It’s been over a week since the fire and the nightmares have not subsided. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined but there are many theories. One theory is that the fire started in the wiring under the living room, which is particularly disturbing because it would mean that it was already raging under the floor by the time I saw it. Was that whoosh I heard caused by the collapse of the living room floor, releasing the burst of black smoke and soot that engulfed the dining room and the kitchen? Had I been seconds earlier to wake I might have been standing the middle of it.
The smoldering remains. Bricks and concrete siding still standing.
So now my nightmares have expanded to include falling through the floor into an already raging fire to land on flesh-searing embers. As I try to scrabble out my sweatpants are burning, my synthetic tank top has melted to my torso, and I cannot breathe in the searing, sooty air. Over the crackle and the wind I hear my mother outside screaming my name as I become a whirling energetic disembodied being dissipating into… where? Christianity would put me in heaven or hell. Quantum mechanics posits an energy merge. Buddhists believe in bardos and reincarnation.
This nightmare triggers a memory. Shortly after 4:37 am on February 26, 2020 I am trapped by the security door in the kitchen while the black smoke thickens and the crackling sound of fire grows closer and louder. I twist the locks, push, pull, and twist the locks again with no effect. I realize there is no more time to waste flipping locks and that I might be losing cognition. I shake the door in frustration then drop to the floor. A fraction of a second of peace and acceptance washes over me and I feel light and free.
A fraction of a second after that I am scrambling across the floor with my sweatpants over my face.
A week later, I know what PTSD is. Yes, I have always known that PTSD is real and horrible but I have had no idea until now. If this is me a week later having nightmares and short, sudden verbal outbursts in the course of my day, I try to imagine the level of PTSD of someone traumatized by war or abuse or chemical imbalance. I have never been one to scoff or blame or laugh at the guy in loud conversation with himself as he plows through pedestrian traffic with his shopping cart. Or the homeless woman holding a sign at the traffic light. I have tried to help with a smile or a short human interaction or some cash or contributions to a local charity. It isn’t enough, especially for those who are alone and without support.
Image by Quinn Kampschroer from Pixabay
The person standing next to you may be in crisis. It turns out hospitals in California are required by law to offer homeless patients a meal and clothing. The nurse asked us if we wanted to take advantage of their “closet,” assuring us there were some very good clothes there. We said no, knowing we could afford to purchase anew. In retrospect we probably should have accepted and returned them, laundered, as we ended up shopping in ill-fitting clothing from my sisters-in-law and nieces.
Dad, having just flown back from Dallas, had a suitcase full of the basics for a week. I lost the contents of my suitcase and an entire wardrobe waited for me back at home. My mom had lost it all.
Trying to think of every little thing was difficult and disorienting. Underwear, pants, shirts, socks, shoes, sleepwear, toothbrush, moisturizing cream, and all the little things like nail files and tweezers and eyebrow pencils and lipsticks and purses and cases. Other shoppers deliberated over a single purchase. A woman holding a shirt up for scrutiny shrugged and smiled at me. I tried to smile back. I’m not sure I succeeded.
We didn’t deliberate much, flinging the basics into a shopping cart, Jeremy trailing behind with his credit card. As I was choosing a purse my peripheral vision started to close in and I sunk to the floor. What do people do, I wondered, when they don’t have the resources we have?
First stop, Costco (See article on clothing at Costco by FastCompany)
My parents have great homeowners insurance. They’ll get a comparable rental property while they rebuild their home and replace their belongings. But the road ahead is difficult and disheartening. We are alternately joyful and depressed.
It has taken me three days to list the contents of my suitcases and fill out the columns with item, purchase price, purchase date, replacement price. I have re-purchased most of them online but I keep thinking of things. Today, I was looking for my business cards and realized I had packed them for my conference.
The insurance company sent us an example spreadsheet with a list of contents for each room. We’ve customized it and put it on Google Docs so all of us can work on it. Beds and linens and desks and clocks and computers are easy to list. But imagine how depressing it is to list items like antique desk, heirloom, est value TBD. Each irreplaceable item must be researched to determine cash value for the insurance company. And how do you determine cash value for dozens of old photo albums?
Plans to replace the house must be made. There’s property testing—asbestos and toxic wastes—and cleanup. At 85 and 86 years old my parents want to get back on the property fast. Traditional building takes too long so we’re discussing prefab. Building with Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF) is a new option. It is fireproof, earthquake proof, warm in winter, cool in summer (energy savings), non-toxic, made of recycled materials, is noise-insulating, and takes less time to build so labor costs are less.
