Tuesday, December 01, 2020

10 years ago: a fire


 Burned-out basement


A few days earlier, we had celebrated Thanksgiving with our cousin's family in NH. The fridge was still packed with leftovers. It was a Wednesday morning. 

We were woken up by the smoke alarms. Mostly asleep, I thought it was Neil's accursed pager, which I had been successfully ignoring for decades. The boys assumed it was their alarm clock. 

It was Neil who realized what was happening. He shouted for all of us to get out. The house was already filled with acrid smoke. 

We ran out the front door, barefoot, in our pajamas, taking nothing with us. An unearthly orange glow flashed over into conflagration in the basement. 

It was 5:30 am. December 1, 2010.

We were standing on the sidewalk, shivering in the cold, watching our house burn. 


In the days and weeks that followed, we were cared for and supported by friends, neighbors, community, and family. 

We were more than lucky: we all were unharmed. The dog got out with us. Anything we lost, could be replaced or we realized wasn't really needed. Our homeowners insurance was generous. The house would be rebuilt. 

Our tragedy, this crisis, was individual. Our community was intact and able to help us. The stress I experienced was intense, but it wasn't magnified by external circumstances. We spent nearly a year displaced and it became my job to be the emotional center for my family, the liaison to the insurance adjuster, and the general contractor for the rebuild. 

Of all three, the first was the most difficult. Our sons were in high school. The youngest a freshman, the oldest a senior. After a day together working on a temporary housing situation, my physician spouse returned to work. My work as a writer gave me flexibility that no one else had. And I made it my responsibility to create a normal for my family that they pretended actually existed.

I remember holding everything together. Looking in from the outside, no one would have known how fragile I was. How whenever I was alone in the car, I would sob so hard for a few minutes, that I couldn't hold the key steady enough to start the engine. 

How I would fall apart when I smelled wood smoke from our neighbors' fireplaces. How a distant siren would trigger a panic attack. How being in the burned house as we attempted to inventory our losses was a waking nightmare. 


Anxiety and I are fast friends. Or, rather, it's an enemy I am familiar with. It was my constant companion every day in the year that followed and it still stuck around even after we had returned home to a rebuilt house and our reinstated 'normal' lives. 


And in the years that followed, we experienced other traumas including the suicide attempt of a loved one, my mother's worsening dementia, my father's kidney disease and both of my parents' deaths. 


This year, 2020, is the year of Covid-19. The stress I have experienced has been somewhat familiar, despite the changing circumstances. If our house fire prepared me for anything, it was that we always live in uncertainty. We're just masters at lying to ourselves about it. Which doesn't mean I have any sort of acceptance. Just that I recognize the reality. We have been lucky: only 1 of our immediate family members has been ill from covid and it was, in retrospect, a mild case. In our distant/extended family, there are cases of long covid and deaths. 

We are all as safe as it is possible to be. I have been able to retreat to our farm. Our sons have been able to work fully remote (younger) and partially remote (older) and are both in stable living situations.  Neil is a front-line physician and is at most risk. I worry, not for his physical safety - he is scrupulous about PPE and his hospital hasn't had the same shortages as others - but his emotional safety. 

The past year has aged him. While he's been able to join me at the farm on his off-call weekends, it seems to take longer for him to relax and less and less time for his stress to ramp up once he is back at the hospital. In many ways, he and his colleagues are fighting a war, but it's mostly an invisible one that too many 'civilians' refuse to acknowledge. 


I'm not going to go on a harangue about covid deniers here - anything I can say has already been said by voices with a far more powerful reach than mine. What I want to focus on is how tragedies - personal and shared - shape and change us. 

I am not the same person I was before December 1, 2010. I will never be that person again. I came too close to losing the people I care most about in the universe and for good and for ill, that fear drove me in the years that followed. It is too easy to take our blessings for granted. We think our loved ones know how we feel and so telling them and showing them isn't necessary. That is bullshit. I know how quickly tragedy can strike and change everything. So I don't hold back my love. I am not afraid to be 'mushy'. Not to family or friends. 

Things are far less important. Yes, I love handmade items and art and soft clothing, but I have learned to enjoy them, not cling to them. There is a difference between surrounding yourself in beauty and being trapped by material possessions. 

I have learned to be grateful for the smallest of things: they way my dogs pile in bed on a cold morning to share their warmth. The marvel of the full moon on snow. The absolute miracle of a hard bud transforming into a peach. The brush of Neil's hand across mine. A terrible pun sent in a text message from the boys. Baking a loaf of sourdough and leaving it on a neighbor's doorstep. An email from a friend out of the blue. 


This year, the fear and the uncertainty is shared all across the world. Unlike our personal trauma 10 years ago, there is no community unscathed, available to lend its support. We are all reeling. 


If I could go back 10 years and offer comfort to myself, I would say this: You are struggling. Your feelings are real. Just because you and your loved ones are safe doesn't mean you didn't experience loss or that your trauma isn't valid. Suffering isn't a competition. Even though it feels like this will never end, it will. But you will be changed. There is a grace both in being able to offer support and accept it. You are loved. 


To those of you who are coping now, in the midst of this crisis, remember: You are struggling. Your feelings are real. Just because you and your loved ones are safe doesn't mean you aren't dealing with  loss or that your trauma isn't valid. Suffering isn't a competition. Even though it feels like this will never end, it will. But you will be changed. There is a grace both in being able to offer support and accept it. You are loved.

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