It’s been a year and a half since the fire. I’ve noticed that lately, neighbors and friends have been asking if we’re “back,” although we moved back at the beginning of March. The house is completely rebuilt, and is in better condition structurally and aesthetically than it was before. Despite the never-ending detail work of the dreaded “punch-out list,” we’re mostly unpacked and completely settled in.
It seems that our friends are still processing what happened, and in a way, so am I. I’m still learning a lot about myself, my expectations, and my approach to trauma.
As I experienced it, the past 18 months have had moments of brilliant insight, but mostly it was a slog. It wasn’t easy focusing on the positive, although there were a lot of good or even great things that happened along the way: the ease of finding a truly livable rental, the solid support of the insurance company, and above all the loving care of our friends and neighbors.
Over the past year and a half, I lost a lot of sleep perseverating, as there was never a shortage of obsession-worthy items to fixate upon. I woke up many mid-nights haunted by the number of months the house sat empty (7) with no air conditioning over the humid Maryland summer, growing god-knows-what behind the walls. I spent countless hours between 2 and 4 a.m. worrying about lost clothing or whether the contractor would finish the job on time. I worried it wouldn’t get finished at all. I was sure the insurance payout wouldn’t cover the damage, that the house would never, ever be repaired properly, and that we’d have to live with reminders of the fire forever.
I was so miserable, and made my husband so miserable, he insisted I see a therapist.
The truth is, clothing is still missing, and the contractor’s promise to be finished February 1st (2017) was an exercise in cockeyed optimism.
I caused myself the most suffering by believing that everything should be fully restored to its pre-fire condition. It took me some time to realize I was struggling against the truth: it will never be fully restored, and we have to live with that every day. Every trauma has a “before” and “after,” and believing that things can go back to their original state is a foolproof recipe for unnecessary suffering.
We will have to live with reminders of the fire—it happened, and the story is written in the dings and scratches in the furniture, the water damage to photos and artwork, and the permanent cracks in the foundation and my sense of security.
Why did I think it was necessary, or even possible, to return everything to the way it was before? I insisted on believing that having insurance meant never having to see a reminder of the fire, or think of it, or acknowledge it. I believed we could move past it by never considering it again. It should be over. Period.
I know it’s impossible to forget a traumatic experience, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. It’s how I’ve always done it—shut the door on painful experiences, throw away the key. Only I’ve never quite escaped from these events, and the dings and scratches are like emotional scars—they’re everywhere, and are now a permanent part of my history. They’re proof of life, and evidence of growth.
The scratches and dings keep me from forgetting what it was like to watch, helpless, while fire raged and my life was upended. They remind me to feel compassion, not pity, for those experiencing similar losses from events that, once set into motion, they could not control.
The fire is etched in memory along with the vividness of the emotions that came along for the ride. I re-experience the trauma if a light goes on unexpectedly in the middle of the night; I bolt upright, heart pounding. I worry about the wood stove somehow going haywire and burning the house to the ground. Sparks from a campfire have me staring them down until they disappear into darkness. If I think I smell smoke or burning insulation, my body shifts into Defcon 1.
During the most unsettled time of the entire process, summer 2016, there were more questions than answers. Comfort came from an unlikely source, Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, who wrote a book called “The Battle for Home,” about rebuilding her war-torn hometown. In an interview, she said that even though the ancient city was reduced to rubble, the architecture shouldn’t be created from scratch. “The place—even if it’s destroyed—the place has a memory. … Each detail has a value to hold and has a suggestion to make. …It should hold the memory of what was important for people in the place.”
The idea that my home would somehow remember how to be built brought me inestimable comfort. All I had to do was believe.
Today, there’s no place I’d rather be. The holiday season is reaching its peak, and our home sparkles with warmth and light. The place has remembered how to be a beacon of love and comfort, a center of nourishment and learning, and home to all who enter it.