“Sara’s house is on fire??!!!” I heard my Mom say from the kitchen of my parents’ house in Michigan. I’d been visiting them for the week and can assure you that was the last thing I expected to hear her say when I saw my brother’s phone number on the caller ID.
I remember exactly what my body felt like in that moment. I remember how fast my heart was beating. I remember the lump in my throat. I remember how desperately I wanted to run, move, do something. I have been through traumatic experiences before but none of that enormity condensed down to a single moment.
Immediately, I was struck by how useless my drive to do something was. It was a weird feeling to want nothing more than to get into my car and go home and then realizing I don’t have a home to go to. In the next 24 hours, my roommate was kind enough to get out a few things for me; My favourite, most meaningful necklace, my Master’s Degree from U of T. Other than that, nothing was salvageable.
I didn’t know that when I left on vacation the week prior that that was the last night I would spend in my bed, in our amazing apartment across from Kensington Market. The house was probably 100 years old.
And now it was gone.
Not because I decided I’d outgrown having roommates; not because I decided the rent was too pricey – in fact, not because I decided at all. In one quick moment, my home and everything I had was gone. And the worst part is, it was decided FOR me.
Most people who know me will confirm that I’m pretty much a minimalist, I don’t really have a lot of “stuff”. I prefer to acquire and collect experiences and memories and most of my money goes to those 10 times before it goes towards a “thing." But here’s what was devastating to me about the loss of my “things”: they weren’t actually “things” at all. They were characters in my story. Active, dynamic, participatory.
Let me explain what I mean: In the winter of 2013 I quit my job, gave up my apartment, sold most of my stuff and got on a one-way flight to Nicaragua. Anything I took with me or put in storage with my parents went through a rigorous vetting process. After I came home from my trip, in love with a man from Albuquerque, New Mexico, I packed all my remaining possessions into my little Honda hatchback and drove across the continent to start my life with him. I moved all those things in with care, into the first home I had ever shared with a romantic partner. As the relationship turned dark and became emotionally abusive, those possessions, and any I’d accumulated in the year we lived together went through an even tougher vetting process as I prepared to leave him.
This time, I only had a limited time to move my things before he came home. I quickly had to hold these items in my hand and decide if they were worth moving into the new apartment I’d found online. I moved by myself and had to only take what was really precious to me.
In July of 2015, I packed everything I owned into my little hatchback again. This time, my “things” went on an epic road trip across the United States and Canada with me. We all went to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks together. We went through bear sightings, flat tires and bison crossings together. We crested mountains and crossed crystal clear streams in Montana together.
My “things” were with me in my car when I crossed the border back into Canada and wept tears of joy, relief and the heartbreak of the finality that I couldn’t make my relationship – or Albuquerque “work”. Then, me and the gang travelled to Minneapolis and Chicago, Detroit and finally Toronto again. I moved them into my beautiful new home, in a great area close to where I would be starting my Master’s degree.
So you see, this is what I mean by characters.
This is what I mean by dynamic.
These were not even close to being passive possessions that sat on my shelf for years. They were my companions and my witnesses to the most exciting, difficult, challenging and eventually redeeming three years of my life. To lose them, without a choice, without the opportunity to say goodbye, was an enormous loss. It leveled me. All the tangible connections I had to the most meaningful time in my life were gone. That was the hardest part.
Sure, I still sometimes plan an outfit in my head only to realize I don’t have that dress anymore. Sure, I still get mad that I lost a "A Tribe Called Quest" shirt that’s not available anymore. But ultimately, it’s the loss of active players in my story that really ripped my heart out. That’s what I had to grieve.
Because I’m a therapist, I knew intellectually that I needed safety and I needed community to recover. I say it like this because intellectualizing it helped me swallow and stomach all the favours I had to ask of friends over the course of the next few months. Immediately, after I had my insurance affairs wrapped up (get renter’s insurance everybody!!), I got in my car and drove to Ottawa where I had a safety (and love) net waiting for me.
My best girlfriends that I grew up with were all there. My beloved sister was there. I moved in to the basement of my best friend’s house while she was on her last two months of maternity leave and I did nothing but rest and hold babies and toddlers and my best friends for two months. I wasn’t working because I had just finished my Masters, so I had virtually nothing to offer financially in return. This is where being a therapist, and knowing how critical real and felt safety is to trauma recovery, gave me the conviction and confidence to be such an imposition to my friends over the course of that summer.
Physiologically, this is how our bodies restore equilibrium after a traumatic event– escape to “safety”. Real and perceived. Being around people and community that we love is physiologically, and emotionally the most healing thing we can do for ourselves when our bodies are experiencing that level of stress.
And boy, did it ever heal me.
It’s one thing to be loved. It’s another to be loved on your worst days, with not a resource to offer in return. Not a dollar. Not a laugh. Not a good mood. To be loved that unconditionally was the healing that I needed.
I had another friend I stayed with much longer once my summer in Ottawa was over. She gave me the same unconditional love, kindness and generosity.
Ultimately, these memories, these characters, these stories of love and healing and positivity were the new dynamic characters and story I needed to move forward. And after much soul searching, I was able to find the meaning in my old life burning to the ground. I know now that it was clearing space for bigger and better things for me.
I can honestly say that for the last year and a half, my life has gotten better every day. I’ve expanded into happiness I never thought I could. And I can tell you, two years after the fire, I still come home, in awe that I have a home.
I’m so grateful. The first time I put all my own stuff in my very own medicine cabinet, I wept.
Like, really sobbed.
That I had a medicine cabinet.
Never in my life would I have connected to this level of gratitude and overwhelm with joy for even having “the basics,” had I not lost everything. I remain grateful that the fire took no human (or pet) lives, that no one was sleeping or trapped, that I didn’t have a career where I might have lost my life’s work, that I didn’t lose keepsakes from children that I don’t have. As fires go, it really was the best case scenario.
As grief goes, it also pales in comparison to other losses that life can impose on us. In the end, I’m incredibly fortunate for all that was taken and all that was spared. Plus, now my former roommates and I have a cool nickname: Team Phoenix: Rising from the ashes since 2016!
Sara Kassem, Toronto, Ontario