As I write this chapter, it is exactly one year since I got the call from my neighbor, while I was getting off the airplane, telling me there was a fire at my house and my son was on the way to the emergency room. My son Jacob and I had just been texting an hour or so earlier about my delayed flight. He planned to make a quick snack and then pick me up around 10:30 p.m. Instead, a small gas leak from the back of the stove triggered a fire when he turned on a burner. After trying to put out the rapidly-spreading fire and then yelling for the dogs (who were thankfully outside), Jacob ran to a neighbor to call the fire department. Four and a half minutes later, according to neighbor David, the fire engines arrived. A few minutes after that came the ambulances. In that short time, my kitchen was destroyed by fire and the rest of the house’s interior was destroyed by smoke. Shortly afterwards, the medics determined that Jacob needed to be taken to the emergency room. He was beginning to sound hoarse and incoherent from smoke inhalation. He protested, saying he needed to pick his mom up from the airport, but they were having none of it. The neighbors David and Marcia assured him that they’d contact me; David even followed Jacob to the hospital and waited for me to arrive.
Even now, a year later, I can get weepy just thinking about those first few days. For months before the fire, I had focused on house improvements in order to sell it. With two kids in college, I was ready to leave the big suburban house and find a smaller, empty-nester home closer to the city center. Everything was set to go. I left on a business trip, thinking that when I returned, I’d have just one day to clean up before the house went on sale. The best-laid plans and all . . . Seeing your unconscious son in an emergency room attached to all kinds of tubes changes your perspective pretty darn fast. We were lucky, though. Jacob had only minor physical injuries and the dogs were safe. The house eventually got rebuilt and sold quickly, albeit many months later than originally planned. I’m now two months into a new house in a new neighborhood. Over and out, right? Not so fast. No one who has gone through a catastrophe ever really forgets it. It’s never 100% over. The impact may lessen, at least I hope it does, but it changes you forever.
Jacob still suffers some post-traumatic stress. He gets panic attacks now and then and I get the late night phone calls. Once I even had to get him from his co-op and bring him home. Having the dogs play and sleep with him helped. He’s had a rough two years going through depression, then the fire, and now trying to readjust to student life. He’s making progress, but it’s slow-going. I’m sending him to Florida for a vacation to visit his sister and honorary aunt just to get away for a bit. Last year daughter Sarah had been away at college and missed the initial weeks of our post-fire life, so the experience did not impact her so much. She did suggest, however, that Jacob come visit her early, so he could see her campus and enjoy the end-of-year party. I suspect she knows that he needs some more fun in his life.
As for me, I can confidently confirm that the past year was the most stressful and difficult period of my life. Once we’ve reached our fifties, most of us have had some challenging times, and until the fire, I had thought that the autumn of 2000 couldn’t have been surpassed. Then, in the span of three months, I had dealt with a lying landlord who sold the condo (we had just moved into) out from under our feet, grieved the death of my father, discovered I was pregnant, bought my first house with the inheritance from my father, bade my Turkish husband farewell due to inhumane U.S. immigration laws (that required he return to his country of origin for two years despite being married to a U.S. citizen and having two stepchildren), and to top it off, had a miscarriage. Hard to beat that, right? I moved through life in a bit of a trance for months after that, but at least my children were fine and I didn’t have to worry about a roof over our heads.
The days immediately following a crisis are usually the hardest, and when you have to deal with insurance and contractors and hotels and rentals and reorganizing your life – more or less – those days become overwhelming. After the first few weeks of sympathy, friends and family go about their business, which is understandable, but the victim of a catastrophe lives with its challenges much, much longer. Just yesterday I sent in some final receipts to the insurance for some reimbursements, and today I ordered the last piece of furniture to replace one lost in the fire. It’s not that I procrastinated (well perhaps a little); it’s just that the time and effort and paperwork and bureaucracy that go into rebuilding your life are truly unbelievable.
Have I changed since the fire? Absolutely. When I go on a business trip, I find myself getting anxious about leaving home, especially leaving my son, who usually watches over it and the dogs. The sound of sirens and sight of fire trucks give me momentary fright even though I wasn’t at the fire when it happened. I pay very close attention to newscasts about local fires. I’ve had a few nightmares, too. And when I hear the sound of a text message or ring tone at night, my first impulse is to panic about my son’s well-being. But it’s not all bad. As hard as this year has been, it’s given me more perspective on life. Due to the wildfires in central Texas, many people lost their entire homes and all their possessions; some lost their beloved pets. One friend lost a son who suffered from depression to suicide. I consider myself fortunate. There have been silver linings and many small blessings over the past year. Colleagues and friends and family have been generous and kind, often in more ways than I expected. My son and I have grown closer. He knows without a doubt that I love him unconditionally and am there for him when he needs me to be. I’ve been more willing to change up my routines, interests, and preferences during the process of getting back to “normal.” At the beginning of 2011, I worried too much about money, my job, dating, my house, and more. Now . . . not so much. What a difference a year makes.