What I Share with Sandy's Victims

Watching those left in Sandy's wake prompts memories of a long-ago fire and its simple lesson.

by Donna Lewis • More.com Member { View Profile }

I've been pretty obsessed with New Jersey and New York these past weeks, trying to help send money and other necessities up there to areas I know are in great need. I have friends who had no power until the last day or so. Some others still don't have power. That's hard. Especially in the cold weather. I hope and pray that they are getting the assistance they need.  

I live in an area of D.C. where the trees have historically come down pretty fast, and we've lost power almost immediately. During Sandy, I was at home waiting for a tree to come through the roof or window. I had a back-up power battery ready for when the lights went out.

But we never lost power, and my part of the neighborhood suffered no destruction. I was shocked and immensely grateful. I really think we got saved this time. I'm not sure why we were spared, but I am so ridiculously grateful. 

I can't imagine what it's like to lose a whole neighborhood or town or community. I hope I never have to experience it.

The closest I've come to a loss of such magnitude was in 1983 when my apartment building burned down to the ground in a seven-alarm fire. I was living and working in Baltimore at the time, and it was two days before New Years. I was working evening shift at the time (in a psychiatric hospital) and had gone out dancing with colleagues after work. I came home in the early hours of the morning to find my street blocked off and lots of noise. I remember just a few things about that night/morning.

It was freezing. I remember that. I remember being freezing for days and being unable to shake the waves of chills. In fact, reports of the fire indicated that below-freezing temperatures created problems for the fire department. I remember leaving my car parked near the barricade and walking down the street without a coat toward the fire, shivering uncontrollably. I didn't know what to do or who to talk to. This was way before cell phones and email. Everyone I knew was at home asleep or out of town for the holidays. Luckily, most of my neighbors were gone for the holidays so there were no fatalities.

I remember being taken to a residential home across the street from the fire where I sat for I don't know how long. There was nothing to do. The building was burning down, and there really was just nothing to do. I may have been there for minutes or hours. I'm not sure. But at some point, I left in a daze. I remember walking back to my car wondering where I should go.

My parents and baby brother were out of town, due back the next day. I could have gone to my parents' house, but I remember thinking that I should let someone know. I called my mother's sister, and she instructed me to come right over. I remember her offering me something to help me sleep, which, at the time, I thought was an awful gesture. I was very prudish about drugs and couldn't believe that someone would offer me any.

I know, I know. But really, I was very prudish about things like that and so judgmental back then. I was working in a mental institution where way too many patients had self-medicated. I was pretty high and mighty about drugs. But, not to worry, my dear Aunt Suzy, these days I would absolutely take anything I was offered legally. 

Just sayin'.

The next day I drove to my parents’ house, which was about 15 minutes away. I waited for them to pull the car up in front of the house, literally pacing back and forth between the kitchen table and the front window, where I would look obsessively up the street for any sign of their car. 

I remember I was smoking, which was something I generally would never do in front of my family. But I recall thinking that smoking was probably okay the day after everything you own is destroyed. 

My parents finally pulled up in front of the house with my baby brother in tow. I was 21 at the time. My brother would have been 11. My parents got out of the car as I walked out of the front door. I must have looked less than good because my mother looked directly at me and said, “go back in the house and tell us in there.”

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