• Lawrie Wallace

Real Talk and Observations

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

Random topics or the hot button issue of the day, have a look at some experiences that made me grow.

6 Things I Learned When My House Burned Down

Monday, October 8, 2016 I drove home from yoga around 9pm. Per usual I called in dinner for me and Hubs, he was on his Monday night trail ride with friends. The girl on the phone said it will be ready in 10-12 minutes. I hate being that lady that shows up in 6 minutes, tapping her foot, waiting… uncomfortably… with expectation. So I usually listen to music in my car in the parking lot until I’ve hit my 10 minute window… you know because I’m not that lady. On this night for whatever reason I was compelled to go on in…before I hit my window. Happily my order was ready, and I headed home 6 minutes ahead of schedule.

That 6 minutes was critical, I don’t want to think about how much worse things would have been if I had not followed the instinct to go in early to grab that order. As I pulled into my driveway the shock entered my bloodstream immediately, however my brain took a few seconds to process what I was seeing. Was that my backyard… on fire? I immediately thought of my 8 pound poodle Martini, trapped in my kitchen where she spends her time while we are away. I barely got the car in park as I ran for the door.

Fire sounds strangely soothing and quiet when it’s raging out of control, making this whole experience surreal and dreamy in a really terrifying way. I noticed there were no people around. I lived in a duplex cul-de-sac, I had neighbors all around me, within 20 feet of my door. Did no one hear anything, have they not noticed the flickering of light taking ove the back half of my home?

As I approached the front door I made a decision. If I see fire in the house, I won’t go in to save her. I opened the door. I saw no fire, I ran into a burning house to save my dog. I’m a practical person. I have had many dogs, some have run away, some have died, some I’ve had to put to sleep. I love my pets, and I understand I will likely outlive them for a number of reasons, I’m realistic. I would not have though myself they type of person to risk life and limb to rescue a pet in a dangerous situation like this, but in the moment there was only instinct pushing me forward… and I had to save my poodle.

When I reached the 2 doors with handles fastened together with bungee cords to keep Martini quarantined in the kitchen, I felt no heat on the handles… didn’t they say something about doing that in my 2nd grade stop, drop and roll class?

As I opened the doors I began to hear the violence of the fire, when I sprung them loose the french doors that led to my patio out back I could see were engulfed in flames. I was so shocked by the sight, I barely had time to look down for the poodle before she flew into my arms… I didn’t even bend down. This is when I began to cry.

Martini and I ran for the front door, and did not shut it behind us. Once I got out I banged on my neighbors door as I dialed 911… still no people around, I needed help, NOW. The 911 operator answers… and finally I had someone there to help me. As I screamed through the phone my address, FIRE. WHOLE PATIO IN FLAMES… people started emerging from their evening routines.

The noise from the collapsing balconies behind our home was loud and kicked in the severity of what we had just escaped. I was just standing underneath all of that, Martini was just trapped there, the fire started to push through the front of the house so flames were actually visible from where I sat on the curb out front. For the first time that evening the fear of what might have happened really came crashing down.

At some point fire trucks came, at least a dozen of them lined the 2 streets that dead ended at our cul-de-sac. I was steadily tearful and emotional and in shock. I called the Hubs and choked out the news. I called my Mom and my Dad, called my best friend, talked to my business partner, my neighbor came and sat with me.

I remember feeling several times that I must be dreaming, this wasn't actually happening. Then Hubs made it home, and I could no longer pretend that this was some alternate reality. This happened, and the crushed look in his eyes made it more real.

The Red Cross came, they brought us toothbrushes and toiletries, dog food, a leash and bowls, and asked us if we had a place to sleep tonight. I was deeply grateful, because in my state of loss I hadn’t even fully absorbed that all of these were immediate needs, that I no longer possessed for myself.

I sat on the curb for hours as the fire fighters completed the insane process of being certain the fire was out. They allowed Hubs in for long enough to point out some of our belongings visible from the front door and move them into our garage which was thankfully unharmed by the fire.

We made it to my bestie’s place for the night… at least we had somewhere to sleep. It was comforting to be somewhere that was like a second home to me, and at the same time disappointing to my strange sense of independence to have to rely on anyone but myself for a place to lay my head.

The smell of smoke was in my nose, and my hair…everywhere. This smell would haunt me for months… it still finds its way to me from time to time. My bestie and her hubs had clothes laid out for us, which was great since the only clothes we still had were sweaty work out clothes topped with charbroiled duplex. We both showered, and fell into bed. I’m sure I cried for awhile… but I mainly remember the insomnia from the lists of things that tomorrow would bring.

