When I was nearly four, our home burned to the ground. It is one of my earliest memories. We were at church when my uncle appeared to tell us the news. Red-faced and sweaty in his denim overalls, he made his way up the aisle, a stark contrast to the congregants clad in their Sunday best. I watched the interruption ripple through the rows, heads swivelling and mouths falling open.
When we pulled up to the house, I could see directly into the second story bedroom my sister and I shared. Daylight intruded into the room and I recall feeling a sense of exposure that all the world could see into our private space. And yet, the graceful, hand-carved frame of our bed stood unscathed, the white comforter pristine amidst the charr and ruin that surrounded it. It looked like a painting, an intensional juxtaposition of beauty and ruin.
Once the rubble had cooled, my mother was given permission to sift through and see what remained.The walls and windows of our living room had simply disintegrated. I imagined Cinderella’s fairy godmother waving a wand around, disappearing each object with a flick of the wrist. It is difficult for a three year-old to understand the combustible consumption of atoms and molecules, matter suddenly ceasing to exist.
The middle of the house was a sopping heap of unrecognizable lumps, but underneath, various trinkets, a few photo albums even, remained intact. I was fascinated by the items that survived, as though through some sheer force of defiance, they refused to submit to the wreckage. My mother allowed me to accompany her to the basement. I held her hand as we walked down the stairs, open sky where the kitchen ceiling had once stood. My hands were black with soot and soon, my clothes. I watched my mother’s face, unsure of how I was meant to feel. She cried constantly but let out little exclamations of joy each time she found something salvageable, smiles through tears. It was the saddest treasure hunt I had ever played at.
Six weeks later, there was a second fire. We had moved into the apartment below my step-dad’s health clinic. It was a beautiful building situated on family property and overlooking the lake his father had dug years prior. The Montessori pre-school I attended was in the same building. It was during circle time that one of my classmates first noticed smoke. We were instructed to walk outside, calmly, and to hold hands so that no one was left behind. My infant brother was asleep in the back room, fumes pouring through the vent above his crib. My mother did not walk calmly. She did not hold hands. She frantically scooped him up and fled.
I sat on the porch of my grandmother’s house and watched as the first of the flames escaped the roof. Fire trucks swarmed in and worked to douse the blaze. It was extinguished quickly with little damage. But that night, it rekindled and the place burned to the ground.
Six weeks after the second fire, a third occurred, this time claiming the lives of the one-year old son and fifteen-year old sister of a family friend. The events left such an indelible mark that each May, as the weather begins to grow warm, I wake in a sweat from dreams of shadowy smoke and infant cries. I inevitably spend the days following sifting through the rubble of my memories as my mother sifted through the rubble of our homes
I was not there the night our friend lost her son and sister. And yet, my childhood memory intertwines all three events, connects them as one singular moment. All three fires were intentionally set, a complicated part of our family’s history that is difficult to understand (and that I begin to parse in my novel). It would be years before I understood what arson meant or that someone I knew and loved could cause such destruction.
What I did begin to understand, even at three, was the impermanence of life, the inevitably of loss. Those were not isolated moments of loss, nor were they the only instance when my home and security disappeared in the blink of an eye. Because trauma often begets trauma. By the time I was 18, I had lived in 14 different houses.
Still, each one felt like home. For that, I am grateful.
I started to recall this story in writing a Christmas card to my step-mother. I wanted to tell her how I felt my life had burned to the ground this year. How every ounce of stability and security had gone up in flames since January 27. How I had been sifting through the rubble. How I had found that the things remaining, the intangible things, like my daughter and my friends, the family members who have drawn closer, are the only things I cared to keep anyway.
I thought it would wreck me, this latest loss. I thought it would take the last of my reserves and that I wouldn’t have anything left to keep fighting with. I thought of how the years prior… all of them… had been a long and relentless fight for progress, a fight to dismantle the trauma and the grief and the insecurity, and that though the fight had often yielded joy, and even peace, it was always so incredibly hard. I thought, too, that there might not be any point in trying anymore, that always, inevitably, the road would lead to sorrow, and I understood how one could simply lie down on a street corner at night and go to sleep and expect that this, simply, is the best that life might offer.
I thought perhaps I had been forsaken.
But those were just thoughts, the unbidden stream that trickles through the midnight hours when the weariness tugs one into the darkness. Above, and unyielding, was the knowledge that I was not fighting for just my own life, but for the life of my daughter. For the right to create something different than what I had known. And even further above that was the knowledge that I am not alone.
When I became a parent, the idea of home became an obsession to me. I was determined that my child would belong to a location, to a community, to a people. That she would have home. I understand now that I was trying to insure myself against loss. I was trying to insure her life against loss. But in doing so, I limited myself. I tied myself to the picture of what I thought life should be and often missed the joy of what actually was.
My life has been burned to the ground. And so, I begin again with a new picture, not a picture of what should be, but a picture of what can be. And more importantly, a picture of what is.
Two weeks ago we moved into a new house. It is meant to be temporary, a six month lease to buy some time. About half our belongings are still in storage. But to be honest, I don’t really know what’s in the boxes we left behind. And to be really honest, I don’t care. It’s as though I was able to pick out the things that truly matter and let go of all the rest. I have such a profound sense of home, such a deep sense of joy at having my daughter and our pets back under the same roof, that those things no longer hold value to me. Maybe we’ll be here six months or maybe we’ll be here six years. What I have is today.
Good things are coming. But this, in itself, is the good. Getting up in the morning and making my girl breakfast. Walking the dog in the snow (or the ice cold rain of the south). Sleeping in my very own, absolutely marvelous bed.
What I realize now is that I have lived my entire life with the expectation that things will always end in ruin and rubble. I exempted myself from the good while simultaneously striving for it for my daughter. I allowed myself to believe that it needed to be hard, because if it was easy, I wouldn’t have earned it, and if I didn’t earn it, I couldn’t otherwise deserve it. This too is how I believed I Elohim loved me. Erroneously.
There is little to hold onto and nothing left to do. I am held. I’m not reaching for whispers of smoke, trite aphorisms, or sentimental adages. All of it, then and now, is my life. I am held. The same Spirit who hovered over the deep when time began hovers now. I am held. There is value in my existence and utility in the gifts I have been given. I am held.
A mantra. A means of holding the darkest thoughts captive. A tool to rewrite the narrative that destruction forever lingers nearby. On a very real level, this is the work of undoing trauma, of rewiring one’s brain, of stepping toward tomorrow.
Christmas is here. And we are home.