Category Archives: Loss

Boston’s Journey Back to Itself

images[1] (5)Just over a week after the Boston Marathon bombing, I learned about her.  I’ve been thinking about her ever since: Adrianne Haslet-Davis—the beautiful, young ballroom dancer who lost her foot to one of the blasts.   Her foot.   A dancer’s connection with the earth–the very foundation of her career.  Haslet-Davis may not be unique among Boston’s recent amputees; many were runners, people for whom athleticism and movement were part of their identity.   But she stands out for me.  As a former dancer, I know what the loss of a foot would mean.   According to the articles I’ve read, Haslet-Davis has bouts of sadness and rage in the face of her lost limb, but holds onto hope.  She is determined to some day get back to the dance studio, to make a comeback with the Viennese Waltz.  Haslet-Davis survives, believing in herself and her future, thanks to her faith in advanced medicine, science and technology.  I have no doubt that she will dance again.  But her reality has changed; she must adjust her physical identity accordingly.  She and the other amputees embody the mission faced by Boston itself: a journey back to its post-bombing future.

When disaster strikes—natural or manmade—it shakes up a community.  Things you’ve always trusted—that your neighbors are your neighbors, not hostile strangers; that law enforcement is sufficient to provide safety—gets shaken up.  Home is suddenly not home, not quite the place it once felt like.  The rules are changed; daily life takes more thought, simple movements are now belabored, shrouded in fear and mistrust.  I remember the weeks following nine-eleven, when the world felt different: so unsafe, so newly dark and uncertain.  I remember the days after Hurricane Sandy and—more personally for me—the period right after our house fire.  Our identity as a family had changed.

Just as Boston’s has now.  More than lives were lost in the bombing, more than limbs; something deeper and less tangible was taken.   The nation has mourned along with Boston, but now we must watch and cheer the town on as it clamors to its feet, purging what one Boylston Street business owner called “bad energy.”

I lived in Boston for a year, back in 1989-1990, as a member of Boston Ballet II, and though I was in rehearsal most of the time and made too little money to partake of what the city had to offer, I remember its character.  Old American beauty thrown up against a bare toughness that rivaled the bare toughness in sections of Brooklyn—only with pinker cheeks and flatter vowels.  There were the Public Gardens, evoking memories of history lessons as well as my favorite children’s books, from Make Way for Ducklings to Trumpet of the Swan.  A mere stone’s throw away was the “red light” district, disconcertingly close to where we performed Nutcracker and Romeo and Juliet.  Like New York, it was a great walking town, with ethnicities and neighborhoods on display as you walked, as varied as those in my home town.  Like New York, but unlike it, too.  A little shorter, a little slower, a little less of a chameleon.  I haven’t been back since I left twenty years ago, but still I remember the Boston-ness of the town, how I knew I’d always be an outsider, but appreciated the fact of calling it home for that season.

Things are getting back to normal there, but because of the bombing, they will never quite be the same.  Like those who lost limbs—each of whom must now face different lives and find their own, new versions of “normal,” each day will be marked by the triumph of overcoming unimaginable loss.

Soul Food Shiva (reposted)

The Defenders Online Website does not seem to be functioning, which means that there is no way to access my article, Soulfood Shiva.  For that reason, I am placing it below as a regular post.  The following was originally published in The Defenders Online as part of the Father’s Day Edition in 2010.

When my father laughed, he’d show his wide, white teeth, wrinkle his broad nose and let loose.  I remember the sound of it, rich and soulful, with music in the background: Motown and jazz that he’d play when my parents threw parties.  I remember the colors of those big nineteen-seventies bashes: bold red and turquoise plaids leaping from scratchy synthetics; paisleys in dizzying shades of orange, pink and purple.  I can smell the smoke in the air, mingling with the aroma of my father’s fried chicken or my mother’s latkes.   I remember dashikis, bell-bottoms and blazers with suede elbow patches.  I remember afros, which abounded amongst our friends, regardless of whether they were black, like Dad or Jewish, like Mom (everyone was one or the other).  Dad’s afro was short but not too short to play with.  I’d poke his hair down in one spot just to see how long the finger holes would stay.

“Don’t mess up the ’do,” he’d grin at me, reaching for his pick.   (My mother wouldn’t let me play with her hair either, though I longed to.  It was shoulder-length, straight and flipped like Mary Tyler Moore’sthe height of seventies chic.)

Williamsons 1970

But it’s the laughter I remember most.  The humor was adult, usually political, and therefore, miles over my head, but the sound of it thrilled me.  Laughter, I understood from an early age, was courage in the face of pain, hope in hard times: the ultimate measure of survival.  Any time my parents laughed together—which was often—I felt safe and warm; things were good and would stay that way.

