As my husband and I returned from our Italian honeymoon – newlyweds that are blissful, happy, and excited to begin our new life together – we were met by news that was life changing. Imagine this…
We had just arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on May 23rd, 2010 after a week-long vacation that started the day after our wedding. As we found our luggage in Baggage Claim and walked through the spectacular crowds of world-wide passengers towards the door for International Pickup, I called my parents to let them know that we had arrived safely and noted our exact location so they could easily find us. As we waited for our parents to arrive, my husband and I pulled out our camera and viewed our pictures from our travels through Florence, Pompeii, and Rome. We marveled at how beautiful the architecture, views, and people were; and we went through our post-vacation ritual of trying to figure out how we could move to that particular vacation spot which would mean giving up all of our material things and careers at home. For that very moment, we were willing to give it all up just to go back again. We felt proud of ourselves for leaving our comfort zone and ultimately recognizing how small our own little world back home truly was. It was such a wonderful end to our vacation, and we tried our best not to think of the reality of work that awaited us in the next few days to come. As we panned through our pictures, we smiled and laughed, feeling the warmth of that late May evening that was upon us. I distinctly remember thinking, “I am a newlywed. I am just home from a romantic, amazing honeymoon in Italy. Life is just getting started.” After twenty short minutes, my parents pulled up curbside. We hugged and kissed, and we told them how wonderful it was to see familiar faces. They quickly helped us load our luggage into their trunk as the airport security was shooing us to hurry and make space for the other cars and passengers being picked up. We settled in for the sixty minute ride home, and began to reminisce about our great honeymoon and our new life together awaiting us.
At the time, my husband and I had been renting my maternal grandparents’ home. The low rent that my family afforded us allowed us to save for our wedding, and we were hoping to continue renting for another twelve months so we could save for a 20% down-payment on our very first home together. Towards the end of our car ride home, I asked my mother: “Mom, we were wondering if we could continue renting Grandma’s house for the next twelve months or so. Do you think this would be okay with you and the rest of the family (her brothers and sister)?” The question was initially met by an awkward silence, but I wasn’t catching on. So, I asked again: “Mom, what do you think about us continuing to rent Grandma’s house for the next year? It would really help us save for a down-payment on our first home.” Her only response was, “We’ll see.” Her tone was different than normal, and I recall giving my husband a sideways glance and thinking to myself “Perhaps they don’t want us renting the house anymore and want to sell it.” After sitting in silence for a few minutes, my father said, “We’d like it if you would stay with us for a glass of wine and to tell us more about your trip.” I responded, “Thanks so much for the offer, but I really want to get home to just relax tonight. I am so exhausted!” My father’s response was sterner this time, almost as a command, “No, you will have a glass of wine with us and tell us more about your trip.” My relationship with my father is built upon respect, so when he feels strongly about something, I listen. After the hour-long car ride, we pulled into my parents’ driveway. Our cars were parked outside of their house, just as we had left them one week prior. As we walked into their home, tired as can be from our long day of travel and adjustment to the time zone changes, my mom quickly poured us all a glass of wine and we went out to their deck. Without hesitation, my father said, “Something very serious happened while you were in Italy.” From the way he said it, tears began welling up as I immediately made the assumption that a family member passed away or someone was badly injured, but I was wrong. “You are so lucky to have each other, and material possessions do not mean anything,” he said. My husband and I looked at each other, looked back at my parents, still confused. “While you were gone, there was a fire at Grandma’s house – a five-alarm fire, in fact. Nothing is salvageable. All of your possessions are gone.” I felt like this was a movie, watching the big screen from a seat in the back row of the theater. What did he mean there was a fire? What did he mean nothing was salvageable? What did he mean all of our possessions were gone? We had just returned from Italian bliss! We had just planned out how perfect our life was going to be upon our return. As he and my mother continued to describe how the fire began, how it burned through the entire attic for hours on end, how twenty foot flames were bursting from the windows and caused damage to the next door neighbor’s home, and how five cities’ stations were called to put out the fire because it was so difficult to contain and put out – I felt physically ill. The logical part of my brain was telling me that we could recover from this, work with our insurance company, and move forward. The emotional part of me was sad for myself, angry that we couldn’t just have a moment’s peace upon our return from Italy, and feeling guilty because I was wondering if my husband or I had done something that caused the fire. Here was a home that my mother and her siblings grew up in, a home with over fifty years of family history and wonderful memories, and it was now gone. Yes, I am a newlywed – but one without a home, without possessions, without anything at all.
