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Fire Diaries - Part 7

Rachel Saylor

The Messy Emotional Aftermath

Time will heal wounds, or as I've experienced it, dull the pain. The memories are not as frequently replayed in my mind so I'm spending less time reliving the worst day of my life. Lately though, I've been feeling really anxious. Having my stomach twist in knots, my heart palpitate and jaw sore and throbbing because I have clearly been grinding my teeth are strange feelings to experience when I don't feel the mental anxiety and stress that should accompany such symptoms. However, as I begin to dig deeper, my heart is still hurting and bleeding from the trauma I went through, not three months ago.

After a month had passed since the fire, I was still so distraught when others couldn't understand that I am still immensely upset and heartbroken. At this point, three months after, I have just come to understand that that is normal, human even, for people to have almost entirely erased the event from their minds and I am viewed as I was before; no different. It is rather exhausting to fight such a fact and therefore, I must accept it and move on, heal quietly, not bothering others about the matter. This may seem sad or downright depressing, but it just is what it is and I am ok facing that fact.

We were the only ones in our apartment complex that had renter’s insurance. My heart is saddened for those neighbors who lost everything with no hope for compensation. With that said, documenting every single item in our home, including individual details such as, how long we had it, what brand it was, what it would cost to replace, as well as including a photo of each item, has been a complete nightmare. Each time we sit down to try and remember the items room by room, we are reminded of the traumatic event, and heartbreak swoops over to envelope us whole. This has been no simple process, and the thought of sitting down to document our lost items makes me sick to my stomach. The insurance representative told us to go back to the apartment and take as many pictures as possible of our damaged goods. Ha! What a joke that was. I very seriously considered putting pictures of ash on each item line to make my point of how asinine that request was to me. We have been asked many times if our insurance will replace everything. The accurate answer is no. Monetarily speaking, our insurance won’t make up for everything lost, but also, insurance cannot bring irreplaceable items back, like love letters, my dried king protea wedding flower, nor other unique pieces we collected over the years. We are still grateful to get the chance to replace a good portion of what was lost, but the road is not easy. The heartache has been lightened by all of the generosity of friends, family and even those who do not know us, through their contributions to funds to help us rebuild our lives. We will be forever grateful to these kind souls.

There were so many things in our home that are irreplaceable, but I have found myself obsessing over Anthropologie's online store and Amazon, scouring over items I lost that are replaceable or just finding different things to replace what I lost. One night as I had about four different tabs open for different items and I was adding things to my shopping cart in each, I felt sick to my stomach and stopped scrolling my fingers across the screen. I closed each and every one of those tabs and forgot about the items I put into the basket. Guilt and disgust swept over me, and I didn't want to become so materialistically driven. There was this pressure I felt from everyone who was watching us recover that we needed to stay really humble and be grateful for what was given to us, but to not be focused on buying lots of things. No one outright said these words to me, but this experience put us at the center of attention for a while, and it made me feel like I had to watch every step I took in the process of recovery. Some words that were communicated to me that led to this thinking included: “Well, you got all of your favorite things out of the apartment in your suitcase, so that’s good,” or, “I was at first jealous to hear all of your stuff burned up.” I did not in fact have all of my favorite things in my one suitcase, nor would I consider my experience to be jealous worthy. These comments made me feel guilty, but I also understood the reality. Stuff is stuff, I lost all of my stuff and I cannot replace it all in one fell swoop. I also realized that we should be saving money rather than spending it.

This ate at my heart, so I said, "Stop Rachel, just stop."

Every now and again I find myself fantasizing about different dish sets I could replace mine with, although what I really wanted was to just have my own damn dishes back, but yes, I know it's not an option (trust me I already checked). Even still, I have my eyes on some dishes at Anthropologie. They aren't the same as my old ones, but they are delicate and sophisticated. I understand that if we want to make it far in this life, I can't go on spending money like it's not a thing. Needless to say, this transition is hard as fuck and I am figuring out how to cope and keep my sanity.

A number of scars are on my heart as a result of growing up and living life, yet this scar from this fire is still fresh, it is still raw and pink and it still hurts, like hell. Some days I will be just happy dancing around our new apartment and then I am slammed against the wall (figuratively speaking); memories of dancing in our old place flash through my mind. My dancing comes to an abrupt halt and I am suddenly sobbing. Other times, I am driving down the road and there is literally no reminder of the fire to be seen and no thoughts of the fire bouncing around in my head and again suddenly I am crying out, tears streaming down my face. Trauma has a way of sticking with you and ebbing into your life when you least expect it.