My parents’ parties were loud and boisterous, but always wrapped up at a reasonable hour.  My father was an early riser with no patience for late night carousing.  When it was time, he’d turn off the music, turn up the lights and clap his hands.

“It’s that time, folks,” he’d boom, in his rich, good-natured bass, “That’s all she wrote.”

I was the lone kid at the parties, in my parents’ world in general.  By the time I reached kindergarten, all the little friends I’d had in our building had moved to the suburbs.  Their families hadn’t wanted to pay for private schools, my mother explained.  She and I were alone a lot after that, since Dad worked in publishing and was away at the office all day.  My mother taught, but was home whenever I was.  When Dad made his nightly entrance, we were complete.  We’d eat dinner together most nights, breakfast most mornings.  I wasn’t lonely; I had friends at school; I had my parents.

Besides, I could while away endless hours alone, just exploring our apartment.  Dark wood cabinets held leather photo albums, my father’s sketch books, and old things from before I was born.  There were trinkets on shelves, matryoshka dolls and other artifacts that friends had brought back from the Soviet Union.  There were African masks, African sculpture, and a giant stone head of a man, which sat on the edge of my father’s desk.  The sculptor was semi-famous, a friend of my parents.  “The Head” would be worth a lot one day.

On our walls hung original paintings by my father and his friends.  The people in the paintings were black except for a few of my father’s nudes who were white.  (I always assumed the nudes were my mother.  I’ve been told otherwise, but I still think they’re her.)  My dad painted people with posture and facial expressions so vivid, you could feel their emotions.  I knew these paintings by heart; the people in them were family.  I didn’t like it when my parents changed the display; someone was always missing, replaced by something new.

Constant, however, were Dad’s cigarettes—burning away in his hand.  I remember watching them circle and dive, punctuating his arguments as he talked on the phone—about the Vietnam War, race relations, or the city’s economy.   Then he’d inhale fiercely, gathering new words.

For the record, cigarettes weren’t what killed him. There’s no known link between smoking and prostate cancer.  Instead it’s more about being male and black—as if that weren’t enough.   No one but Cancer really knows why it starts, whom it will choose.

I was twenty-three when he got the diagnosis.

“I just want to hip you,” he said, coming into my room, red wine in hand.  I was home visiting from Boston, where I lived at the time.   He explained that his brand of cancer was the best kind a guy his age could get.  It would move slowly; we’d barely notice it.  He looked the same as he’d always looked—neither concerned nor the least bit sad.  He made it so easy for us both to remain in denial for the next few years.  We had my mother to do the worrying, to handle reality for us.

Two weeks before my father died, his blood pressure fell dramatically; we were told “it could be any time now.”  My mother and I took our leaves from work and The Wait began.  We left the apartment only to run errands, to go to therapy, or for short walks to get air.  We’d hurry back, afraid he’d go while we were out—a notion I couldn’t bear.

Dad withered to about seventy-eight pounds, consuming nothing but the few ounces of apple cider into which they mixed his morphine.  There was nothing keeping him alive and yet he lived.  He began to do strange things, like clap his hands over and over again; I never knew why, maybe to reassure himself that he was still there.  The nurse explained that he was “checking out, bit by bit.”  He struggled with words, with names.  He seemed to see people who were not there, but whom he knew, yet I was a stranger to him.

The night before my father died, my mother suddenly announced that she couldn’t take it anymore: the waiting, holding, swabbing, wiping and listening, alternately to Dad’s cries of agony and, in calmer moments, his labored breathing.  We fled to the living room where we had a tiny television set, leaving my father in the care of the Visiting Nurse.  We had no cable out there; all we could get was Batman Returns.  We didn’t care that we were picking up the thread in the middle.  Tim Burton’s Gotham City was just the escape we needed: this dark, surreal, uber-NewYork.  Most freakish of all was Danny DeVito’s Penguin.  They’d whitened his face, darkened his eyes, lips and teeth, given him wild, silver hair, and a long pointy nose.  With the evil umbrella, monocle, and demonic laugh, he was just about as sinister as a guy standing five feet tall can be.  But he also looked so thoroughly ridiculous, that his image sent my mother into a fit of giggles.

My mother snickers when amused, chin buried in one shoulder.  Her laughter is usually at someone’s expense; it’s sometimes rude, but always contagious to me.  All along, I’d had this selfish fear that when my father died, my sense of humor would go with him.  My boyfriend, my friends would tire of my moroseness and desert me one by one.   Now the bitter end was upon us, my father breathing his last, occasionally crying out in pain in another room.  Yet here we were, in stitches, laughing harder still at our own guilt.

My father died at home, on the day before Valentine’s Day in 1995.   We were both at his side.  My mother said, “Goodbye, Mel,” and kissed him for the last time, after forty-five years of marriage.  When I touched my lips to his broad, brown forehead, it had already begun turning cold.