The aftermath of the fire was the most difficult part. My grandfather had passed away years before, and my grandmother was unable to care for herself any longer. This left my mother and aunt as “Powers of Attorney” for my grandmother, which meant that they were working with the police, the firefighters, the arson investigator, the insurance company, and more. From what I can recall, the after-effects of the fire continued for almost a year. The arson investigator claimed that the fire had started from a standing lamp in the master bedroom which had a faulty cord. Even though the light wasn’t left on, it was still plugged in which meant that electricity was still flowing through the cord. The cord began to spark and as the fire started it traveled up the cord, through the base of the lamp and up through the top, which burned a hole into the ceiling. The fire traveled through the attic and back before it blew out the windows. We learned that the house was so hot inside that the studs blew out from the walls. When you entered the house afterwards, the stench of burnt material made you physically sick. You could only look around at the remnants of the structure left behind for a few minutes at a time. I recall going to the post office a few days after our return from Italy and asking to forward our mail to my parents’ house for a temporary period of time, and the postal worker asked me, “Was that your house that was in that horrible fire?” “Yes, that was our home,” I responded meekly. She stared at me in horror and said, “Oh my goodness! We begin our shifts here very early in the morning, say, around four o’clock in the morning. We could smell the fire from here – well over a mile and half away. We knew that must’ve been a bad, bad fire.”
Ultimately, my husband and I made it through that situation – not to say that we didn’t have some emotional bumps and bruises afterwards. I still feel responsible for the fire, and feel as though we destroyed a family home with four generations of history (from my grandparents’ marriage; to my mother and her siblings growing up there; to me, my older brother and sister, and my cousins playing there and celebrating holidays; to my siblings’ children visiting my grandmother as she got older). I saw my typically happy husband become angry, depressed, displaced, and unemotional. This was the second fire he had lived through, and I believe that having to go through the situation again was too much for him. Unfortunately, though, he was unable to verbalize his feelings – or perhaps we wasn’t fully aware of how he was feeling – which left our communication and relationship in a sad spot. I had to watch my mom, aunt, and uncles mourn the house and neighborhood they grew up in, and become business-focused on insurance, contents, deconstruction, and land. My husband and I had to live in two temporary houses, all while buying land, preparing for, and building our new home. It left us feeling horribly uncomfortable. Though I don’t consider myself or my husband to be materialistic people, it is difficult to find yourself with nothing at all except for the contents from your suitcase. Years later, the thought of this situation leaves a heavy weight on me – as though bricks have fallen on me and I can’t lift my chest to breathe. My husband and I rarely spoke about it, as the negative emotions that came with it made us not want attention for it. If anyone brought up the situation to us, we just politely responded with a canned response of “Though it was a difficult situation, it teaches how little possessions mean and what is truly important in life.” We would then change the subject. Though we reacted in this way, inside we were bursting at the seams with sadness and anger.
After all was said and done, though, I walk away with one of the most beautiful memories of my lifetime. As we were sitting on my parent’s deck and they were describing the horrific fire in detail, I interrupted and asked, “Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you call us or email us in Italy?” My father’s response was, “What good would it have done you to tell you in the middle of your honeymoon, when your mother and I were able to handle things for you? We are your parents. It is our responsibility to lift your burden when you cannot.” My father isn’t a wordy person, so when he speaks, he really means it and has put a great deal of thought into it. His words meant everything to me in that moment. It was then that I realized that my parents may let me skin my knees in life, but they would never let me fall on my face. This particular situation wasn’t something that I chose. It was something that happened to me, my husband, and my family. And my parents were there to lift my burden when I could not. I am forever grateful to them for being so graceful and calm in such a high-stress and reactive situation. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have taught me not only how to share a burden for my children when they cannot bear it themselves, but you’ve taught me how to be logical in an emotional situation. These will surely carry me through for a lifetime.
And, as they say: “C’est la vie.” That’s life. I am happy to take forward such wonderful lessons.
Lesson Learned: my family will let me skin my knees in life, but they would never let me fall on my face. Family can help you assume burdens too difficult to bear on your own, while still making sure that there is an impact on your life and lesson to be learned.
Lesson Learned: it is important to know when an emotional situation calls for a logical response.