The odd thing about the fire that destroyed my home and all my possessions one year ago today is that when I remember it, I see myself in the third person.
I’m wearing my big navy blue stretch-waist shorts and my oversized, scrubs-channeling light blue shirt, and I’m very annoyed that a loud bang has awakened me from my two or so hours of sleep. It’s the weekend, so I don’t have anywhere to be in the morning, but I’ve always been fond of sleeping and disliked having it interrupted.
So I storm out of the first bedroom Sean and I shared as husband and wife, round the corner to the left and head towards the living room. The noise sounded like it came from outside; I’m assuming for some sleep-addled reason that the air conditioner exploded, and I’m headed for the deck to take a look at it.
Except when I get beyond the entrance hall, I see that the deck is ablaze. And more than that, I see that the flames are licking their way in through an apparently nonexistent deck door.
I’ve thought back to what I did next a million times. A million times I’ve asked myself why I didn’t quickly run to the office and try to grab my purse, camera, and maybe even my computer, which contained nearly all of my memories–or why I didn’t grab my beautiful tea set that I got at Hirashimizu Pottery near Yamagata, since it was right there on the table, or why I didn’t at least pull the scroll with my host sister’s beautiful, award-winning calligraphy–a Chinese poem about spring–off the dining room wall, because that is irreplaceable.
And then I think why, when I ran back to the bedroom shouting at Sean to get his phone and get out of the apartment, didn’t I think to get some clothes from the closet. At least some shoes. A bra would have been nice, so the next day when we woke up at Sean’s parents’ house and realized we had nothing, I could have at least gone out and gotten us something else to wear, rather than sending his parents on that errand.
But danger does strange things to a person. I didn’t think to grab any of that–or my personal documents, my photos, my yearbooks, my scrapbooks, my diaries. And Sean took me literally when I said “Grab your phone”–he left his sunglasses, wallet, wedding ring, pocket knife, and high school class ring all sitting on the battered nightstand that used to be my TV table back in Kentucky.
He did, however, have the presence of mind to pull the fire alarm and to think about putting the fire out. And so while I was concentrating on getting out, he was searching for a hose and finding a fire extinguisher. I didn’t know this, so when I was two flights down and he wasn’t with me and I turned back to see him heading back into the now smoke-filled apartment, I screamed at him, “Get out of there! Get out of there!”
Seeing that there was nothing he could do with all that smoke, he got out of there.
Barefoot, we stood out front, unable to see anything. A few neighbors had gathered, and a fire truck came. Sean left the fire extinguisher next to the fire hydrant and we walked around the building to see what it looked like from the back. We called our parents on our soon-to-be-useless-without-battery-chargers cell phones while we watched our home be decimated by flames.
It was horribly beautiful…and there was the sweet smell of burning wood, which to this day makes me paranoid, takes me back to standing on the other side of the pond and watching my deck collapse onto the decks below it. The fire moved so fast, gutting the living room, eating the roof, and it was then that I first realized that I might have had time to save something. The grass beneath my feet was a cold reminder of my lack of foresight.
Honeymoon pictures, gone. Any photos not on smugmug, gone. All my writing, gone. My thousand-dollar Star Wars collection, gone. All my sweet little souvenirs from Japan, gone. My books–all my books!–gone.
The first shirt I ever bought for Sean, gone. My wedding dress, gone. My childhood dresser, gone. Grandma’s hope chest, gone. My crocheted afghan from Aunt Sally, gone. My beautiful dining room set from Aunt Bev, gone. The Kitchenaid mixer I’d used throughout my teen years, gone. The old mixing bowl from the mixer I’d used through my childhood, gone.
Mom’s beautiful wrought-iron cookbook stand, gone. My huge collection of dishes, gone. The first and only TV I’d ever owned, that Dad had bought me as a surprise one summer, gone. The only copies of film photos from high school, gone. My first matching comforter, pillow sham, and window valance from my childhood bedroom, gone.
Sean’s saxophone, gone. His vintage Nintendo, in pristine condition, gone. His rare artbooks, which we may never find again, gone. Our limited-edition collector’s sets–two of them!–of Macross, gone. The handsome metal briefcase of tools his parents had given him one Christmas, gone. His expensive model kits, which had never even been assembled, gone.
My records from the hospital, and the cute little bean bag doggie Pat and Wolf gave me to cheer me up while I was there, gone. My first porcelain unicorn, which spawned a massive collection during my preteen years, gone.
The seashells my mom’s best friend collected on various beaches, gone. I always admired how she loved culture and travel, and after she passed away I ended up not only with those shells, but with some paintings she’d collected. Gone.
The laptop I’d taken to Japan twice, which still held on its hard drive a reaction essay Sean had never posted anywhere, gone. The video I’d made of myself and my family and never sent to my first best friend Noelle, gone. My collection of fortune cookie fortunes, gone. The book of high school memories I’d painstakingly assembled, gone.
Mom’s old breadbox, gone. My childhood desk, gone. All the silly hats I wore when I was bald, gone. The faux-Tiffany lamp Ben gave me, gone. The beautiful living room furniture from Sean’s Mema, gone. The little glass box with the silk flower in it that I’d admired as a child and which Grandma had given to me when I moved to Georgia, gone.
My tins of expensive green tea, gone. My hatbox full of letters and cards and notes passed in class, dating back to middle school, gone. Our marriage license, gone. The goblets we used at our wedding reception, gone. The cute picture frame given to us by the nice people at Augusta Golf and Gardens, where we got married, gone.
Our first home, gone.
It still hurts. It hurts to lose those reminders of happy memories, those fragments of the lives we’ve led. Human memory is fragile and fallible. I used to go through my old diaries and videos and learn things I’d already forgotten about myself. I won’t have that opportunity ever again.
And yet, things have changed so much in just one year. I’ve found work that is fulfilling on so many levels it’s astounding. Through careful saving and the amazing generosity of our loved ones, we’ve made a new home for ourselves. Now we’re surrounded by things that remind us just how lucky we are.
We’ve had other hardships. Sean was in a car accident that totalled his Corolla, and my car’s brakes went completely out on me while I was driving home one evening. But Sean got a nice, newer car and I’m on the road to getting a brand new one, and in the meantime my brakes have been fixed and are working beautifully. And Sean’s contract at work is up, so now he has to find something else…but we’re viewing this as an opportunity for him to find something great.
Despite everything that’s happened to us in the past year, I still believe we’re lucky. We’re lucky first of all to have been born in a country where we can live how we choose and make our own way and be confident that we’ll have luxuries like electricity and running water. Where two people can afford to own two cars. Where there are so many things to see and do and learn, and if a door closes, there are open windows all over the place. If you have to go through hardship, I recommend doing it in America.
And we’re so lucky to have so many people who love us. It has been amazing this year to be the recipients of so much kindness. It’s wonderful to feel so connected to people, near and far, and to know that the idea of community, of family, hasn’t died, despite of the isolated lives we lead.
There will be more suffering. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but pain is a guarantee.
But so is love, and happiness, and kindness, and truth, and opportunity, and adventure.
I’m excited to see what’s next.