Once he’d been taken out, my mother began making phone calls. I went back into their bedroom, which still looked and smelled like the hospice room it had been for the last few weeks.  I steeled myself and went about transforming it, so my mother wouldn’t have to.  I changed the sheets on their bed, first removing the pads from my father’s side.  I got rid of the bedpans and swabs and blue plastic covers and everything else that had enabled him to stay at home.  Next, I dressed myself entirely in his clothing—a pair of yellow sweatpants with the legs cuffed and waist cinched in, a black sweatshirt, his rag-wool socks.  When I came out into the hall, my mother was still on the phone.

“Mel died this morning,” she was saying to whomever was on the line, and that made it real.

For three days after that, people who had loved him and who loved us poured into the apartment bearing food, memories and their company.  During the day, mostly neighbors came, along with my mother’s colleagues from the school where she taught.  In the evening, friends of the family arrived—the ones I’d known since childhood, who used to show up in dashikis, bell-bottoms and afros, many of whom I hadn’t seen for years.  The first night, their faces were grief-stricken as they hugged and clung to us.  My friends came by later, adding their youth to the mix.

Our shiva was not a real shiva.  There were no boxes, no covered mirrors or quiet.  While most people did bring roast chicken, matzo ball soup, and boxes of rugelah from Fine and Shapiro, others bore ribs and plates of collard greens.  I played Bach at first, then jazz, blues, rock and also gospel, because my father had loved it all.  We set out the food and wound up throwing a party he would have been proud to host.  There were tears, but more so, the sharing of memories and laughter.

On the second day, Valentine’s Day itself, one of Mom’s colleagues brought over a stack of condolence messages from the children in her third grade class.  The substitute teacher had made time that day, not only for this project, but also for the creation of Valentine’s Day cards.   Several of the children had conflated the tasks, decorating my mother’s notes with elaborate hearts and rainbows.  The stand out in the bunch came from a boy who had written in a small, awkward cursive:

Dear Mrs. Williamson,  I’m sorry your husband is dead.

By Sam 

Then, in a cheerfully swirling red:

 P.S.  Happy Valentine’s Day!

Something about the juxtaposition of sentiments: Mom and I were instantly consumed by laughter once more.  We proceeded to clutch each other, new tears streaming down our faces, joining the sea already cried that day.   It went on a while; we’d stop, look at each other, look back at the card, and lose it again, residual chuckles erupting for several hours.  Two nights before, Danny deVito had given us respite from the waiting game.  Little Sam had reignited the pilot light of our family’s spirit.

After three days of our alternative shiva, it was suddenly enough.  I was tired of the crowds reminiscing, tired of the limbo.  I remembered the parties of the seventies and heard my father’s voice:

“That’s all she wrote.”

Goodbye Hadiya: An Ode to the Lights in our Lives

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Your daughter dreams big.  Why shouldn’t she?  She looks at the future as a wide open sea of possibility, a canvas to be filled with color or left full of open spaces as she sees fit.  She trusts that the future will come and take whatever shape she gives it, so she can live in the present where she belongs—with her friends, their jokes, their music and clothes.  The wonderful things they do together.

Special things happen to your daughter, they make her heart race with excitement, yours swell with pride.  You try not to gush—not to our friends or neighbors, not to the woman behind you at the checkout whose name you can’t remember but whose kids are the same age yours are—but sometimes you can’t help it.  Because, as much as your girl lives in the present, you see her in the full circle of her days: the infant you held, the toddler you chased, even the striking, accomplished woman you know she’ll be.

Sometimes, when you watch her with her friends, or listen to her as she tells you about her day, you find your eyes welling up because it’s going so fast, so magically, beautifully, painfully fast.  You don’t know how it will all turn out, but what an exciting ride—wonders around every corner.

But then, a phone call comes, the phone call you’d never expect, bearing impossible news.  Your girl has been shot.  Yes that’s right.  Your beauty, your sunshine, your light.

And hours later she’s gone.

As she huddled with her friends under a canopy to escape a downpour, you’re told, a man with a gun came running out of nowhere, fired on the group, then jumped into a car and was sped from the scene.  “I’ve been shot,” your daughter said to a friend, who tried to catch her as she fell.  Those were among her last words.

You get the phone call soon after.  You don’t think about statistics; you don’t consider which factors increase or decrease gun violence; you don’t blame the NRA or some negligent mental health professional.  Instead, you stand there in horror as your heart breaks in two.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15.  Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

Hadiya Pendledon, aged 15. Majorette, Volleyball player, Honor Student, Daughter.

