Two years ago, on May 17, our lives changed abruptly. It was 8 a.m. on a pastel Spring Sunday morning; my husband was on his way to work in New York City; our daughter, a high school senior, and son, a college sophomore recently returned home, were zonked out in their rooms. I’d fed the dogs and cats, and settled comfortably into the chair at my desk in my upstairs office with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of joe to catch up on a few things before church.
Something smelled strange. Did the neighbors have a fire in their fireplace? It seemed early in the morning and late in the season. I opened the window, then walked the hall; nothing suspicious.
Three minutes later, the smell of burning. I walked the hall again. This time, there was thick black smoke pouring out of a vent by the stairs. The fire alarms went off.
“Fire!” I said, pounding on each of the kids’ bedroom doors. “Fire! Get up, get out!”
That’s when I discovered you actually can get teenagers out of bed immediately at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.
We leashed the dogs and shooed the cats out and my daughter grabbed her hamster. I scanned the house for any other living beings; within three minutes, smoke had become so intense you could barely see your hand in front of your face.
Rhetorical Question: What would you save in the event of a fire?
Actual Answer: Your family. The rest is commentary.
The volunteer fire department arrived quickly. We live in a large town but a small community; as the address went out over the emergency band, the kids’ phones lit up. Our street threw an impromptu “come as you are” early Sunday block party.
Those first hours are a blur. Eventually,the neighbors went home, the firefighters and police packed up and the ambulance was dismissed. Newly homeless, I called the 800 number of our insurance company. They couldn’t find us without the policy number, which was…in the house. I hung up and called back. This time the agent found the policy, took my name and phone number and said someone would get back to me by Tuesday. Seriously? What did we do until Tuesday? How did I even begin?
Then our neighbor Trish called our local agent, and, like a good neighbor, within the hour, Bonni Oswald, was there. It was clear a) she was a truly caring person, and b) this wasn’t her first fire-demolished rodeo. She contacted the company for us, and the necessary folks started rolling in. The Loss Unit turned us over to the Large Loss Unit. Bonni gave us cash for immediate needs and instructions for us to rent somewhere to stay and charge it to State Farm.
All of this happened when I was in Adrenaline Mode. I couldn’t process the fact that many of my Earthly possessions had gone to heaven before me or that our cats were out in the coyote-infested wild or that I didn’t live on my street any more. I was focused on the knowledge that, as a parent, it was my duty to keep my family and other dependents housed, fed and safe. Those first days, nothing else really mattered.
Even while charting the map through New Normal, as the size of the loss and complexity of rebuilding our lives became clearer, there began to be glimpses of gold nuggets amongst the ore. I decided the only way through would be to grab onto the positive, to keep watch for things we’d eventually gain in the fire. Here are six long-term positives that came out of one massive negative–and I suspect they’re the same for many types of adversity.
Resilience. The week after the fire, a national magazine had a cover piece on the psychology of resilience. Dr. Philip Keller, one of the field’s leading researchers, explained that a key elements of a psyche that can bounce back is a history of hard times. Facing challenges and difficulties is the only way to learn to flex and strengthen the “meeting challenges” muscle. People who have an easy life are those who sink when faced with catastrophe. Dr. Keller believes this to the extent that he felt, as a father, it was his duty to teach his offspring to face life-threatening challenges. As a result, when each child turned 18, he took them on a life-threatening adventure, to fight their way out of the Amazon jungle or up and down an oxygen-deprived mountain peak. What his children had in common, upon returning home alive, was two-fold. The progeny now knew they could survive almost anything—losing that job interview wasn’t that big a deal—and, each told their father they never wanted to speak to him again. Lucky me! Our family was facing a true life challenge and it wasn’t my fault! We could face this ultimate challenge together, and the kids didn’t have to hate me for putting them through it.
Identity. It’s funny, how much of our identity has to do with this is where I live, this is my stuff; my grandmother’s rock collection, my mother’s beloved Lladro angels, the ribbon I won at the 3rd grade science fair. Each reflects a time and place, a series of choices and experiences. When they’re gone, who are you? With the exception of my children’s first two years, we had always lived in this house. Now, when the kids came home, we lived somewhere temporary. And it was okay—good, even. It proved that we were a family no matter where we were. I was a writer even without my office or my books or papers. I found I had to write, to remain sane. In fact, the things that were authentic held fast and proved to be strong and deep. And we put up a sign in the foyer: Life takes you to unexpected places. Love always brings you home.
Endurance. Anyone who faces a disaster quickly discovers that there is a community of people who dwell daily in the detritus of your particular catastrophe. While it is new and abrupt for you, it is their same-old-same-old. We were fortunate to have good insurance. It didn’t bring anything back, but the house was immediately taken over by people who knew what they were doing. One thing they were doing was making an inventory and packing up every.single.thing.in.the.house, at which point our lives became a two-year journey along the Drowning in Paper Trail..
When you move on purpose, you have a chance to choose what to take and what to get rid of. We had no such opportunity. They cataloged everything. And, once this was done, things that had survived the fire—non-working light bulbs, VHS tapes, junk in the junk drawer—were packed into hundreds of the nearest boxes and put into storage. (A month after we moved back, I unpacked a box containing my half-eaten bowl of oatmeal, spoon cemented to its contents for eternity.)
