|all photos courtesy of the Tribune|
No one ever expects a fire in the building where they live - never mind one at 8 am on a Sunday. And especially not one 6 DAYS before they're scheduled to move in to their new house. As I stood on the curb in the rain watching 10 foot flames shoot from the apartment directly below my own, wearing only my pyjamas and holding only my cat, my cell phone, and the USB stick with the shop's patterns saved on it, I honestly felt like my life was going up in flames... or more appropriately, smoke.
|10 feet below my studio|
So many people stepped forward and helped us. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were there within the hour with water, food, and blankets. The city's transit authority sent over a bus for us to sit in (it was January - in Canada - and raining) while we waited to see what fate would befall us. I'm sad to say that sitting on that bus in my rain-soaked pj's, clutching a paper cup of coffee like it was a life-raft, was the first time I spoke to most of the people who lived in the building. We sat around and told our stories, all of us shivered from the cold and the damp, some of us cried, and each of us wondered what would happen next.
That night the Red Cross put the whole lot of us up in a local hotel and as Chris and I sat in our room with only the clothes on our backs and each other I think we both felt more than a little overwhelmed and numb with shock. The following day we were told they didn't know when the residents living on our wing would be able to re-enter the building and retrieve our belongings - after the meeting, the Fire Marshall pulled me aside specifically (because I lived directly upstairs) and told me that while other residents might be able to return with a week or two, because of the structural damage, it might be months before Chris and I could even go in and get our stuff.
Later that night I lay in our strange hotel bed, listening to the sound of Chris trying to sleep, and I finally learned to appreciate everything that I'd been blessed with my entire life.
On Christmas Day of 1958 my Grandparents, with my three-year old father in tow, fled Soviet-controlled Hungary. On foot, carrying nothing more than a little money my Grandfather had hidden in the hollowed out sole of his shoe, and wearing nothing more than their Sunday best despite the winter cold, they ran from the state police who sought to question my Grandfather for his participation in the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. As refugees they walked to a Red Cross camp in Austria and eventually ended up on a boat to Canada, the country where my Grandfather's brothers were already living. To say that I felt the ghosts of my Grandparents that night would be an understatement. I had, so selfishly, given such little thought to everything they had gone through, to the fear they must have felt, to the sacrifice they made. They left their home, most of their family, and everything they knew and came to Canada with quite literally nothing, and from that they built a farm and a life. 55 years after the fact - almost to the day - and I finally understood the enormity of what they had done.
The first few days were the worst - living in a hotel, depending on charity, having to ask for help... I never expected I'd ever have to do that. Our families and friends rallied in the most spectacular way. An armada of mothers arrived bearing towels and bedding and food for our mostly empty house. We went out and bought ourselves a new bed so at least we didn't have to sleep on the floor. Friends donated clothes to us so we had something more to wear than pyjamas. Furniture appeared, and dishes, and pots. Customers I'd never met mailed me craft supplies and people we barely knew sent gift cards and well-wishes. Chris started sleeping again and I stopped having nightmares (mostly). And thank goodness we had our house - a place to call our own. Without that, since we don't have family in the area to bunk with, we really would have been homeless.
Less than three weeks after the fire we were told it was safe enough for us to enter our apartment to retrieve our belongings but the air-quality was so bad we couldn't be there for long periods of time. I wish I could explain the smell to you, but if you've never experienced a similar situation, there's no way you could even begin to understand. So began the arduous process of picking through our things, trying to decide what we could save, what we wanted to.
We had to schedule our time there with the building Superintendent - so she knew where we were every moment, so she knew who was coming and going. As we stood for the first time in the grimy, stinky remains of the place that we had called home for the almost four years I couldn't even summon tears - there wasn't time enough for me to start feeling sorry for ourselves and there was so much work to do - and anyway, it didn't feel like home any more. We tiptoed gingerly through the mess - the formerly beige carpet so filthy with ash that you could tell where the fire-fighters had walked before us, the heat from the fire below so extreme that said carpet was melted in places. They'd punched holes in the walls to make sure that the fire hadn't spread and that the insulation wasn't smouldering, and bits of drywall and insulation lay in heaps on the floor. The windows had been thrown open to facilitate airflow and all the curtains and blinds hung askew. The power had been off all that time and it was so cold in our unit we wore mittens while we worked. Everything was coated with a fine layer of greasy ash.
Yet there were strange little vignettes of normalcy in the chaos. The cup of coffee that I'd only half finished before hearing the fire alarm was still sitting on my desk beside the computer, unspilt although definitely undrinkable. Our bed was neatly made in our room, Chris' pillow still indented from where the cat had been sleeping on it. My current cross-stitch project still in place on my side of the couch, needle and floss threaded through, waiting for the next stitch. We threw what we wanted to salvage in to boxes haphazardly, mindful of the time constraints and trying not to breathe too deeply in the poor air. It took three such trips to retrieve our stuff, and all this time later and we're still getting things cleaned, still unpacking, still trying to ascertain what needs to be replaced.
Three months, and we're still not back to normal. Sometimes I wonder if we ever will be.
But I learned how to be thankful. To take a minute to look around and truly appreciate what we have - and not just our health and money in the bank - but each other and friends, family, and customers who didn't hesitate at all to help us in any way they could. Coffee tastes sweeter and sunshine is warmer. Hugs last longer and familiar voices on the phone make me smile. Unexpected moments of peaceful calm are like gems I hoard with gleeful satisfaction. Yes, the smell of smoke in the air still makes my heart race (darn neighbours with a wood-burning stove) and probably always will. Yes, I check (and then double-check) the outlets, the furnace, and all our smoke detectors with OCD-like frequency. I never thought I'd have to flee a burning building in nothing but my pyjamas and I suspect the experience isn't one I'll ever forget. It may always be that proverbial monkey on my back, returning time-and-again when I least expect it, to give me a shiver of fear and trick my mind in to thinking I smell smoke when there is none.
But it's brought me here to this place where I actually make an effort to stop myself in moments and acknowledge that I'm happy - and what's important isn't just that I feel happy, but that I recognize it. I look over that Chris on the couch beside me and the grin we share means so much more than it ever did. We're stronger now, we're better. We've been just about as low as we can go (I hope!) and we survived it. We're going to thrive here in our new home, and together build a life that's better than it ever was.
So thank you all for your help over the past two months - for the good karma you sent our way, for the patience you showed when we couldn't respond to emails right away. You worried about us and asked after us - even though you've never met us - and your support meant so much to us in a very difficult time. You helped us get through this, you still are helping us. You're the best damn customers in the world and we appreciate you so much more than words can say. And you're not just our customers, but our friends.
Thank you - for everything. xo J.