So … no—it wasn’t your daughter, or mine for that matter.  The fifteen year old murder victim was Hadiya Pendleton, a majorette at the exclusive King College Prep, who had just performed in Washington DC at the presidential inauguration.  She was an honors student and volleyball player who thought of becoming a lawyer, a pharmacist, or possibly going into politics.  Dimples framed her warm, bright smile; her pretty brown eyes glowed optimism.  On NPR, I heard her father say these words: “They took the light from my life.”  I don’t think there is a parent in the world who can’t identify with him.

Since December 14th  in Newtown CT,  when Adam Lanza took twenty-six lights from the lives of their loved ones, about 1,500 people have been killed in gun violence.

It seems so senseless and it is.  The piece I have the hardest time making sense of, is the argument that arming more private citizens would prevent this sort of attack.  We can look at each crime, take apart the pieces and assess: was the perpetrator insane? (was he in therapy and can we then blame his therapist?) did he acquire the weapon/weapons legally (or did he swipe it from his mother who had acquired all her guns through legal means), but nothing will change the fact that these gunmen were, are murderers.  Murderers who—regardless of their clinical mental state—had no business wielding firearms of any sort.  Any law that makes it harder for a murderer to commit murder with a gun is all right by me.  Even if it means that I will have to work much harder to get a gun myself, should I want to protect my children from an intruder—or four or five intruders—as fantasized by Gayle Trotter.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) advocates arming educators to prevent such violence.  “I wish to God [Sandy Hook Principal Dawn Hochsprung] had an M-4 in her office locked up so when she heard gunfire she pulls it out and she didn’t have to lunge heroically with nothing in her hands.”   I understand that sentiment; I am sure if I’d been there, I would have wished for this to happen.  But realistically, how good is the average private citizen’s aim—even with “extensive firearm training?  All I know is that police officers (and last I checked, the police receive pretty rigorous training) fire their weapons accurately in time of crisis only 34% of the time.  For private citizens, it’s less than that.

In the movie theater in Aurora, CO, would a private citizen have been able to disarm madman James Homes who opened fire?  (Keep in mind, Homes was wearing protective gear, began shooting in a noisy, darkened theater, after releasing a canister of gas.).  Would the hypothetical armed teacher in Newtown have gotten Lanza (who also wore a bullet proof vest)   on the first try?  Or would she have missed, angered him and exacerbated things. ( Just remember, Lanza had two semi-automatic handguns and an AR-15.)  Statistics generally show that gun violence tends to beget gun violence.  Even guns kept in homes for self protection are far more likely to kill the gun owner or a family member, to go off accidentally or to be used by domestic abusers than in self defense.

Though Hadiya Pendleton’s immediate neighborhood was safe, with little gun violence, she lived in a city which, despite having tough gun laws, is virtually overrun by them.   Chicago’s gun violence has been climbing even while New York’s has fallen.  Hadiya was the 40th person killed by a gun in Chicago this year  Is it that the restrictions are too tough and therefore prevent civilian would-be-stoppers of violent criminals?  Or, is it that there are already so many guns in circulation (many attained outside the city) that anyone inclined to violence can get one without much effort, no matter the laws in place?  I imagine it’s not difficult for law abiding private citizens to get their hands on guns in these circumstances either, though I just can’t see how any armed bystander might have been fast enough to save Hadiya.

In any case, I join the rest of the country in mourning for her, just as I have for the children and adults slain in Newtown and all those lives lost between.

House Fire Chronicles: A Very Brief Update

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This beautiful painting by Zoe was on the wall in our playroom.

Thank you all so much for your kind wishes, hugs, prayers, meals, gifts and really fabulous hand-me-downs (I love Montclair!).  We are so grateful to the wonderful friends who gave us their comfortable third floor for the past month.  We are also missing them a little bit now, as we’ve moved into a rental house that is just about two blocks away from our actual house.  We feel very lucky, even though the day we moved in here some men in trucks arrived to dig a huge hole in the front lawn in preparation to clean up an oil leak (this originated from the neighbor’s tank which was removed about a year ago).  I write this, by the way, to the beat of a jackhammer outside my window.  No biggie;  it will all be over in a week or two, the guy smoking a cigarette on my porch tells me.  Besides, I have to say again, I am so grateful to be here, this close to home.   It meant a lot to me that, while we’re waiting to move back (a year from now), our orientation to the town is basically the same as usual.  Close to school, close to neighbors, close to the construction, which should begin sometime soon.  Zoe is back on her old school bus and both kids are right around the corner from their friends. 

This would be more heartbreaking, I think, had our place just burned to the ground with all our stuff inside.    Instead, all our stuff is mostly intact, caked with soot, ground through with smoke-stench, but still there.  In a strange way, this has given me a chance to say goodbye.     

