Things I Lost In the Fire
“So that’s how we live our lives. No matter how deep and fatal the loss, no matter how important the thing that’s stolen from us–that’s snatched right out of our hands–even if we are left completely changed, with only the outer layer of skin from before, we continue to play out our lives this way, in silence” Haruki Murukami.
When I was a teenager my house burned down in an electrical fire. It was a controlled fire by most standards and we didn’t lose everything. We moved to the top floor of an apartment building and a few years later during a bad storm, it was hit by lightning. Another fire.
I never thought about how it affected me. No one was home during the first one and I was away at grad school for the second. I hadn’t lost my room in the first fire. Most of my things were on the roof and covered in soot and ash. It took a long time to get that smell out.
I happened to sit next to a woman in a restaurant who had just lost her house in the Malibu fire and was still in shock. She was telling me about her lost photos. I remembered that I kept my albums and photos in fireproof boxes in a downstairs closet close to a door. They could be dumped in a nearby garbage can and rolled away quickly. I’m not normally that organized. I realized as I spoke to her that I have always lived my adult life with the knowledge that things can be lost instantaneously.
We all process events differently. What I remember most about the first fire is the dream. The night before I had a very vivid dream that I was walking in debris in my new shoes. I kept wondering why I had worn the shoes. There was a hole in the right shoe from the debris. The next morning I got up and put the new shoes on with trepidation, wondering if I should wear them. Hours later I was walking in what was left of the downstairs and looked down at the wet burned wood and there was the hole in the right shoe. I never really processed anything but the fact that I had a premonition about it.
I thought at the time that it was just stuff. Kids don’t think a lot about memories. I listened to the woman tell me about her lost mementos. I understand now why I saved every toy and all my children’s schoolwork from birth through high school. I didn’t have anything like that from my own childhood after two fires.
She started talking about her books. Every once in a while throughout my life, I remember a book that I am sure I have. I don’t have it because that library was gone. I think this is what happens after a fire. You don’t remember everything you lost all at once.
Our homes should be places of safety. Because so many strong memories are formed in our homes, they are very special places to us. House fires can never take those memories away but we lose the feeling of safety which is more of a loss than the stuff. I never dwelt on why this happened to my family twice. We just stayed in the moment and did things one step at a time. Life is busy after a fire and not always in a good way. The best thing is not to stay in the past. It was strange to look back and reflect on that time in my life. I know that this woman, her family and the people who were affected by the California wildfires will get through it also.