Overwhelmed is an understatement. I’m a doer. I get shit done, efficiently, accurately, and without complaining or whining. This was totally different. I couldn't put my head down and power through this with the same set of skills that had made me super lady in my businesses. I was broken, and homeless, and everything that I had worked so hard to attain was crumbled in a toxic wet mess at what was once my home. There was only way out of this disaster, that was to go through it.

We learned a lot from this experience, but here are the highlights:

  1. If you rent, buy renter’s insurance.

Yes we had to itemize 78 pages of belongings complete with purchase date, reciepts, photos, and other details from memory. Yes I had to scream and threaten and call/ email/ voicemail everyday. Yes I had to be that crazy lady who would not rest until she got her check in the mail. Despite all of that I will say with certainty, Renter’s insurance saved our asses.

It paid for our hotel room for 7 weeks, it cut us a $1500 check a few days following the fire to help with incidental expenses, it also paid out our entire policy out after 3 1/2 months of negotiation and completing the tasks required to close out said policy. I will tell you it was more money than I have ever had a one time before in my life, and that it made our first purchase of a home a much easier feat than it would have been otherwise.

2. Just feel it.

When you go through a traumatic experience, there is only one way to escape it. You have to feel it. Whatever it is you have to let it break you, pick up all your tiny pieces that the trauma left behind, and began the work of rebuilding yourself. Resisting the pain of whatever is going on in your world is only prolonging it, better to just surrender to it so you can let it go. I thought I was brave by shoving it away from me and acting strong, I learned the real bravery lies in expressing the pain openly so you can move past it.

3. I had way too much shit.

Accumulating “stuff” is so easy. In the old place we had 2 stories of stuff in every closet, covering every surface, packing every drawer. When you loose it all at one time, and begin replacing things one at a time, you get more selective about what ‘stuff’ you want around you. Although we have replaced lots of things, I will say I’ve had to work hard to edit my urge to splurge.

I wouldn't say we are minimalist now, however we are enjoying our new home without piles of junk cluttering our closets and stacking up in the corners. I am happy to report I am completely content with the 6 coffee cups in the kitchen as opposed to the 26 I ‘needed’ before. The old saying is totally true, less is more.

4. PTSD is a bitch.. and a teacher.

I pride myself on being resilient, bouncing back, ya can’t keep me down! PTSD cares not for any of this babble. It will whip your ass faster than you can say… strike a match. I found myself writhing in anxiety with birthday candle smoke, unable to attend my weekly yoga class for fear of my poodle’s imminent death, and the sneaking suspicion that somehow we would be screwed out of this insurance money that I was staking our entire recovery on.

PTSD chased me in the most unexpected ways, and all this time later I still feel it rise up a bit when I start to feel settled and safe in our new home. It’s a process, you don’t get to tap out, you must go with the flow and do your best to learn what it has to teach you so you can move on.

5. Life is better since the fire

Looking back on life before the fire… I was not in love with our duplex and talked all the time about moving. I wanted a yard for a garden, we had SO much stuff and the idea of packing and moving was daunting, I wanted to buy a house and get out of the rent race, and I was very uneasy about our nearest neighbors.

The fire, as horrific as it was, fixed all of these things. We had to move, we had very little stuff to pack, we had funds to commit to purchasing a house, my garden is going to rule this year, and we now have neighbors we have been friends with for 20 years.

We also received immense support from our friends, family and colleagues. Everything from food and gift cards to the tools we needed to do our jobs were donated to our recovery. We were so very fortunate, and there isn’t enough gratitude for the outpouring of support we were blessed with. The universe is mysterious and wonderful.

6. There is a phoenix poodle rising in all of us

I have joked since the fire that Martini is the phoenix poodle, flying from the flames into my arms and rising to the challenges of moving on. How did her little pea brain process the fear and fiery death that she could clearly see and smell and probably feel by the time I burst into that room?She should be the most neurotic mess of a dog and instead I have learned from her steadfast example of facing each day with the same gusto for life she’s always had. Squirrels still gotta be chased, humans still need to snuggled, the living room window still needs to be guarded.

In truth there is a phoenix poodle in all of us, every time we are faced with adversity. Even if you can’t see your way out, put one foot in front of the other and rise from the ashes to see what you become on the other side. In our experience the growth you must endure throughout a tragedy is challenging, and absolutely worth it.

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