 Though the air inside good old 14 Victoria is really not safe to breath, though it is a darkened horror show, full of broken glass and other hazards, every few days, I put on a mask and sneak in to see what treasures I can rescue—a drawing that’s not too charred, an old favorite stuffed animal (I was able to scrub it fairly clean in the machine, though it still smells like smoke), a bra (seriously).  My clandestine game of search and rescue is coming to a close soon.   The place has been picked over and inventoried and assessed by salvage and content experts one of whom eloquently declared our stuff to be “toast.”  Read: not worth trying to salvage.  Which we’re now ready to hear I think, ready to move on. 

The next stage I think, is demolition.  Or something like it.  Stay tuned.  A phoenix is on the horizon.

My apologies for not blogging much these days, not following much and posting the same thing on FB and WP.  It’s not just a case of laziness or being overwhelmed.  I am writing, though mostly my book—which is keeping me sane—and limiting the time I spend at the computer.  The kids need it more.  And me.

Love,

Lisa

The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

It is a strange feeling, for a mostly home mom to be displaced, living with your family in the home of another family with another mostly home mom.  My host is the best imaginable.  Not only is she generous enough to put us up while we look for alternate housing for the year (minimum) that it will take to rebuild our house, she is also flexible enough to let my family’s schedule and quirks melt naturally into the flow of hers.  Somehow a routine is forming for us all.  If your house is destroyed in a fire and your kids are in school and you need time to find a big-enough-for-four, comfortable-enough-to live-in-for-a-year rental, there simply could not be a better situation.

Still, the fact remains that I cannot go home.  Not all the way.  I can go look at my home, I can smell my home, but I cannot provide a life for my family there.  And that’s a big piece of my mother-identity, on hold until we can go back.

People are amazed at how upbeat I seem, how well I’m taking it, how calm  I am.  They say this because I am not usually calm.  I am normally type A, with a long checklist of daily rituals and  requirements—for exercise, productivity, family care—in order for  the day to count.  But now that I’m removed from all that, I am indeed surprisingly calm.  I’m able to be so thanks to our god-sent host family and also to the fact that I have to be calm for the sake of my kids.

Still, the loss hits me in strange ways when I least expect it.  For example, our local paper ran an article about someone else’s generator fire.  In it was a flippant mention of another freak fire that had taken place the week before.     Something about “a house fire, just last week, when a family went out, leaving a lighted candle.”   By “a family,” I realized they meant us.

We hadn’t gotten the fire report yet, so it was news to us that we’d left a lighted candle.  The truth was we’d blown the candles out before going upstate and checked the house twice for stray ones.  However, there was one big pillar candle, a fat one—the kind you don’t think you need a base for—which we had blown out, but apparently NOT WELL ENOUGH.   There was still an ember, deep inside where we didn’t see it, an ember just strong enough to reignite.  It took all day and probably most of the next night to melt all the way down to the dining room table, for the wax to melt, serving as an accelerant, igniting the table, which burned through the floor, which fell into the basement, and so on, and so on.

But we didn’t know that yet, and reading the quote in the paper felt so demoralizing.  Careless couple torches own houseGoes up state to do laundry.

This enormous sense of helplessness hit me while I was driving, running some post-fire errand.  Helplessness because I could not undo this horrible thing, which was such a fluke, after all.  Helplessness because it was now something that felt so public casting a harsh, cold light on what should have been our private pain and loss.  Helplessness, because no matter which way I drove, I could not drive home.

As I came to one of the town centers, I noticed a small, white dog—a poodle mix of some kind, running across the street.  She was alone, no Frisbee in her mouth, no leash dragging behind her.  She scurried through the traffic, now up on the sidewalk, now back into the vehicular current.   Clearly frightened, she ran in circles; I was terrified that she’d get hit.  Now I noticed three young men in pursuit of her, meaning to stop her and keep her safe, but the dog didn’t understand.  All she knew was that three big humans with deep voices were chasing her.  She turned a corner and they followed.  I thought fast, made a three point turn (on a busy street), and drove around the other way, where I hoped to head the dog off and save her myself.  Surely she wouldn’t be afraid of a nice lady with a soft mommy voice, right?

Suddenly I knew: I had to save this little dog, whom I took for a stray.  I wanted to take her home, though I myself had none to share with her.  It didn’t matter; I had children, a husband; we were the perfect family for this animal (who looked like a non-shedding mix, which would be okay for Jon and Zoe’s allergies).  In fact, it was kismet that I had seen her on this day, of all days.  She was my phoenix, rising from the ashes of our home.

The morning after we learned our house had been destroyed, before we returned to New Jersey to view the damage, my husband and I had taken our kids to brunch at a little Rhinebeck diner.  We’d been talking about the year ahead: where we would live?  What we would do, while our home was being rebuilt?  We’d all cried and bemoaned the loss and now were at a new stage of grief: crisis management and making the best.  Without consulting one another, my husband and I had made the same, seemingly spontaneous promise to the children:

“When this is all over and we move back in, we’re getting a dog.”  The ultimate silver lining, as far as the kids were concerned.   My gaze had met Jon’s over the remains of an omelet.  Did we mean this?  Yes we did.

