After you've experienced loss, any kind of loss, whether it's a baby, a dream, your home, etc..., those dates stick with you. Every year there is dread of certain dates and tomorrow is one of those days. It's not the day I knew my baby had died, it's not the day she was predicted to be born, it was the first of many losses that was thrown out way in 2008. Tomorrow is just a different kind of anniversary. It reminds me how lucky we are and how much we've been through.
I apologize in advance if this is a bit jumbled. This is really the first time I've ever written about the whole experience.
We went to bed on January 14th, 2008, happy and unaware. We were in our first married home together. We'd been there since August and I finally had every thing just where I wanted it. Bear with me while I reminisce for a moment. We had a beautiful green tapestry hung on the wall behind our couch. I had the sewing machine my step mother had given me sitting on my dining room table. We had just bought a $600 laptop that we didn't get insurance on. Our bookshelf was full of books we'd been collecting all our lives, including the $300 in midwifery books I'd recently purchased. We had our gorgeous red border collie, Marvin, who slept in a crate beside our bed. I miss him all the time. We had already had our fair share of ups and downs in our short marriage, but when I look back, we really were happy more often than not.
Our smoke alarms did not go off. To this day, we still don't have a reason why we woke up. We don't know if Marvin barked, or if it was the crackling of the fire, but by some miracle, we woke up when we did. Even though it was winter time, Matt always had to have that fan on. He needed that white noise in order to get to sleep. If I could go back in time three years ago, I would have started a gigantic fight with Matt about that stupid fan. I would have waited until he fell asleep and turned it off. I would have unplugged it and thrown it in the garbage.
I slept in a tank top and pj pants. Matt slept in boxers. We were entirely unprepared to be out in the elements. I'll never forget the next few minutes. I remember waking up and rolling over. When I opened my eyes, all I saw were flames. Bright orange and red blowing over our heads. I remember waking Matt screaming. There was no time to think. No time to grab a phone. He went into hero mode and we ran to the front door. By the time we woke up, our apartment was already full of black smoke. Matt was quick to push me out the front door and before I had a chance to say anything (not that it would have changed his mind) he ran back inside to let Marvin out of his crate. They both ran out of the apartment (and Marvin ran off into the neighborhood). From here on out, there was chaos. Matt immediately ran around to the other units in our apartment complex banging on the doors. At 3 am, people get pissed when you bang on their doors, even if it is to get them out of a burning building and beg them, while sobbing to call 911. Our neighbors that lived above us had two little boys. Matt hit their door first and while the dad had enough time to get him and the smaller boy out in a blanket, the mom and older boy were forced to go out the window. Matt and the dad had to help catch them as they jumped from the second story window. Someone on the other side of the building finally called 911 and in my mind, it seemed like hours before the fire trucks got there and even longer before they got any water on our building. We were freezing (Matt's still wearing only boxers; neither of us had socks on), huddled together in a blanket a bystander had given us, helpless to do anything but watch every single thing we owned go up in smoke. Someone from one of the surrounding houses found Marvin and brought him back to us. I remember bringing him in the blanket with us and holding him as tightly as I possibly could. Even though we were across the street and way up other peoples' driveways, you could feel the heat on your face. There was quite a crowd, despite it being so early in the morning and someone kindly let us borrow their cell phone. We called Matt's parents and they immediately drove down to pick us up. I remember an officer bringing us socks at some point. Mostly, I just remember that helplessness. Of knowing that we weren't going to have anything left. I kept thinking, I don't even have a bra, like that was the least of our worries. The sun had started coming up by the time we left and that's when we realized just how lucky we were. Matt's hair and a big part of his beard were badly singed; no telling what a few more minutes would have done to his face.
I remember crying for hours straight; crying until every part of my body ached. Matt and I finally collapsed in his sister's twin size bed for a few hours, only to wake up and immediately begin to sob again. Later that day, we were allowed to return and look inside our apartment for our car keys but there just wasn't much left. My mom and little brother James came with us on our search and proved to be very useful (although I recently learned just how useful they were...but that's for a post coming this next week.) We received another little bit of luck in that I had thrown my purse on the floor by the door when I had come from work the night before, so we had a set of car keys and didn't have to call to have new ones made. Randomly enough my camera and ipod survived too, even after being drenched in fire retardant and water. One thing that Matt was really sad to lose was a pocket knife that his grandfather had given him. It had only been a few months since he had passed away and Matt really cherished that knife. It had it's own place on our bookshelf and knowing the general vicinity of that bookshelf, my incredibly sweet brother (who was 16 at the time) dug through piles of ash and charred books to find that knife for him. It was the sweetest thing I've ever seen him do. Without my knowledge, he grabbed something else from that mess but I had no idea at the time (but like I said, that's for a later post). It warms my heart just to think of the kindness he showed in that one moment.
We received tremendous help during the coming weeks. We wouldn't have made it without it. We had already been living paycheck to paycheck, had no savings, and were barely scraping by each month as it was. Just thinking about all the things we would have to replace (not to mention all the things that could never be replaced) was so daunting and depressing. The Red Cross really helped us out which we didn't expect. We knew they helped in tornadoes and floods and the like, but a single apartment complex fire, we were blown away. They gave us a debit card with about $300 on it, put us up in a local hotel room for 3 nights, gave us small toiletry kits, and later when we settled into a cheap apartment we got on the fly just to have a place to call home, they gave us a bedding set and a set of dishes too. All my coworkers from Dixie Cafe pitched in money and clothing to help us out. People we didn't even know from local churches (and from my coworkers churches) wrote us checks to help us get back on our feet. Our family rallied together what it could too and by the end of the week, we were moving into a crappy one bedroom apartment.
It didn't take the fire inspector long to discover the culprit. That stupid box fan. Apparently it had been recalled in February 2007, but who ever knows about recalls unless you are standing in line to return something at Wal.mart and happen to see it on that board. We got in on a class action lawsuit, but after my mother in law confessed that she had salvaged the fan from behind where she worked and that my father in law fixed it, the case was pretty much in the crapper and we were told to take the settlement they offered. It meant we received a grand total of $3300. That's how much we go after losing every thing that we owned. We still owe money to collection agencies for things we lost in the fire but still owed on when it burnt down. And it took us almost 2 years to actually receive the money.
It was such a awful beginning to the most tragic year of my life (so far.) It brought us closer together, not that we really had much choice, we were all we had left. It was only a few months later that we had to put our sweet dog to sleep. Then another two months before I was finally pregnant. Another two months and that ended. Within six weeks, we were separated. A whirlwind, heartbreaking year that I will never forget. It does pretty much mean that every single year that all of that stuff doesn't happen, it's a better year. And believe it or not, Matt still sleeps with a fan on.