The amount of memory loss that people have concerning my trauma can sometimes be astounding. I feel as if I am living a big secret, like no one even knows about what happened to me and Austin. I find it easier to think that way at times and pretend others just haven't been informed.

Part of my identity was stripped from me in the fire. Literally, my birth certificate, social security card etc, but other things like my wardrobe, journals, art etc., so after the fire I decided I wanted to chop my hair off because I wanted to change something on my own terms. I wanted to change me a little bit, but not because it was forced upon me, but because I decided to do it. I have seen my hair chopping and dying through and it felt good to make a change knowing I was the one controlling it. I also discovered that I lost 10 pounds since then, I was not intentionally trying for this and I was rather shocked about it, but it is another change that I have found myself among. After going through something traumatic, some people will get a medal of honor, a tattoo, a piercing or something more extreme. As humans, people want to have something to represent this significant experience, time or change in their lives. A haircut is not that extreme, but it still means something deep to me and that's what matters. Also, It has only been three months, so who knows what other things I could come up with later on to do to signify this time and event in my life. The small act of cutting off and coloring my hair has brought me rejuvenation and I am starting to feel happy in who I am again apart from all of the things I have lost.

Today my husband sent me a link to a story that a guy wrote about his apartment catching fire in New York City. He lost everything. His humble perspective on life afterwards tugged at my heart and reminded me of all that I should be grateful for each and every day I have on this earth. Today marks one year for him since his home was overtaken with flames and destruction. I cannot recount the times that I have been told by different people that, “Stuff is just stuff, you can replace it,” and how annoyed I was to hear this from those who didn’t understand what it felt like at all. Yet, when this guy wrote these words in his blog, I felt like I could really hear it from someone else for the first time. He had actually experienced a fire like me and lost all of his things that were tied to memories, but he reminded me that I still have the memories even without all of the stuff. All of this I have been saying and I knew in my heart that it was true, stuff is just stuff, but this was the first time I could really hear the words and truly feel it resonate within me.

I am thankful today for this guy, his story and his willingness to share it with the world and in effect, me. This story softened my heart and convicted me for, at times, focusing on the saddest parts of the fire aftermath. I hope that in 9 months, a year after my fire experience, that I will be able to be in such a positive mindset and have progressed in such a way as this guy. My goal is to write my heart and fingers out these next 9 months, love more deeply and passionately in the next 38 weeks and make every day count and take delight in the small, as well as the big moments during each of the 269 days till the one year mark. I then will write on this day and give hope and encouragement to others facing trauma and heartache. If I can touch at least one person's heart in the way that this guy's story touched mine, then I will be incredibly happy.

One Last Letter

I felt as though I had put our old mailbox to rest and it no longer affected me, but then one day, weeks later, mailbox #2 was hanging open, yet again. Only this time weeds were so overgrown around it, it looked as if the inside of our old mailbox housed a few different species in the jungle it now called home.

While busily chatting on my phone to my mom as I drive to work, I snap my head, at the last second, to the left when I saw #2 open, yet again. I decide right then that I would close it shut next time I drive by. The only issue was that I only ever remembered after I passed the sight and never felt like turning around to take care of it. When I finally remember to carry out the job, I am talking with my mom on the phone on the way home; an apparent trend. I swing into the parking lot. Leaving my car on and my door open, I quickly slip out of the car and shut #2 snug, that is, only after looking into it to make sure a letter hasn't magically appeared. I then walk back to my car, jump in and drive away, all the while carrying on the conversation with my mom about her day at work. A smile spreads across my lips, reaching all the way to my eyes, as I continue my drive home. Could it be possible I was really putting this all behind me? Maybe this was the closure I was searching for that I failed to get. #2 opened its mouth for me this last time, as if it knew I was finally ready to accept this conclusion.  Shutting the door to #2 brought this chapter to a close.  

Mailbox #2, not only did you inspire, as well as warn me, you also gave me closure. I thank you for that. I did not realize what you were asking of me back when I kept seeing your door open, but I now understand. You were asking for your one last letter from me. As a thank you, I gift you this letter of my tale, my heart, to reside in your protective walls.  

Thank you to all of our friends, family, as well as strangers who came alongside us and poured out your love and support on us. We could not have made the recovery that we did without you all. I also want to thank my strong, incredible husband for quickly leading us out of our burning home and insisting that we make a fast recovery, coming out better than we were before. Without you I’d be lost.