It wasn’t that spontaneous an idea.  Unbeknownst to the kids, we’d been thinking of it for almost a year, but now, we felt suddenly ready.   Partly, it was the loss of our gerbils in the fire, the tiny triumvirate who were themselves dog-placeholders.   But the fantasy of family life, complete with dog, somehow eased our homesickness.  As if having a dog in place would make our new home more solid than the one we’d lost.

The runaway pup had disappeared around the corner of Walnut and Christopher, where there was a big, leaf-covered schoolyard.   Once I’d made my illegal three-point turn, I sped ahead, whipped around Label Street and then onto Christopher, anticipating that the dog would be running toward me.  She was, with the three young guys still in hot pursuit.  I stopped abruptly, which startled the dog.  She froze, staring at my car.  I got out, approaching her slowly, one hand extended, addressing her in the gentlest tone I could, as I might talk to a lost toddler.  The guys followed my lead, but this seemed to make the dog even more uneasy.  She cowered just a little, black eyes darting from me to the guys and back.  I asked if they knew her; one guy said he’d seen her
around.   But when he took a bold step toward her, the little dog growled at him.   The young man jumped back as his friends chuckled.

“Uh—she really doesn’t like people.”

I refused to believe it.

“Hi sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice high and soft.  But she was afraid of me too:  the crazy lady with a minivan who seemed to be sniffling for some reason.  I knelt and repeated my words until she began inching toward me, meaning to sniff my outstretched hand, anxiously seeking  someone to trust.   How I wanted to be that someone.  But then, one of the guys made a sudden move which spooked her again.  The dog bolted, ran through the school yard, across the street and up the front steps of a house on the far corner.   By the time we caught up with her, she was pawing at the door, though no one seemed to be home.  The guy who knew the dog explained: he’d seen her there before and thought she lived there.

So the dog had a home, a rundown little home where no one seemed to be missing her at the moment, but still, a home with toys out front: a red wagon, a Little Tikes house and truck.  A home with children.  And now I could see that the dog had a collar and tag: a red, heart-shaped tag.   Someone had taken the care to provide her with that.

Finally–since no one seemed to want to harm her–the dog allowed one of the guys to get close to her.  First he let her sniff his hand, then gently he patted her.  She didn’t growl or otherwise object, though her tail did not wag.  The guy rose to ring the doorbell.  We all waited.  No one came.  The dog seemed to relax nevertheless, trust growing; we might be her friends.

The guy rang the bell again and still, no one came, so he called the phone number on the dog’s tag.  By now, I knew they had her under control.  There was no reason for me to stay any longer.   I was glad the dog was safe, glad that I might have played a role in her rescue.  Though as I walked back to my car, I felt this overwhelming sense of empty-handedness.

Here was my real fantasy of the rescue: I whip my car around the corner of Label and Christopher, the little dog stops, unsure, but sensing a loving presence behind the darkened windshield.  I get out, slide open the side of my minivan, crouch down to her level and say:

Here, Sweet Doggie.  Come: be safe and loved.   I have a family who needs you, who have lost a home just like you have.  Together we can make a new one.

It doesn’t take much coaxing, because her instincts are strong and she understands truly who I am and what I mean.  With a little yip and a wag of her tail, she hops inside and rides shotgun as I bring her home to begin a new life for us all.

House Fire Chronicles: Saving Humpty Dumpty

November 11th, 2012:

Ventured into the house today—not all the way in, just a foot or two inside the front door, which stood wide open “airing the place out,” which, as I’ll explain in a moment, is a laughable impossibility.  The electricity is turned off in preparation for repairs to start, so the whole place is dark.  In this photograph, you can see all I saw.

I reached into the coat closet, which is still littered with our shoes, mostly mine:  about six pairs of soot-caked flipflops under the cover of all my soot-caked coats.  Now, I’ve been warned that even though a lot of our stuff looks “surprisingly okay,” it will never be usable again because of the persistent smoke odor.  It’s more than an odor, the fire inspector has explained (backed up by our former landscaper who—alarmingly—used to be an arson specialist).  According to these experts, all our stuff is so deeply penetrated by smoke, that the smoke has essentially changed the chemistry of each item so it is now actually part smoke.

There’s something very sci-fi about that but it seems to be true.  Yesterday, my husband brought a bin of Stuff-From-The-House over to the house we’re staying in.  He couldn’t bring it inside or our friends’ house would very quickly smell as if the fire had taken place here rather than there.

