Granted, I had some help.
This was exactly where my family stood and watched the fire. I know because the photographer had to walk past us with his tripod to set up some other shots. I hadn’t yet intellectualized that there is a “fire etiquette” since I was in the very early stages of discovering this, but looking back I would give Dave Odette from the Grand Rapids Press a gold star for leaving us alone and limiting our exchange to a look. He was doing his job and we were doing ours.
As I watched my house burn, I thought, “I can take this,” which might smack of hubris and a desperate attempt to get a handle on a situation which was clearly outside of my control. That might be true, but what prompted it was recognition that I felt no pain. Shock was a big part of that, of course and my subconscious instantly shuffled through my history of suffering trying to process the unthinkable thought: my house is burning down.
There was a feeling of embarrassment as if it was a big mess we had made, as if we were at fault. I remember willing the firefighters to get there and thinking we just needed a little help and then Paul and I could get it cleaned up. The firemen (no ladies on this job) arrived within minutes, but time has a way of slowing down when you’re watching your house burn.
We had many crazy thoughts, standing on that path, watching the fire spread from the garage, to the upstairs and outside to the cars and the trees. It occurred to me that not everyone gets to watch her house burn, that it’s a unique experience and that I needed to pay attention, so I did. And a fire is a fire; all of them, from a safe enough distance, are strangely mesmerizing, and the burning of our home was no exception.
What surprised me was the absence of pain, that this was not as painful as the death of my father, our son’s multiple and protracted diagnoses, depression, the loss of my childhood home in the aftermath of a massive embezzlement of our family business and the loss of my childhood itself with the death of Paul’s father to suicide.
I was in shock yes, but I was also clearer than I’ve ever been: “that” (our house and possessions) was stuff and could be replaced, my family, standing beside me, alive and physically unharmed, was irreplaceable. It was well with my soul.
How could I know that the actual burning is just the beginning of the suffering with a house fire?
I starting keeping a written record the night of the fire. Writing is how I think. Until I lay it down, it’s a tangle of thoughts, a confused clutter. Writing is how I examine my life, how I see. The day after the fire I wrote down our escape from the house, part of it anyway. I could only get so far because, in the writing, I realized something that was so elemental, such a picture of my life, all of life really and with it came the acknowledgment that we could have so easily died and I stopped writing. Bam! Shut the book.
I have written here and there, posting a pittance, trying to keep a record, but I have held back. My mind is a large house with an attic stuffed to the rafters and all the closets ready to burst at the slightest turn of a door handle.
There is no way (for me and for now) to tell this linearly. I’m going to open several boxes a week and go through it all. There might be a bit of a mess as I sort through everything, but I’m going to allow myself that.