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.
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.”
My poor mother. She must have thought someone was sick or had died. I'm pretty sure she didn't expect the news of a building burnt down. My parents reacted the way I now understand they will always react. They were relieved that nobody was sick or dead. To my parents, anything short of that is just not worth being upset over. It's a good quality and a bad quality. Sometimes, when bad things happen, you need people to say things like, "Oh My God, I can't believe it" or "I don't know how you'll go on."
My parents would never say anything like that. Their opinion is that of course you'll go on since you really have no choice.
I can't describe how empty I felt that day and for the next weeks ahead. I had nothing. There was nothing left of my things or my routine or my life. I felt very tired, like I just didn't know what to do next.
My parents gave me a credit card and told me to go shopping. I'm sure that sounds great, but it's awful. It is almost impossible to build a wardrobe from scratch. It's depressing. I remember buying a few pairs of corduroy pants, a few tops and boots and that was what I had. That was pretty much all I had for quite some time. In a way, it was easier to have very little than to make decisions about what a new life should look like. If I could go back, I would tell my 21-year-old self that there's never a rush to make your life look like something. Just keep moving forward and your life will emerge.
Oddly enough, it was probably my brother who was most affected. A day or two after the fire, my parents and brother went to see the damage. I don't remember going, but I must have at some point because I have memories of thinking how little is left after a fire. It was quite a large building of several stories and yet, after the fire, there was very little on the burnt ground. I'll have to ask my brother. He'll remember.
My brother came home from the visit very sad. He had been looking for my “diaries” — although by that point in my life I had journals. He believed that I would be most upset about losing my writing. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I would probably have looked for my jewelry first. The good thing about writing is that you can always write more. And, for me at that age, re-reading old writing wasn't that enjoyable. I had been a moody and depressed teen. My writing was not exactly a fun read. To this day, I believe that my brother has a hair clip of mine that he found smoldering in the ashes. That one gesture made me love him more than I had already loved him, which was a pretty huge amount.
I moved very soon after the fire to an apartment building located a mile from the fire. The apartment was completely empty except for a sofa and an old television my aunt had given to me. I think the sofa was probably hers too. I don't remember. The closet was empty except for a few hangers that held my tiny new wardrobe. Eventually, someone gave me an old bed and I bought a sofa. I remember that the apartment had an echo from being so empty.
It's hard for me to think about the fire or the first week after the fire. The pain was indescribable. I recall feeling like I would just melt into the ground. I couldn't imagine what I would do about anything and was paralyzed with emptiness.
But here's the weird thing.
Within a few weeks, I was enjoying my new freedom. I had very few possessions, and I liked it. I liked that my world really just revolved around me. I liked the simplicity.
It's very hard to think about what life would have been like without the fire. I don't know how long I would have stayed in that building or whether I would have ever met my best friend, who I met a few years later. Maybe every single thing in my life would have been different. I don't know.
What I do know is that possessions mean very little to me these days. Now don’t think I’m saying I don't like my stuff. I do like my stuff. In fact, I LOVE my stuff.
But I'd be fine without my stuff. Stuff can be replaced. Even the sentimental stuff can be replaced. The stuff is actually much less of you and your life than you think it is. But it seems like a big deal when you're scared to death of losing it.
Just so you know, I am not the type to say "one day you'll be glad this happened."
I am not glad that there was a fire.
But it was a lifetime (or three) ago and, for whatever reason, what came out of it was almost all good. There was very little bad that came out of it, except for an expensive 1984 when I replaced clothes and books.
There's really no point to this essay. I have no words of wisdom — especially not for any Sandy victims who have lost much more than their belongings. I only know that every day you're alive is a day you should try to keep moving forward. Backward isn't good and stagnant gets dull.
How's that for some valuable insight?