Jon told me to pick over the bin full of notebooks and school books, jewelry– mostly my daughter’s–and a few little chachkies, to see what might be usable.  A cloud of toxic dust rose into the air as I lifted the lid of the bin.  Gasping for breath, I rummaged, though it was clear that anything inside would need major rehabilitation before resuming its intended function.  But all my daughter’s beaded creations, acquisitions from Claire’s and friendship bracelets were in there, a memory attached to each.  If I could rescue just one trinket as a memento, I thought, just a pair of Zoe’s earrings; it would mean so much.  I gulped air as I hunted; the  soot and smoke smell from the bin’s contents was near asphyxiating.  Everything was thrown together and a uniform shade of dark grey, too, making it difficult to identify anything.  What I finally came away with were a pair of pink Eiffel Tower earrings from the Epcot Center.  So tiny, I thought, and so easy to clean.  Well, I scrubbed them for about fifteen minutes—black muck kept spewing from the diminutive crevices.  Each time I thought the earrings were clean, there was more.  Finally they sparkled.  Triumphantly, I presented them to Zoe.

“Do they smell?”  She asked, because even pre-fire, she was very sensitive to bad odors.

“I don’t think,” I said, not realizing that by this time I smelled just like the earrings and was past the point of noticing.

She smelled them herself.  “Yuck,” was the verdict.  She handed the earrings back.  I left them in the bathroom, but later returned to find that the whole place now smelled like an old man with a bad cigarette habit.  Just from those tiny earrings!  Into a Ziploc they went.

It occurred to me then that if these earrings couldn’t be salvaged, even after being cleaned to look like new, the job  of salvaging bigger stuff, of fumigating and reconstituting our home, is a bigger one than I’d thought.  Today I hauled my “go-to” every day boots  out of the coat closet, as well as my snow boots and (alas) only one of Zoe’s.  (I didn’t bother with Theo’s stuff because, number one: he’s not attached to any clothing and, number two: hand-me-downs have been raining down on him and on Jon since this happened; Theo has six pairs of snow boots now; Jon has five “pre-owned” new suits.)

I was so glad to get my boots out, even though I could see and smell that they’d function better as smokestacks now than garments.  But hey—they were black to begin with, right?  I’m putting them in a garbage bag and going to research online to see if there’s a fairy godmother for rescuing your favorite boots when they’ve been through a house fire.

What’s weird though, is how easy it is to get rid of the stuff that was just stuff.  From a whole toasted-up drawer of paraphernalia, to extract one special thing: a letter, a photograph, a rock with a tree painted on it and my son’s haphazard “THEO” crayoned on the bottom—and then to say: toss the rest without a single pang of regret.  We had so many things we didn’t need, I realize now.   This kind of reboot does nothing if not show you what really matters.

I have here (in a Ziploc) this one tiny composition book in which I recorded some sweet, early anecdotes about both children.  A treasure rescued.   It is worth more than all the wedding china that lies splintered all over my basement floor.  A sample:  Theo, aged two and a half—we were reading Mother Goose and had just gotten up to Humpty Dumpty:

“Hey, Mommy.  How come Humpty Dumpty gotta go up on that wall every time?”

Humpty just didn’t get cause and effect no matter how many times we read the book.  I’ll take this recorded memory over the good china any day.  I don’t really care how it smells either.

Post Sandy: A Home Under Ashes

I should be posting something about the election, putting together my concluding Race 2012 blog post.  I should be reading other people’s posts on the election, clicking on some of those tantalizing titles.  I’m not though.  I can’t write about the election—delighted as I am with the outcome—or about race or body image or identity.   Instead, I’m trying to wrap my mind around this one central fact that’s changed my life, my husband’s and my children’s irrevocably.

A fire destroyed our house.

While we were staying upstate with friends last week, seeking refuge from New Jersey’s widespread Post-Sandy power outage, while we were enjoying the heat, electricity and laundry of our friend’s country home, our own was quietly being consumed by flames.

Our house as it was, photo taken in the Spring of ’06

We’d joked the night before about how lucky we were to be have lost power, forcing us into a splendid weekend getaway at a house in the country by a babbling brook, on acres of gleaming fall foliage.  We’d brunched on French toast, omelets, and espresso, then embarked on an exploration of the town proper, with all its quaint little shops.  I ventured into a consignment store, ogling a pair of wine-colored alligator pumps while my husband took the kids to the book store.  The shoes turned out to be size six—way too small—so I went to rejoin my family.

The kids were reading.  Jon pulled me aside:

“I have to talk to you.”  He’d just gotten off the phone with one of our neighbors who had called about our house.  By this time, it was eleven a.m. Saturday, November 3, 2012.  Smoke was billowing from every orifice of my beloved, raised split-level house, four fire trucks out front.  Our cul de sac, which normally rings with children’s shouts and laughter, was packed with onlookers from the block, all of whom had been ordered to vacate their houses—just in case there was an underground cause that might put the neighboring homes at risk.

