Love is a lot like fire. A small flame will be extinguished with the slightest puff of air, but put wind to wildfire, and watch what happens. In my experience, tragedy was the wind- the small wind that killed every small flame, the Santa Anas that caused love to erupt in furious glory. This is a story about fire, and passion, and total devastation, and love.
On the morning of November 18th, 1994, mine was the happy family who seemingly had it all; a strong marriage, two kids (one girl, one boy), a gaggle of adopted rescue pets. My husband Troy and I each had our own businesses that we ran from the large home we were renting. We volunteered at our kids’ schools and in our communities, threw fabulous parties, took business trips, had lots of friends and a busy social life.
But that night, we went to bed in a burning house. A freak electrical short would begin smoldering in the walls as we slept, erupting into hellfire in the middle of the night. The fire pressed us up against the windows, gasping for air, our skin burning. We were forced to jump from second story ledges with our four-year old son, onto the cement below. (Our daughter, thankfully, was at a sleepover). The inferno raged, windows blowing out, our animals trapped inside, as we stood at the side of the road, helpless, sobbing, unable to get past the walls of flames to save them. Troy put his arm around me, wiped the tears from my face and said, “God’s got them now…and we will come back stronger.” I wanted to believe him, with everything in me I wanted to believe. But just the night before, I’d had a horrible, vivid dream that we would lose everything. Little did I know, fire was only the beginning.
We were released from the hospital the next day, November 19th, injured, homeless, jobless. We had not a single possession. Our lives were a blank canvas, at once terrifying and liberating.
We thought we had lost it all that night; our five beloved pets, our memories, our accomplishments, both our jobs, and our home- (with no renter’s insurance). But in the coming year, we would suffer much greater loss that no insurance policy could have protected us from: the betrayal by friends, the loss of faith and trust, and perhaps the hardest to endure – the loss of self.
Until that night in November, I was the strong, independent woman who owned a national business, volunteered for my kids’ school, flew to New York every season to sell my clothing line, was the Daisy Scout leader, and singing at gigs on weekends. I was also the woman who had been carrying a secret all her life. Standing toe to toe with Death awakened me. I could no longer hide from the truth of my own life. First I would have to unravel completely to find out who I was, what I was made of. Everything I once felt certain of would be shaken loose like soil from the roots of an upturned tree, leaving me raw, exposed. Eventually I would have to find a new way to take root within myself.
While busying myself with so-called important things, I had managed to outrun my past for a long time. But with all my distractions burned away, all that was left was the real me- the girl whose father was in prison, whose mother worked nights in a bar and had to use food stamps to buy groceries. The truth was that I had been born to two teenaged rebels – that my conception was a terrible mistake my grandfather had tried to end. My real name and birth certificate were hidden. I was told by my mother to never tell anyone who I really was, who my father was, where I came from. I obeyed.
Tragedy weakened my fault lines – allowing my inner demons to come out and dance. The strong image I had once projected evaporated like the mirage it was. Friends who had been attracted by my strength and perfect image were repulsed by my weakness, and began to pull away one by one, leaving me to experience this time of intense loss alone. And then, as one catastrophe after the next hit, I unraveled. I became clinically depressed, struggling with persistent suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know it then, but I was in the grip of post- traumatic stress disorder from both our fire and my childhood. In the coming years, I would have to fight harder than I ever knew I could to pull myself back to center- to be a woman my husband and children could be proud of.
My sweet, kind and generous husband, who was and still is the love of my life, had grown up in a Brady Bunch world. He had never been faced with anything like the catastrophes we endured. The next several years would test his endurance and courage, and his ability to love me.
Together, Troy and I worked hard to come back from the edge of disaster, but experienced such a long run of bad luck we began to wonder if someone had put a hex on us. We were ripped off by shady landlords. We lost three homes in the span of two years. While I was homeless, my business partner embezzled all the profits from our company, destroying me financially. We lost our credit, were forced into bankruptcy, and, because life has a sardonic sense of timing, both our cars blew up (and then one was repossessed) and our son needed surgery. And yet, through all this, we experienced beauty in the wreckage. There were new friends that showed up at just the right time, work opportunities that saved us when we were on the brink. And there were perfect, joyful moments with our children that gave us hope. There were times when we were so destitute, our utilities were cut off. Instead of crumbling in defeat, we chose to pitch a tent in the backyard and camp with the kids, roasting marshmallows and looking at the stars. Some days knocked us flat with depression. But on other days, we got up and played guitars, wrote songs, made art, and had parties- just the four of us. With nothing, we created, and celebrated, and found out that our hearts had the amazing ability to regenerate after being shattered.
