twins. I didn't fully understand so I shrugged her offer away and didn't give it much thought. 

A special school assembly was held that afternoon where the Principal 'confirmed' to the rest of the school and the parents of other students not in the class, that yes, the twins had died the previous night, and yes it was in a house fire, as rumours around the town suggested. A special notice was also sent home with the students explaining that under no circumstances were we, or the parents or any other adults, to talk to the media and the reporters that flooded the school gates and general area before and after school. (This story actually made national news, as I will explain shortly).

The Principal was the only person allowed to speak to the media. This was at the behest of the School Board, who didn't want outsiders around frightening the children and being relentless in their questioning, as journalists and reporters are prone to be. No one knew any details yet, the police or fire crew or ambulances hadn't confirmed anything past the death of the twins, the older brother who was in hospital with serious burns and injuires and breathing problems, and the father who was in intensive care with third degree burns. That was all we knew, and despite my young age, I picked up on the vibe and the tension in the air between the local newspaper and my school, who didn't want to speak to them. 

Playground rumours were also very vicious during that time. I remember one girl who was in the classroom next door to mine, saying that the older brother had caused the house fire and that it was his fault. We didn't know anything, so people started making stuff up, and unfortunately, this all spread around the community, these un-truths and rumours and guesses at the events of that Monday evening. 

On Thursday of that week, another newsletter was sent out to parents with confirmation of police reports and the series of events that had happened, and I remember that evening after dinner, my mum and dad sat Zach and I down at the dining room table and spoke to us about this newsletter and what the police had confirmed so far. 

The girls were taking a bath at the time, we knew this, their older brother was in his room getting ready for bed, we knew this also. In the living room a gas heater was going, turned on to a high setting, and near to the heater, but within the recommended guidelines for items near the heaters, was a clothes horse, washing drying on the rack. I am not entierly certain, but either the heater itself or the gas bottle, packed in and the elements that generated heat, started sparking and overheating, carpet around the heater caught fire, and as fire does, it soon spread. The family owned an old, governement house that was made of native wood, it would not have taken much for the frame of the house to go up after that. 

Old New Zealand houses, especially around the coastal area, which is where I live, are the houses that the pioneers and settlers would have built. They're houses from the 1880s onwards as NZ was one of the last 'major' land masses to be colonised by Europeans. A lot of the old houses were protected because of their historical status and had been deemed unsafe to live in because of housing standards and the fact they would not have ben earthquake proof or insulated properly. 

The house the twins lived in was from the 1910s, there were lots of houses like that in the street and area they lived in, so according to the NZ Housing Commision, those houses weren't 'historically significant' as there were plenty of them. The houses had been updated, though, with the times and so were safe for families. No asbestos here! 

The old house, made of old and extremley dry native wood, went up in flames, and because it was an old house, it would have had a lot of small rooms and short hallways, as houses back then were designed in NZ. The smoke would have got too much and the girls wouldn't have been able to see as they tried to navigate their way to safety. The older brother managed to get out somewhat safely. He made several attempts to try and go back in the house, but their father stopped him and sent him to get help. The father had also made several attempts to try and find the girls but, as my understanding of it is, by the time he managed to get through the house to the bathroom, the hall that lead to the bathroom and the surrounding rooms, were up in flames and there was no chance of getting in there, or out for that matter. 

Firemen by this stage were at the house and fighting the blaze. They had found the father unconscious from the smoke, he was taken to safety with the older brother, who had burns and injuries and was suffering from smoke inhalation. My family actually personally know two of the firemen who were on the scene that night. The first fireman lived two houses down from us, and the other fireman, his daughter was my friend and she was in another class at school. When the first fireman found the twins, they were in the room next door to the bathroom, having tried to make their escape, but it was unsuccesful. 

Because of the cause of fire being a faulty gas bottle or a gas heater, it made national news with reporters from the news stations coming to the school and getting in on the family while they tried to mourn. Gas heaters were banned in New Zealand temporarily after that while the safety regulations were revised and they were made safer than what they were before. It being 2002 at the time, it most likely would have been a heater from the late nineties, things were done slightly differently back then, unlike today, though that is not an allowance for the heater seemingly exploding for whatever reason, manufacturing or otherwise. 

The thing that sticks with me, and probably always will, I am sure, is that they entered this world together, and they left it together. That was the one thoughtI remember my seven-year-old mind thinking. 

