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Forged by Fire and Rubble

Emerging as an adult after destruction

By Mimi SonnerPublished 2 years ago 10 min read
South Bend Tribune

I've heard artists talk about how certain pieces they've made are meant to evoke walking through the rubble of your own life. That's poetic, isn't it? But, have you every actually walked through the rubble of your own life? I have. The moments, in retrospect, can indeed be poetic imagery. However, in the moment, I could not think about beauty. All I could think about was the savage nature of chaos, loss, and trying to find my grandmother's ashes. When that failed, I wanted to see if I could find something, anything, that I could salvage.

I lived on the second floor of an apartment building, and the fire started next door while I was at work. I didn't realize it at the time, the reason why, but suddenly the people I worked with were tense, and tender. I didn't know what was on the local news - I was at work, after all. Then I got a call telling me that my apartment was on fire. Not only that it was on fire, but that it was gone.

The person I lived with picked me up from work, and we drove past the building as the firefighters tried to get it under control. Everyone was right. My apartment unit was completely gone. I saw no roof anymore. Flames licked and lapped up from where I knew my bedroom was. My livingroom windows were gone. I kept my tears in, because I was concerned that anyone in the building was hurt, or worse. All I suffered was material damage.

Then, my little sister, who would stay with me on some weekends, turned to me in the backseat of the car and gasped, "Muffins and Waffles!" Those were the names I gave two identical teddy bears that we used to make up songs and stories together. She started to cry, and I held her close as we drove to the leasing office to debrief.

The fire was done by the evening. My apartment complex was well-known throughout town, and I received many text messages about it. When I confirmed that yes, it was my building, I was met with disbelief. Two of my closest friends thought I was making a sick joke. But then they saw the footage, and recognized what was left of the building they'd visited so many times. I made sure that my little sister was safe with her mother, and my boyfriend at the time, his parents picked me up. I was still wearing my scrubs from work. They drove away, and while the fire was under control by then, I could still see smoke coming from the building in my rearview mirror.

My boyfriend's parents, as always, were absolutely lovely and authentic in their care. After a few private moments of quiet with my significant other, I braced myself to be in a crowd again. Granted, it was just us, his sister, and their parents. I wasn't yet 21, so I didn't have experience with alcohol. His mother poured me a shot of tequila, and I downed it. I actually liked the taste - it reminded me of the desert. She then poured several shots, and I pounded them all in a rhythmic sequence. My SO's sister looked at me, baffled, and asked, "Problems, much?" I stared at her, still sober at the moment, and told her, "Yes. My home is gone."

My home was gone. If anyone could be forgiven for going through three shots of tequila in 20 minutes, it was that person.

Then I simply cried. My two close friends who thought I was pulling their leg then each took turns calling me in a panic. They deeply apologized for not believing me. So many strange and unlikely things had happened in my life already, so they thought maybe I was making up the fire. But then, apparently they both drove separately to my old address and saw the grayed-out shell of my building, and realized that they'd done something hurtful by not believing me.

Rick, one of those friends, picked me up and took me to Taco Bell. It was one of the few places still open late at night, and we ate in silence. He took me back to my boyfriend's parents' house, and they, gracious as always, let me stay the night. I don't remember much of that evening. I don't think it was because of the tequila. I think it was because of how unbelievable the situation was to me. What are the chances, I wondered, of my home going up in flames, in addition to the already unrelatable things I'd been through up to that point? I don't know. I imagine it's the same probability of anyone else having a housefire. All of the other shitty things that happened in my life existed separately as individual events, and that's how chance works. I just got to see life from the bottom of the Wheel of Fortune, as it were, a bit more often than I'd imagined I would.

Then, it rained for a few days. All the ash mixed with the water from the firefighters, and then from the rain. One memory I have, which I'd forgotten until just now, is a powerful one. The firefighters were in the building. The building was on fire. And I saw Muffins and Waffles come flying through the window. The authorities knew who I was, and let me scoop them up out of the grass despite the glass - they knew I had my work shoes on - and clean them up. I brought them to my little sister and she cried. We cried and held each other. I made the bears "talk," letting her know that they were okay and that they were so happy to see her.