Tragedy brings out the best and worst in people. It brings out the do-gooders and opportunistic scavengers alike. It shows you who your true friends are, and who they aren’t. And it widens every crack in the foundation of a marriage, until you wake one morning to find the Grand Canyon running straight through your living room.
Troy and I had a deep, soul-mate kind of love. We were optimistic people, believing in the golden rule, that all people were basically good at heart. We believed that living honest lives and being good people would insure us against tragedy. But life taught us otherwise. Bad things do happen to good people. People are not always good at heart- in fact, some are just plain rotten. In addition to the stresses upon us, our faith was shaken, our belief systems shattered. We had each brought our fair share of baggage into the marriage, and it was all dumped out on the floor now. Weakened and depressed, we were no longer able to be a light for each other. We couldn’t keep each other afloat when both of us were drowning.
After three years of taking life’s punches, we were pushed to the point of separating. Troy packed the car with his belongings and we tearfully broke the news to our children. But when it came time for him to drive away, neither of us could move. It was too painful to stay together, and too painful to part. On that day, we had to make a choice between love and fear. After days of crying and soul searching, we chose love. We found ours was a big flame, the winds of tragedy only making it more fierce.
Fire has a way of purifying and reforming. During a forest fire, the intense heat causes seedpods to burst open. After years of lying dormant, only catastrophe could make them take root. The scorched earth then becomes fertile soil, making the forest lush with new and different life. So it was with our lives. In the aftermath of all that loss, new seeds were planted that blossomed in ways we never could have foreseen.
Faith is not something that can be manufactured, or gleaned from books. Faith is hard earned, and, like courage, like a beating heart, is a muscle that must be worked. I had to try with everything in me to believe, when there was nothing to believe in. If I didn’t, my children would grow up in a hopeless world, and that was unthinkable. For their sake, I had to find my faith. I had to believe that there was a reason for everything we had lost. I had to open my eyes to see that there was hope in the midst of every crisis. There was the kindness of others who came to lift us back on our feet, like stars that shone brightly in the darkness. There was the discovery that, although we had lost everything, we still had our ability to dream, to love, to create, to hope, to remember. No fire could take that from us.
Tiny sprigs of hope began to spring up through the cracks, when we made the choice to risk our hearts and believe in goodness again. And gradually, because of that faith, things began to shift.
After the bankruptcy we worked diligently rebuilding our credit, and four and a half years after the fire, on the day of our tenth wedding anniversary, we bought our dream home- a cabin nestled in the side of a mountain- it’s foundation bolted on rock. We renewed our marriage vows, and were given the keys to our home.
Eighteen years have passed since the fire. Cristen and Taylor have grown up, and we have since been unexpectedly blessed with another son, Evan, as well as a grandson, Ayumu. My house is once again alive with rescued pets, cluttered with sentimental treasures, my photo albums full with new memories. There is a comfortable distance separating us from that time, and yet it will always be a part of who we are. We are stronger now, and dare I say, although I would never want to re-live those years, we are better for having lived through it. I found faith and courage in the ashes. I found my true self. Our marriage, our family, and most importantly, our optimism and spirit survived. There is not much that can shake us anymore. We shrug off challenges others might view as catastrophic. We know what catastrophe is. We can still see it in our rear view mirror.
What I learned is that every tragedy holds a gift, an opportunity for us to learn and grow. I believed this the day after the house burned down, in a Pollyanna sort of way. I didn’t know then how hard I would have to mine for it, how deep I would have to dig, how much I’d have to lose to find myself. Writing my book (What Doesn’t Kill You- How I lost everything and found myself) has helped me to see clearly the beautiful moments- the tiny miracles in the middle of mayhem that bloomed like lilies in the muck.
I’ve learned that life offers no guarantees, and no insurance policy will truly protect us from unexpected tragedies. Our possessions, job titles, our stations in life are fleeting, and even our relationships with those we most love can change. All we really have is what we carry inside us; our spirit, our courage, faith, and our ability to love.
Here is what I now know for sure: Every day that we are alive is a new beginning. And just like that forest after a wildfire, there is a seed of greatness in every one of us, waiting to break open. It is never, ever too late to bloom.
We still live in our mountain home, cemented in rock.
It is one block from the fire station.