Recently this “Legos for adults” material was approved for building in California—the US is years behind Europe in adopting it—but not a lot of builders know how to build with it yet. It’s not complicated, in fact it’s easier than the nail-banging method, but there is resistance to change. Contractors, lumberyards and big stores like Lowes and Home Depot are resistant, too, though they could easily become suppliers.
What a life-changing event. And wow, it sure is good to be alive. Still, my parents have a long year ahead. Our entire family has a long year ahead! And we realize how very fortunate we are in our family and network of friends. Speaking of which, thank you for the outpouring of real offers for help, for your condolences, and for just checking with a virtual hug via the blog comments, email, and on Facebook. And thank you for writing to let me know you’ve been inspired to check your smoke alarms, create and practice exit routes, purchase fire extinguishers and second-story rope ladders. I love technology for its ability to keep us connected no matter where we are in the world.
Next post: Money and Other Things that Survived
You can subscribe to be notified when I add a post. Just sign up below or at the upper right of page.
What a relief to know you are physically okay after such a traumatic ordeal. I hope you’ll start seeing a therapist with a specialty in EMDR, as I found it the best thing to help me with my ptsd after watching my late husband die. Tons of love and healing to you!
Hyla, so good to hear from you. I remember your story and I hope you are well and happy. Thank you much for your recommendation!
Yes! I have experienced EMDR twice. It is astonishingly effective. My therapist was one of many who traveled to Oklahoma City to work with survivors of the bombing there in the 90s.
OMG I can’t think of anything worse – that is scary. I have never experienced anything like and never want to. My Mum is a similar age to your parents, and is a tough old bird, I think their generation is of made of tough stuff, I’d like to think we are too, not like some of today’s younger ‘snowflake generation’. I witnessed an example of that only yesterday.
Hope you are bearing up under such a strain, and getting your teeth into project managing the rebuild. Take care.
Keep us all up to speed
Carla, your account has gone out to many people I know, even a friend at Lake Baikal in Russia currently. People are thinking “fire”! I still have nights staring in the dark thinking of losing you two. And now coping with all this at their ages. For some unknown reason I’ve been making paintings of fire and explosion for decades, thinking of refugees all over the world with homes bombed, family murdered, fields destroyed, intentional destruction by despots and rabid faith leaders, including American. Devastated troops on all sides. Coming so close to death by accident as you did is horror enough; to think humans do it intentionally to others ! I hope you can find solace in your garden. And writing. Thank you from my heart for saving my sister!
Crazy how small the world is now, isn’t it? It’s my least and most favorite thing about the internet. Your fire paintings are awesome, love the ones in Celia’s dining room. I’m sorry about the ones lost in the fire and all the other momentos. The only thing we thought of while fleeing was each other and not the stuff, as special as it all was. Being there was an incredibly fortunate thing. Love you!
Thank you for the update, Carla! The idea of having to fill out a spreadsheet like that immediately consumes me with overwhelm and dread. Should I take a lesson from this and catalog everything now, while I can instead of trying to do it from memory later? Should, but probably won’t…
I know. It’s such a big job. Alternatively, take photos of every wall, every closet, every drawer, every shelf, the interior of your refrigerator and freezer, pantry, etc. Just. In. Case.
Carla, I am glad you are alive and well. Yes, PTSD can be a little debilitating especially as one relives the moment. But, it is possible to move on. It takes time. You will never forget, but you will get to the point where you do not relive the trauma. Therapy helps to get you there.
Be well, my friend. Let’s talk soon.
Thank you Brent. Great stuff you do for veterans, helping with theirs. My healing is writing, gardening, and hey, just maybe a little motorcycling LOL. Talk soon my friend.
Love and miss you. So glad you and your mom are safe.
So glad to get an update. There is so much to think about , be decided and be done. Yes, we have made sure we have the alarm plugged in and functional and fire extinguishers handy. We feel so bad for your parents. But so glad they have you to help them.
Thanks you two! We are grateful for sure.
Thank you for the update. It’s just nice to know how you and your family are doing since you are on our minds. And it’s even better that you write so well and are able to share your insight on how this event has focused your awareness on the essentials of life, not just for you but for all of us. Best of luck as you rebuild every detail of daily life. So overwhelming to even think about.
Thank you, Dave. It helps for me to write it out. Bonus that it helps others be safer. Take care.
Thanks for update, Carla ! love you all, and send your healing energy . Sorry you , Cynthie and all went through that and understand how PTSD is such a force. Your gift with words really makes a difference in how the rest of us can”get” what went on.
Please give all big hugs! xo Cuz Gail
Dear Carla–thinking of you every day and thank you for the update. I hope you get help with the PTSD but it is so natural right now to have it–and it will dissipate, particularly if you are processing it through writing and other means of healing the mind and heart. Best of luck to you and your family.
