I have been trying to write about this for a while now. There are a lot of emotions attached to this experience, there’s a lot of pain and hurt and guilt and all the things I’ve written about thus far. They are the things that take time to work through, the things you have to process, and work at and knead out of your life.
There are other things attached to this too. There is beauty and joy and there is thankfulness and there are miracles. Today I write this on a brand new MacBook Pro that we purchased at a deep discount thanks to a good friend, my lap is covered with a quilt that was given to us, I’m sitting on an exact replica of our brand new couch that we lost in the fire that was given to us for free by the company who made it, no questions asked. I’m wearing clothes I truly love, that were donated to us. The totally-my-style rug beneath my feet, given to me. The puppy who has brought us so much joy, given to us.
The few items that were recovered from our home that currently surround me; the casting of my mother’s hand holding my daughters, the original star wars promotional posters we got at an estate sale for $4 years and years ago, a portrait from our wedding, a tiny framed drawing that was my grandfather’s, my daughter’s two favorite stuffed animals, the quilt my mom sewed from my late grandmother’s clothes…these are the items I would have tried to save if I’d had the chance. These items somehow survived a fire that left most of our house in a state of ash, rubble and smoke stained mess.
When your house burns down, you lose a lot of things. People will look at you and say, “they are only things, at least you still have each other”. And while, yes this is true, each thing holds in itself a part of who you are. They hold memory and love and emotion. You mourn the loss of things, and celebrate the recovery of things that by all intents and purposes SHOULD be lost.
Then there are things that are still just things, but they are things you NEED, like a driver’s license, or your birth certificates or your passport. Like the adult, functioning member of society things and these things are really a pain in the butt to replace. For example we’ll be making a trip to Maryland because as far as I can tell you have to be physically present to get a copy of your birth certificate, way to be born in Maryland Bill.
The day after the fire we went in the house. It was a Saturday and we had a lot of friends and family there to help. My and I dad, donned with boots, rubber gloves, a respirator and a shovel entered what was left of my office. “Where were things in here?” he asked me. I walked him through the room.
“This is where the window was, where the candle was, below it was my desk. On the desk was a mac desktop and laptop. Under the desk were two additional mac laptops as well as three external hard drives.” I pointed and walked the rubble as if the things were still there, I could see a ghost image of them in my head. I pictured where each thing was, I remembered closing my computer and grabbing my purse off the desk before I left, before it all burned. “Ok, where was your file cabinet?” His question shook me. I rotated my body to the right, and did a air traffic controler style wave of where it used to be, and the book shelf next to it. I stared blankly at the space where things were. “You should go, I’m going to start digging.”
A while later, I don’t know how long it had been because everything went so fast but at the same time took an eternity those first few days after it happened, my dad said, “I need you.” We walked out onto the driveway. “Do you have any idea what this is? It made such a loud thud when the shovel hit it, I thought it might be a computer.”
I looked at the melted mass, about two feet tall, maybe, burned and matted. The black ooze on top looked reminiscent of something, it was my printer, which had been sitting on top of the filing cabinet. The cabinet was one of those three drawer plastic cabinets, I’d had it since my freshman year of college. All of it had melted down into this two foot- square-ish heap. “It’s my filing cabinet, or it was.”
My dad sent me away again while he broke the mass open to see what was left inside. I went back into the house to help the salvage folks, to dig through the rubble, to scavenge my own house.
He called me over again, and inside the cut open mass he pulled out a stack of file folders. They were soaked, smelled of smoke, and were burned on the edges, but they were there. They had survived two feet from where the fire had started, in a room that didn’t exist anymore, next to a bookshelf that had been stacked full of books which ceased to exist in any way shape or form. This stack of mangled paper files had survived under 12 inches of ash and debris.
For the next few hours friends and family slowly peeled open every single wet file folder, pulling back each delicate page with caution and care, and laying them out to dry in our front yard. Slowly over the next few hours we uncovered things that should not exist. There was a stack of savings bonds my grandfather had given me the first few years of my life, wet, smelly, but completely untouched by fire. Xerox copies of our passports (which proved useful when we finally were able to get them replaced). Then my friend pulled out the most amazing thing of all, a sheet of paper from the hospital, where my daughter was born, with her footprints on it, burnt on the edges, but existing. Within an hour every car in the driveway and the yard were littered with pieces of our lives, laid out in front of the universe to dry, screaming, “look at us, we survived!”
These things survived the epicenter of the fire. These things made of paper survived in a room where not a shred of furniture exists, where the walls and ceiling and roof are gone. These things survived because I truly believe God placed his hand on them and said, “these things will not burn.”
I was talking to a fireman and he said you wouldn’t believe how many completely in tact bibles and crosses they pull out of the rubble. There’s something special about this.
I write all this not to try to make people believe in God. Not to convince you of one thing or another, but to say, among the worst and saddest tragedy there is beauty and joy and miracles if you are willing to see it. And if you can see it, if you can step outside of the loss and tragedy, that joy and that beauty and those miracles can pull you through, even if it is just to the next five minutes.
I’m also here to say that sometimes it’s really really hard to see the joy. It’s hard when a month after you lose everything, you throw a birthday party for your daughter at a kind friend’s house. And you know in your heart that that party was supposed to be at your own house. You know that the invitations you had so lovingly designed and had printed in the exact theme she requested, the ones that arrived by UPS just as the firefighters were leaving you that day, had a different address.
You go and you rebuy all the decorations and plates and cups you had just bought, that now sit covered in smoke and soot in what used to be your home. In your heart, during the party, you know all of this. But you hold it together, because it’s your daughter’s birthday party.
But after the party, which was a smashing success despite the circumstances, after the guests have left, you load your yellow cooler into your mother’s van. This yellow cooler survived the fire, it was taken by the salvage company and cleaned and returned to you in the first round of deliveries of what was left of that life you had. You go to place the yellow cooler in the van and in that moment anger and rage rises up within you. Instead, you throw it with all your might across the lawn and break down in tears. You do this because this fucking yellow cooler survived and on that day you had to burry your dog of 10 years. That cooler survived but your dog, a family member, did not. And on top of it, you truly believe you caused it.
Sometimes it’s really really hard to see the joy. Sometimes it’s ok to only see the pain and hurt and loss.
Yet, however hard it is to see the joy and beauty, especially in those moments of pain and loss and hurt, it is still there. It remains. And if you open your heart, and crawl out from the despair and guilt and just gunk that you spend a lot of time in most days, you can see it and it propels you forward towards a place of thanks, and love, and forgiveness.