Four years ago today, my house burnt down. I still remember the call. I was home sick, staying with Alyssa at her place near campus, when my roommate called me. At first I thought it was all part of some elaborate joke, before she started telling me that the roof had caved in, and that firefighters were still there trying to put it out.
The fire had started at our neighbours’, and then to our building. After hours of fighting a fire that ended up consuming three houses, they finally had to bulldoze the building to the ground. I lost everything.
In many ways I was lucky: I had a place to stay, I had a couple days’ worth of clothes as well as my laptop and charger from spending the weekdays at Alyssa’s. The university gave me a quick emergency grant and so I was able to buy some more clothing and replace the school books I had lost.
I had tenant insurance which helped me get a new apartment. In the meantime I had to make an inventory of everything that I had lost along with its approximate value.
Imagine that for a moment; losing everything. Imagine all the sentimental items you have, the photographs, your favourite book. There are things that can never be replaced that are gone forever. Just a few months earlier, my parents had taken the family to Poland to celebrate their 25 wedding anniversary. While there my aunt, who is an artist, gave me one of her paintings. I dragged it with us across Europe and back home. It hung on my wall for such a short time before it was lost forever. On the same trip my parents showed that they were becoming more accepting of my career as a writer by giving me a quill set. I had never even had the chance to use them.
I lost books that I had had autographed by favourite authors. Each of those had a story that went with it, like how I got to see Margaret Atwood talk about starting the Writer’s Union on someone’s front lawn. She said such nice things to me when we spoke and she signed my book. Or like Charles De Lint, who when my ex told him that I was a big fan brought a signed copy of his limited edition Yellow Dog. Those are keepsakes that cannot easily be replaced.
My yearbooks were all lost, as were the various awards I had won. Gone was the biology prize. Gone the various debating awards.
How do you put a price on all this?
In other ways however, I wasn’t lucky. Because of health related concerns and bureaucracy, I knew that in the next several months I would have to stop accepting aid for my parents. I had to save the majority of the check that eventually came in to pay for tuition for the next year. One doesn’t realize how much the various possession we accumulate over time add up until you suddenly have to replace them all at once. For years afterwards, even to this day, I have found myself missing some item, some tool, which I had had previously and been unable to replace.
A loss such as that, followed by years of poverty, can mean difficulty for a long time. Most of our furniture we found on dorm move out day, when people tossed the things they couldn’t bring with them. I don’t have a lot of clothing, and most of what I do have comes from Value Village.
The loss of my home sent me into a reawakening of my Crohn’s flares. Instead of getting better like I had been previously, I started getting worse again. I spiralled into depression which took me a long time to figure out. I absorbed the shock of the loss and became instantly numb, except that as time passed I couldn’t quite get feeling back. Numbness becomes oppressive after a while. You yearn desperately to feel again, but you almost can’t remember how. You laugh, but you don’t really feel joy. Tears fall from your eyes and you cannot stop them, but you don’t understand, because you don’t feel sad.
I wonder sometimes if I had been there, if I had seen with my own eyes, if it would have bestowed some form of closure, some acceptance of what happened. Even years later it sometimes feels like I just picked up and left everything. The fire ended up on Youtube, but it is still not the same. It is hard to believe that everything is just gone like that, and even four years later it doesn’t seem entirely real. I don’t know that I ever really grieved. There was never any time. There was always something more pressing. Maybe this is me grieving. And maybe someday I will be able to rise from the ashes, reborn.