Finally, the rain stopped. Out of some stroke of luck, nobody died. A few people suffered from smoke inhalation, but the firefighters evacuated everyone in time. The building had 20 units. Out of 20 units, only 8 had renters' insurance. I was one of the lucky eight. The insurance assesor came by and I had to provide him a list of my possessions, and after not very long, it was clear that I was due the maximum allowed by the company. I used the money to buy my first car, to help out my father, and give some to my little sister in the hopes that it would become a seed for savings.

Since my unit was next to the unit where the fire started, it was the more devastated half of the building. The insurance assessor said that I should not go in, especially since my unit was on the second floor. The firefighters, who so valiantly chucked out stuffed animals as they fought the place over my former balcony, saw that I was wearing steel-toed boots and had a determined face. They let me in, and gave me many warnings on the structural safety of the wreckage.

I carefully gauged and picked my steps up to where my front door used to be. I kept my grandmother's ashes in the livingroom, and went to the spot where they used to be. My television was now a melted disk, and part of the floor. I tried to lift it up after sifting through the ash mud and not finding grandma's ashes, but then the floor started to wobble. My grandmother had more common sense than I ever will. I could imagine her telling me that it wasn't worth ripping the floor out from under me in the slim chance that something of her still remained. I let go. I stood back up, and made my way to where my room used to be. I skipped the kitchen. It was nothing but rubble and mud.

There were two beds in my room. One for myself, and one for my little sister so she could have her own space when she visited me. The roof was completely gone, but I noticed that part of it had collapsed onto her bed. With strength I can only explain as the result of adrenaline, I picked up that piece of my old roof and chucked it out through where my wall once stood. My sister's bed and the piece of roof had created a tent of sorts, a shelter where many of hers, and my own, stuffed animals were dirty, but not burned or completely caked in ash. I chucked those out onto the lawn, one after the other, as if I had turned into a feral, desperate creature. I found that my dresser had not completely burned, and salvaged a handful of kimono - one of them being my own biological mother's wedding kimono, passed down from my grandmother. I found my tarot cards, warped and stained from the heat and mud, but kept safe from a box that a friend had, years ago, purchased as a gift from me specifically to protect my cards. I carried those in my arms, and slowly made my way through the rubble of my own life.

There was no ceiling. The floor had massive holes leading into the first floor - but I somehow made it back, gingerly, to the stairs, and made my way back. I packed my salvaged kimono, tarot cards, and stuffed animals into the trunk of my "new" car. The Red Cross provided us all with soap meant to wash anything with ash in it. I took some, and got to work bringing life back into the stuffed animals that I hoped would make my sister smile. It wasn't enough to get to the kimono I saved.

To this day, the three kimono I salvaged from the rubble are stained with the ash mud from the fire. They still faintly smell of burned wood and building material. I want to restore them to their former glory, but I don't know how. I don't think there are any dry cleaners or tailors anywhere near me who know how to handle them. I keep them dry and safe until I can learn, or find someone to clean them.

I was 19 years old. I'm 33 years old now.

The fire was a huge turning point in my life. Since I no longer really had belongings, I was able to pack up what little I had and move away to restart my story. But I will never forget that version of me.

That 19 year old girl, who had recently lost the people she loved most in the world, lost her home, lost her spot in a university she loved, who still somehow had enough strength to pick up an entire piece of roof and throw it into the absolutely unfunny blue sky. I remember that she screamed wordlessly at the nothing, her boots caking with ashy mud, her clothes and her skin smelling like burnt building for days afterwards. That's when I knew. I wasn't just a girl anymore. I was an adult. I emerged from the rubble of my life as a woman.

I will never forget the firefighters who knew who I was, and which home they were in as it was burning. I will never forget their kindness as they cautiously trusted me to go through the wreckage of my home to find my grandmother's ashes. I will never forget my friends and co-workers who gave me clothes to wear, since all I had left was the set of scrubs I wore to work that day.

I will never, ever, ever forget the kindness of those around me who gave me a piece of them and their lives to help me go on and get to the next jumping off point of my own.

That's what it's like to walk through the rubble of your own life. It's not poetry at the moment. It's carnage. It's destruction. The beauty you find only comes afterwards, from the people who show you care and compassion, and help you find your own strength to stand back up, and face the unknowing, uncaring future head on.


About the Creator

Mimi Sonner

Just another liberal arts degree holder looking for career fulfillment in all the wrong places.

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