Still in our friend’s rural outpost, Jon and I told the children—we had to.  Zoe reacted with loud cries of why?  and no!  and copious tears.  Theo asked a few pointed questions and then asked to use the Kindle for a game.   He had what he liked best, he later explained: his dad, his mom, his sister and best buddies, his favorite stuffed cat, his tennis racket.

Jon drove home to investigate, leaving me and the kids in the country where we’d be safe and warm, where we’d be free to hold onto our images of the house as it once was: whole, comfortable, and well-inhabited by us.  Full—too full—of our stuff.   The unknown: how bad was it?  What—if anything?—was left?—was better certainly than what Jon would face when he arrived.

Back in Montclair, Jon spoke to the fire inspector, who called the cause of the blaze undetermined.  Before we left, we’d blown out all the candles, checked the house twice for stray ones.  We’d had nothing in the fire place for several days.   Besides, it appeared that the blaze had begun in the basement, where nothing had been lit at all.   Then Jon stood with the neighbors and friends and family who had come to meet him, all watching the smoke, still settling, the glass falling all around.

By the time Jon got back upstate, the kids were asleep.  We sat at the table and Jon described what he’d seen: a surreal image of our life.  While the outside of the house looked the same (except for the broken windows), the inside was scorched black throughout.  The dining room had collapsed into the basement.  The kitchen—whose cabinets had been adorned with my children’s artwork—was a charcoal sculpture garden; the living room, much the same.  He could only guess at which belongings might be salvageable.

Questions cropped up as Jon and I talked: where would we stay when we went back?  (We had to go back; I was determined that the kids should start school as soon as it reopened to maintain some form of normalcy.) Where would we live while our house was being repaired?  How long did we think that would take?  The answers to these questions would come in time, as would a quiet resolve on both of our parts to get through this together and keep our kids from feeling the disruption too harshly.

It’s a full week later—that’s how long it’s taken me to post about this.   (Also how long I’ve been totally absent from the blogosphere.)

Here’s our status:  Coping well under the circumstances.  Our house may take over a year to be rebuilt.   Thanks to some good advice, our contractor is an expert in fire damage.  That is of utmost importance, we learned.  If our house were simply repaired and rebuilt, it would forever smell of smoke and mildew from the water that put out the blaze.

Friends are contacting everyone they know to help us find a home to lease in the area while renovations are underway.   In the mean time, we are staying in the home of wonderful, loving friends in our town, who have generously converted the third floor of their house into a suite for our family.  To give you an idea of how this family feels about guests, when we arrived here there were already four other families—whose homes had no heat or electricity—staying with them.  The three year old of the house inaugurates newcomers by having each guest read him a bedtime book.  His favorite is my daughter.  The other children in the home, a boy near my daughter’s age and a girl near my son’s age, are so eager to share their space and things, it is beyond heartwarming to hear the four of them chatting, playing and laughing together.  As for their parents, their mother especially, words cannot describe how much they’ve done for us.    While we’re working out details with the insurance company and contractors, while we’re also looking for a rental house, we have a base where we feel very much at home and are beginning to find a routine.  We are so grateful.

On Wednesday, my kids went off to school carrying new backpacks, filled with school supplies gathered by the school principal and PTA .  Everyone in the town is reaching out, asking how they can help, gathering clothes and shoes for my family.  And I know, many of them are still without heat or power in their homes!  All their kindness has cushioned the blow of this loss.   It’s as if the whole town of Montclair has us enveloped in a big, warm hug.   (THANK YOU ALL!) We are so fortunate to live in this amazing community.

Granted, my heart breaks a little each time I allow myself to imagine the fire itself, especially our three sweet gerbils, Koko, Remy and funny Gemini, the mad sleeve-climber,  who died peacefully in their sleep from carbon monoxide inhalation.  We will remember those rascals fondly.  But our things were just things and not what makes a home a home.   The best news is that Jon and the kids and I are all fine, safe and together.   We are very fortunate.

There are many harder hit than my family—so many homes, property, lives lost in the aftermath of this terrible storm.  Some people have lost their whole communities, living in shelters, no idea of where or when it will end.   The damage, as well the need for aid, is extensive not only in the American Northeast but also in Haiti and other Caribbean countries, where Sandy hit earlier.  Here is a list of organizations offering aid to victims of this disaster.

http://www.pih.org/

http://www.robinhood.org/news/robin-hood-hurricane-sandy-relief-fund-passes-11-million-contributions

http://www1.networkforgood.org/hurricanesandy

http://www.redcross.org/

http://www.directrelief.org/emergency/hurricane-sandy-relief-and-recovery/

For all who are suffering, I wish the kind of support we have.