It’s been a while since I last posted an update about the fire and I thought today would be a good day for that. First, I want to let you know that the generous contributions from everyone helped us buy a used car that Tom and I now share. We lost three cars in the fire and only received compensation for two of them (the third was a historic car that had no fire coverage). Since our other two cars were just about 10 years old, we didn’t receive much from our auto insurance company. Thanks to everyone’s donations, we were able to buy a used Honda sedan. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles of my old Honda, but I cherish it so much more because every time I look at it, I know I’m looking at a precious gift from all of you.
We still live in the same town, less than 2 miles from our old house. We still swing by almost everyday to pick up our mail. We kept our old mailing address because we decided it’d be easy enough to pick up our mail everyday and not have to deal with lost or delayed mail after we move back to our old address. Often, I’d fix my eyes on the mailbox by the street and force myself not to look up the driveway, up the crumbling front steps leading to nothing. But now and then, we’d cross the yellow police line still tied to the trees in front to make sure everything still looked the same. Every time I walk up that driveway, I carefully scan the ground for my wedding ring. (I don’t know why I keep doing it, but I do.)
Yesterday’s trip to the old property was different. Because yesterday, we finally started digging and preparing the ground for the foundation. After a long wait fraught with agonizing uncertainty, we’ve finally taken a shovel to the ground. A pretty big shovel.
We almost thought this day would never come. Three weeks after the fire, we began working with a modular company to rebuild our house. We figured a modular company would be faster, more economical, and they assured us they had experience building custom homes modularly. We found a floor plan online to use as a starting point and began the process. That was late September. In early March, two days before they were supposed to hand us completed and sealed plans to submit to our town for approval, we received an email saying they were having difficulties with roof calculations and they didn’t think they would be able to build the house to our specifications after all. With that brief message, they unceremoniously dropped the project, keeping our deposit and leaving us with no architectural plans.
Having lost almost 6 months, we had to scramble to find an architect who could quickly draw plans for us. While the architect worked, we had to find a builder. Not wanting to risk losing any more time and still stinging from the burn, Tom and I agreed to forego the modular route. After more delays getting the property surveyed, making the modifications to the plan that the town requested, getting the gas line cut, putting up a temporary power box, and all those other little things that needed to get addressed, we finally started digging.
I was there to take photos and once again, I walked up the driveway intent on documenting the process, still hoping to spot my ring on the ground, reflecting the sun’s rays. Then, as I walked to the side of the property to take more photos, I spied the remains of Tim’s clarinet lying on the ground.
I didn’t expect it, but a lump rose in my throat and before I knew it, I was crying.
Maybe it was the thought that I’d never be able to replace my own clarinet, given to me when I was in high school—a priceless French vintage clarinet. Maybe it was the sight of pieces of CDs strewn about, reminding me of all the music I had lost, some rare songs that I spent months hunting used vinyl shops for.
Or maybe it was just the realization all over again of what we lost. The entirety of it. The photos I’ll never see again. The poems and letters I’ll never read again. That favorite tunic I’d never find again, even if I went back to Singapore and somehow found the same little store in the same out-of-the-way market selling the same clothes.
It was all too much to remember and I ended up walking around that giant pit in the center, head bowed, sniffling, pretending for the sake of the men around me that it was just allergies from all the dust.
I tried not to stare at the pit, recalling the layout of the basement. There, in that corner, is where my keyboard sat. The drum set was right across it, and next to it, the digital recorder that we used to record our music. Off to the side is where Tim’s guitars were, his amps and pedals. And right above, on the first floor, sat the table I used for most of my food photos. Underneath that table was the trunk with all my photography equipment, with padded dividers, each item lovingly wrapped in protective fabric.
I know these were just possessions. They’re just things. We escaped with what was most valuable to us: our lives, our family. People tell me sometimes that they admire my strength. To be honest, I don’t know if all of it is strength. The only part that is, comes from my faith. The other part is probably just shock. It’s like someone came in the middle of the night and snatched away everything I had. And my hands aren’t used to the loss yet, so I still instinctively reach for things I no longer have. So maybe I haven’t fully understood the loss yet because I keep forgetting what I lost. It’s like muscle memory. Until you stand where your house used to be and realize that’s all it is now: a memory.
I had to get this off my chest one last time, and this will be my final gesture of farewell to the sadness of the fire. I think part of my lingering sadness is akin to the feeling you have when you’re forced to say goodbye to someone you never wanted to leave. And there is this irrational yet nagging fear that everything will be so strange and different, it’ll feel like my entire past was erased. Like it never happened.
As real as it feels, I know it’s irrational. So I’m going to wrestle with it and put it to rest. Yesterday was a new beginning, and in the days to come, I hope to witness the speedy transition from rubble to the framework of what will be our new home. I intend to fill my head with thoughts of hope and anticipation, of reliance on God and thanksgiving. That was my promise to myself this morning: that I would look ahead and grieve no more.