I don't remember much after that. I don't remember very much of school for the ensuing weeks, only that rumours persisted around the playground, and as the weeks wore on and we tried to move on, they seemed to get nastier and nastier. 

I don't remember much of the funeral for the twins. I have a feeling it was on the Saturday but don't ask me about times or what the minister spoke about or the speeches. I can't remember. I do know that it was held at Saint Matthews Church, because I had attended daycare there from when I was two to when I started school. I do remember, and this is because my mother had told me this, that no one was allowed to wear black. The mother of the twins, who didn't live with them and had split from the father about a year, maybe two years before, lived on the other side of town, and she had asked the people attending the funeral to refrain from wearing black, as it wasn't a colour that represented the twins or who they were. 

Everyone in my class went to the funeral but I cannot remember seeing my friends there or specific faces of my classmates. I do remember that we sang an S-CLUB 7 song as a tribute, as it was their favourite band. I do remember, very specifically, perhaps the most specific thing I remember of all of this, is seeing the father in his hospital bed, wheeled into the Church, attached to an IV line and heart monitor, the paramedics or docotors or whoever from the hospital had gone with him, pushing his bed in. He was wheeled to the front of the church and a microphone was held near his mouth, but because of the smoke damage he couldn't speak very well, his throat was fairly badly damaged. 

He managed to wheeze out the names of his daughters and then after some struggle, I remember hearing the word 'love'. After that he couldn't talk and because of the effort he couldn't breathe overly well. Something else happened after that, I think a family member may have done a speech or read a poem, again I cannot remember, but what I do remember is seeing the father of the twins very slowly and shakily lift his arm, which was all wrapped and plastered up because of the burns, and I saw him try to wipe tears from his eyes. That is all I remember of the funeral; singing an S-CLUB 7 song, hearing the father try to speak and then seeing him wipe tears from his eyes. Everything else in between that, and afterwards, is a mystery to me. 

I didn't understand back then, but in the ensuing years when the school planted two Camellia trees out the front, with a plaque underneath for each of the girls a year after their deaths and when we remembered them with a special assembly and poems were read, I had a proper chance to mourn as best as I could, and as best as any child can. Children are resilient, they can bounce back quickly and move on. 

In years to come, as I grew up and moved on from Primary school and went to Intermediate School (Junior High for our American friends) I forgot about it and became a self-absorbed teenager who was very dramatic and thought everyone cared about her and the details of her life. Then as an adult, you realise that no one really gives a shit, excuse my language, and the entire world is not watching you and that no one cares. 

It wasn't until 2012 when I had the sudden thought one day that it had been ten years since their deaths. I had not thought about the fire or about them for at least eight years, and it suddenly struck me that the girls would have been eighteen in October, that was their birthday. Then you start thinking about what sort of life they would have led, what type of people they would be, if they would have gone all throughout school or dropped out to pursue jobs or far-fetched dreams. Your mind spins with 'what ifs'

Then recently, for the winter that has just passed for us here in kiwi-land, the girl I live with purchased a gas heater, as the ban had been lifted off them in 2010 I believe. I asked about the presence of the gas heater and she said the heat pump was using too much power and it was increasing the power bill. That is fine, I totally understand that and I am all for money saving measures. 

I refused to touch the gas heater. I would not go near it. I hate the things. If I was home alone and it was a cold night, I would rather go cold than use the heater. I would not touch the thing. The girl I lived with one night asked me about this and I told her I hate them and she tried to 'teach' me how to turn them off and on and how to get them to go, so I didn't have to be cold, but she didn't get it. It wasn't that I didn't know how to use them, it was that I wouldn't use it. I would rather be cold than go anywhere near a gas heater. 

Something happened to the gas heater and it stopped working. I have nothing to do with this, I swear! But I was glad when we had to get rid of it. I didn't even hide my glee at the thing being gone. Good riddance in my mind. I know the heaters are safer now than they were fifteen years ago, but every time I see one I am reminded of my two class mates, who happened to be twins, dying together in a fire. 

They entered this world together, and they left it together. 
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Copyright © All rights reserved. Under no circumstances are the stories, characters or settings to be re-produced in any way without the express permission of LauraDanielle. If you are seeing this story anywhere other than Stories Space then it has been copied without permission. No part of this story may be transmitted or reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopied, recording or otherwise without prior permission from LauraDanielle.

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