Thank you, Linda Joy. I love that your gift to the world is encouraging and teaching the power of writing as a healing art form. I hope to see you soon!
Thank you for sharing your experience. It is an eye-opening cautionary tale. I too live in the backcountry like your mother and the threat of fire is always present. Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed with the prospect of moving and wondered what if it all burned down instead? What if I had to start over from scratch? Would it be a relief? Clearly not.
I know! It’s definitely overwhelming Marla. Moving is preferable 🙂
I’m happy you and your family are safe and doing well. I lost my first wife to cancer. It takes awhile, but you do move on. You can e-mail me any time you want. Take care.
Your original post was one hell of a wakeup call, so I sent it out to the SLO NightWriters and Sisters in Crime writing communities, as well as many others, even our Tango community.
I was in Firefighting/Air Crash Rescue in the USAF and in civilian life many years laters I experienced a house fire myself, so I understand it from both sides. No one is ever prepared for living through the experience itself. I am so happy that you were able to escape and move on. Take it one day at a time and count your blessings each day. By the way, you still owe me that motorcycle ride!
Thanks Dennis, for spreading the word. And you’re right. I’ll definitely get a few rides in this year so we can connect in SLO. If you follow me on Facebook @missadventuring I put the word out when I ride, so please don’t let me forget!
Your moment of fumbling for the locks in the smoke and darkness… It leaped out at me the first time I read it, Carla, and it has stayed with me, and I can see why you’ve highlighted it here in your update… I’ve been thinking about your unthinkable experience every day, and while words are sorta “my thing,” I find that anything I might say or write about your experience might dim, for me, its pure raw strength — I think I’ll just stand in awe of it, and say thank you for sharing it with us. And this: I’m glad you’re alive! And lastly this: The very day of your first “holy-shit” email, one of our two home smoke alarms started beeping the signal that its battery was exhausted, and last night during dinner, the other one did the same! It had been at least two or three years since I’d even thought about them… (We’ve changed them both… )
Waaaht!? First of all, so glad your smoke alarms are in working order. Second of all, I so know that words are so your thing 🙂 so thank you for that. I hope you’re writing something else… Take Me with You is such a favorite!
My clueless message of a few minutes ago was written just after seeing your follow-up. By mistake I clicked it into an archive folder that I have not yet been able to decipher. Again, I hope your world is straightening ,and the mountains of minutiae are coming under control.
Thank you Bob. I cannot find an offending comment, so all good! 🙂 Much appreciated.
I was lucky, like you. My disaster was a flood. I lost everything and was 9 months pregnant at the time. What possessions I had that weren’t destroyed by the flood were stolen. All I had left what the clothes I had on, my baby and the car that we were lucky to get moved in time. I waded water up to the chest to get out of the house. The house was a rental and was declared uninhabitable and was eventually torn down. I got a few precious baby things that no one found and that was about it.
It’s devastating. Nothing left. I was one of those who didn’t have to money to replace anything after being laid off. We ended up with urine stained mattresses from the red cross, used clothes from Goodwill, and a house that was almost uninhabitable in the worst section of Knoxville, TN.
Like you, I had nightmares and ended up with severe stress headaches that lasted for almost a year. To make matters worse, my baby refused to let me hold him, crying worse when I picked him up. It was years later that I discovered he was autistic. That was one of the worst years of my life, so I do understand where you and your parents are at right now. That was while I was in my twenties and your story of the fire brought it all back and I’m now 70, so no, it never truly goes away, but you do learn to deal with the feelings, thoughts and fear.
May things look better soon. Keep sending out those gratitude thoughts into the universe and it will see that you get what you need. I’ll do the same for you and your family.
Wow, Barbara, what a story! Thank you for sharing it. Are any of your Novels by a Lady Biker inspired by your experiences? Love to you!
I am glad you survived. It sounds like your experiences would be great for a book or short story to prepare people for what they need to know to prevent or survive fires. Best wishes.
Definitely am thinking of a small book with story and resources, practices for prevention, and “after a fire” advice. Thank you!
I am so very relieved that you and your mom and dog are ok. Your reports are gripping and will help others.
Lots of good thoughts and love as you all recover,
Thank you Diane. It’s good to hear from you!
Carla, I am glad to hear that you are fighting to get over your PTSD; I hope that your Mom and Dad are also trying to get over this horrible tragedy.
I also hope that you saved, or have many pictures elsewhere, of when you and your parents were young.
My love and best wishes,
Hi Carla – So glad to get this update. My heart goes out to you and your family. Stay strong and keep writing. We all appreciate you. T
Thank you Tamara!
