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What the Fire Couldn’t Burn

I remember being frozen in place, cell phone glued to my ear, as I sat trapped in the reality of my mother’s phone call. “Our apartment burned down” was one of those phrases I didn’t think I would ever hear in my lifetime. Something like that could never happen to me, that was for people on the news. Something like that wasn’t supposed to be a part of my storyline. They say that young people often think they’re invincible, like their youth magically absolves them from any danger the world could offer. I was a firm believer in this concept before tragedy struck too close to home.

I can’t imagine the sunken feeling my mother and the other tenants of our building must have felt pulling up to a mountain of soot-covered debris. After the winter storm that burdened Texas at the beginning of this year combined with the continuous pandemic, the common thought was, “What could possibly be worse than this?” We got an answer to the question but never an explanation as to why things happened the way they did. Many families lost their belongings, some lost their pets, all lost their homes. When I was informed of the aftermath, I was miles away from home having just returned to my college campus to finish out the school year. In the middle of stressfully working on my thesis assignment, the pinnacle of my college career, I now had to accept that there was no longer a physical home I could return to. More than anything I was concerned over my mother having to deal with the pain and strife of losing practically everything alone.

Months passed and my mom made her peace with the situation. There was nothing that she or any of the tenants could’ve done to prevent the fire. It was an unfortunate and unprecedented situation, a cluster of words we were all too familiar with at this point. I asked her how she could remain so calm and level-headed about something so upsettingly unfair. We were so happy in that apartment. After we both dealt with our own personal struggles in recent years, moving out of my childhood hometown and into a different city and a new place just for us was our gateway to a better beginning. My mom had just gotten a new job and I was finishing my last year of college, it was meant to be perfect.

Art by Lauryn Jackson

My mom put so much time and effort into making this place just as welcoming as our last, and I was proud of her for it. I wouldn’t call her a “homemaker” per se but our apartment was our little safe haven. It was a fresh start. I didn’t get this dreadful feeling like I did in my hometown, I was actually excited to go home. I loved putting posters on my walls, lighting my mom’s favorite candles, and going on walks with her throughout our new neighborhood. There was a simple comfort in how the apartment brought us together.

It made me think about how distant I got in high school and how much closer we are now. The proximity also could’ve played a role in strengthening our relationship as downsizing to an apartment did force us to spend more time together. It was also essential for that phase of my life, growing out of the strife of a sad small-town teenager and blooming into a curious and free-spirited young adult. No matter how scary or uncertain the future seemed, there was still this cushion. It’s like jumping out of a plane and knowing you have your parachute; that unspoken stability of knowing that whatever happens in the real world, there’s still a home waiting for you to come back to.

I lost sight of what the silver lining of the fire was and my mom reminded me with a sense of gratefulness. She reminded me that no one lost their lives in the fire. Thankfully she was staying at a friend’s house the night it happened and I was back on campus with my roommates. If I would’ve waited to return to school, it’s likely I would’ve been home alone when the fire broke out. When the damage was inspected, they told my mom the fire took her room out first. The thought of either one of us being in such a scarily compromising position makes my skin crawl still to this day.

Being thankful that we were unharmed is something I have to remind myself when I get sad about the situation. Though mindfulness is important, I can’t deny the sting of losing the majority of your belongings and the location you knew as “home.” Realizing in my college bedroom that everything I could see in that moment was all that was left of what I owned made my stomach sick. Even now I find myself looking for something I think I’ve lost only to remember it was taken from me.

Since childhood, I’d known myself to be a sentimental hoarder, never able to throw away anything that triggered a good memory. My closet and my drawers were stacked to the top with old mementos: yearbooks, school football game tickets, stacks of birthday cards, friendship bracelets, books I fell in love with, etc. The more superficial things like half my vinyl collection, a jacket signed by my favorite musician, and other knick-knacks I liked having were also devastating to lose but nothing hurt more than the things I really couldn’t replace. I could never get back the art I made, my dad’s book collection, my box of gifts from friends over the years, notes I’d passed from my school days.

Art by Lauryn Jackson

No matter how much I wanted to just sink into a hole of self-pity, I had to be realistic. Yes, my stuff is gone. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it was out of my control. But there was something I could control, my perspective on my future. Losing so many past keepsakes made me ponder why my collection was so big in the first place. I’ve come to a conclusion now that nostalgia has always had this unwavering hold on me. I thrived on thinking back on comforting memories. I have a tendency of thinking either too far in the past or too far in the future and my keepsakes were how I indulged in that. It gave me a false sense of security that instead of dealing with my life in the present, I could dive back into the past for a while. I could physically hold onto the moments that made me feel safe.

It’s been about eight months since we lost our apartment. My mom has since moved into a new place and I am currently living out my dream of moving to New York. It really felt like our luck was changing when my childhood best friend suddenly needed a roommate. It’s almost embarrassing to me how thankful I am to be back in her life. We met when we were in the third grade and became seemingly attached to the hip. When she moved away after middle school, we drifted apart a bit. Living with her now feels exactly as it did hanging out with her fourteen years ago. Simply being in her vicinity every day sends a rush of memories that not even a yearbook could compete with. Moving in with my childhood best friend is better than any keepsake. I’m learning how to value the past in a new way that goes beyond the material method. I have trouble opening up about when I miss my loved ones or when I need something from them, so I’m using the loss of my physical reminders of them to encourage me to talk to them now. It’s nice to cherish memories and old times, but I want to take advantage of keeping those memories alive.

Forming and focusing on new memories doesn’t alleviate my feelings about my old ones, but I want this perspective shift to help me find the balance between both. The thought of starting over in any sense can be intimidating, but it can also offer a chance to change what you couldn’t before. Honestly, I probably will start the whole sentimental hoarding process all over again; old habits die hard, right? This time though, I don’t think I’ll be so reliant on what I collect being the only indication of how I feel about people. It’s going to take some getting used to, but I think I’ll get better at valuing my memories instead of just keeping them cooped up in a drawer.

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