Then a list of things that did not survive the fire, 3,000 of them, from Mario Kart game cartridge to living room sofa—were presented to us in a grid. I was to go through these items and give the insurance company the price for which they were purchased, at any time during the last 30 years.
It became a year of slogging. Not only through unending paper work, but of phone calls and meetings and signing off on a million things. Usually, when you redo a room, say, your kitchen, you have happy months of planning and choosing. When you have to do every room at once, and instantly, it’s not the same joie de vivre. Also, the house had to be brought up to current code—no grandfathering in! That meant, among other things, a brand new $10,000 egress from the basement.
Even with a contractor we trusted and insurance adjusters who were on our side, It was never-ending. (And TiVo, stop charging us for service to an empty house and melted machines. This is my fifth call! Stop it!) Meanwhile, none of my other obligations had gone away. Prioritizing was key, and keeping on keeping on, even when it felt like another day of chewing Kleenex, was absolutely necessary. When life becomes a marathon and you have no choice but to run it, you find an endurance you never knew you had.
Letting go. My hardest day of clean-up at the house was when we found a boxed wedding gown in the basement, and it was so badly burned that I couldn’t tell if it was mine or my mother’s. It was tangible proof that the past had been taken, forcibly, and the physical proof of it was gone. Somehow, the fact that we lost so many things, that their discovery was unrelenting, on a daily basis, made it a dwelling place with which I was familiar, and eventually, comfortable. I recognized a stark demarcation between people and things.
There also became an obvious choice between holding on and mourning each thing, making life a continual pit of quicksand, or, (as was popular at the time), thanking each thing for its service and continuing on. Until I was shopping on Thanksgiving weekend with my then-college freshman daughter, and she said, “So we’ve lost all our Christmas ornaments—even the ones Jonathan and I made when we were little?” Somehow, that did it. I became the unhinged woman sobbing in the lighting aisle of Lowe’s.
But there was also a different, deeper, process of letting go that was triggered by the fire. I was doing fine, hitting my marks, doing what needed to be done, keeping it together—and suddenly, driving alone in the middle of a Tuesday, I couldn’t breathe. Could pull no oxygen into my system. I had to steer onto the shoulder and turn off the engine. The second time this happened, I realized what was going on. My subconscious was coming to grips with the fact that any control I thought I had over my life was an illusion. We are all going to die, it could be in 50 years, it could be in thirty seconds. Worse, our loved ones will die. We’re all one phone call away from disaster, one bowl of oatmeal and smell of smoke from our lives becoming something completely else. And there’s not a damn thing to do about it, except acknowledge it and come to terms. The funny thing is, once I was freed from trying to control my life, I was able to dwell much more spontaneously in, and be more appreciative of, the moment at hand.
Gratitude. Once you’ve had a catastrophe, it becomes open season for everyone else’s horror stories. You hear of people who lost loved ones or pets in their fire, of people who had no insurance and lost everything, of people who had insurance that would only repaint the puce wall puce and replace a 23-year-old red fringe chair with an identical 23-year-old red fringe chair. We’re grateful that State Farm (who has now dropped us, by the way) wanted what our mortgage holder wanted: the dwelling to be worth as much or more than it had been, pre-fire. It could have been so much worse. Even our cat Crystal, who was so freaked out by the fire and all the subsequent strangers that she ran away, was eventually caught in a Have-A-Heart trap and is now back, calm and happy, in the bosom of the family.
Shortly after my Great Lowe’s Meltdown, I went onto Facebook and asked any family and friends who might be inclined to send us a Christmas tree ornament that would, in some way, remind us of them. The response was overwhelming. We got ornaments from all over the U.S., as well as overseas. The ornaments came from people who celebrated Christmas, and those who did not. Our children’s first nanny sent ornaments made from photos of the children in their first years. One friend of my daughter’s, only home from college and in town for an hour, spent much of that time running into our house, hanging an ornament on the tree, and running back out.
Now our tree has come to have a wonderful, happy new meaning for us each December, as it is a virtual hug from friends and loved ones, far and near. We are grateful for each and every one. The ornaments stand for everyone who helped us through the hard time, from the fire fighters, to the insurance adjusters, to the neighbors, to the people who worked at the utilities, plumbers, painters, drywallers. There are many good people in this world.
Fresh start. Now, two years beyond the fire, we can be profoundly grateful for the fresh start the fire gave us. Neighbors whose kids have grown are having to update their homes for sale. Ours is completely updated! Kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, wiring, plumbing, you name it! We have that double oven I always wanted and the gourmet cooktop my husband lusted after. The basement is large and light and legal. The paint is not puce. All the stuff we’d saved for decades, and would have to go through someday? Gone. (Well, except for one garage bay. And if you’re interested in half price Lladros or Hummels, let me know.)
Mostly, oddly, I have let go of even the things we still have. I know I could walk out the front door of our beloved house, leaving everything but living beings behind, and be okay. It’s nice to use this stuff, but it no longer defines who I am. That kind of makes every day a fresh start. And I am grateful.