Hi Carla. I am a new friend to you via the Women in Publishing Summit and am saddened and horrified to hear what you and your family have been through. I relate with you saying that it helps to write about our personal tragedies and get love and support from friends at home & abroad. I hope the rebuilding of your parents’ home goes well.
Thank you Doreen. So glad my webinar was pre-recorded. I missed the whole week of the summit and I hear it was really good. Luckily it’s available on replay but I had been looking forward to participating live in some way. https://womeninpublishingsummit.com/. Still writing! 🙂
Carla, it was a relief to see your email and link come in this morning. You and your Mom and Dad are never far from my mind or heart. Writing updates not only benefits you, but all of us who care about and love you all.
I’ve thought often since the fire about the aftermath, emotional and physical. So glad you’re finding your path to coping and moving forward from the trauma, knowing it takes time. Knowing you have resources, inner and outer.
Thinking about the many losses of priceless treasures, especially art, hand-crafted creations and most of all photo albums, all so loved, the impossibility of putting a price tag on them. My heart goes out, what a challenge. I can only guess how demanding it is for C & C now to try to detail all. In addition to rebuilding.
Thank goodness for your capable, smart, loving family working together! Our Hawaiian friend taught us their word: IMUA. Onward, forward.
IMUA to you all, with love.
IMUA… I love that. Thank you dear Maura!
I know… you know there were some books in a wooden secretary in the guest room that didn’t burn and a photo of my great grandfather (Foofie’s dad) survived – he was the editor of the Boston Herald. But Ginny’s fire paintings and so many things… sigh. IMUA. I love it!
Love and prayers that life settles down for you and your family Carla. You are so brave, one of the most courageous people I have ever known – certainly your strength and courage got you through this ordeal. Yes, a crisis like this certainly does increase compassion … thank you for sharing the story. Hugs and Love from Nikki &Swami
I responded to your earlier email, and then I saw this one with the link to your article. I have to admit that, despite living through the fires here in Northern California, we still have not done an inventory of our household. So, your experience has me making this a higher priority in our lives.
Also, I have a client who is considered one of the top experts in EMDR, Dr. Laurel Parnell. She also has a network of EMDR therapists that are listed online. So, if you decide to pursue the EMDR path that someone else recommended here, let me know.
Sending lots of healing to you as best I can.
Thanks Ruth. I’ve heard of EMDR and also “tapping.” I’ll let you know. Appreciated!
I’m so sorry for you and your family. Surviving this fire is such a blessing; you were able to stay rational and get yourself and your mother out of the house without injury! Wow… Thank you for sharing your survival story, your writing is inspirational!
The rebuilding process must be so difficult; trying to sort out all the details as well as dealing with the trama. You’re so fortunate to have close family and friends. That said, if I can be of any assistance, please feel free to reach out. Take good care and the best of luck!
Thank you, Peter. Still doing your beautiful woodworking?
So glad that everyone is physically safe. I hope that brings comfort and healing of the emotional trauma this has put you through.
All the best and I hope your writing continues to help you heal.
Carla, thank you for so honestly sharing your experience. The trauma is real and I so sympathize. I wish you blessings of peace and understanding, for your peace to be restored and your understanding to grow; for, as you know, the Phoenix rises from the ashes, and so shall you. as always, all good things, ~Preston
I imagine I have stashed some snacks in my day pack. Dear friends have loaned you a bike, a helmet, and, amazingly, some leathers. Yeah, they’re a bit larger than what you normally ride in, and it feels slightly awkward, but . . . off we go. We roar up the mountainside, playing the curves for all they’ve got. Gravity tugs and we tug back, not in conflict, just dance. We gulp fresh air as we race uphill. We crest and descend just a little to a view point. Here we dismount and sit awhile, sipping our water and the mountain air. We enter a stillness that fills our ears and our being with emptiness. We allow our vision to reach way out over the desert. Soon our inner self-sense is inhabiting universes. Silent. Then we know just when to return to our everyday chit chat. Back on the bikes, we take a side road we haven’t done before. Off GPS, we play it by feel. We’re clipping along, yet can absorb fine details racing past. We see the first of the wildflowers, you know, the ones that grow only above 4,000 feet. We cruise down in rhythmic sweeping pasos. Now we see more common blooms. We make a grand circuit of the desert. In a few hours we’re home, tired, refreshed.
OK, that’s my fiction. And . . . I’m entirely confident that in the actual story, you find your way to healing, and discover a richer, even more authentic voice. With caring, John
I love this!
Another amazing tale from a Wild Writing Woman! You are in my thoughts and prayers.
So sorry to hear, see this post. What a horrific scene to go through. Hopefully everyone will heal in due time but I know I would be devastated as I’m sure you are from the fire. Keeping you in my prayers and hoping for a quick turnaround and healing. Richard