by Hollye Dexter
On the morning of November 18th, 1994, mine was the happy family who seemingly had it all; a strong marriage, two kids (one girl, one boy), a gaggle of adopted rescue pets. My husband Troy and I each had our own businesses that we ran from the large home we were renting. We volunteered at our kids’ schools and in our communities, threw fabulous parties, took business trips, had lots of friends and a busy social life.
But that night, we went to bed in a burning house. A freak electrical short would begin smoldering in the walls as we slept, erupting into hellfire in the middle of the night. The fire pressed us up against the windows, gasping for air, our skin burning. We were forced to jump from second story ledges with our four-year old son, onto the cement below.
We were released from the hospital the next day, November 19th, injured, homeless, jobless. We had not a single possession. No clothing to change into, no shoes to wear, no wallets or keys or identification of any kind. And as we left the hospital, my stomach clenched with anxiety as the shock wore off and I realized we had no way to replace anything we had lost, including our two businesses. I had recently called my insurance agent and inquired about a separate fire insurance policy. I had gotten the paperwork, but hadn’t filled it out yet. Our lives were a complete do-over.
On Thanksgiving Day, the Red Cross showed up unexpectedly to shepherd us through our crisis. They brought us the necessary items we needed to survive, provided us with assistance, and direction. Perhaps most importantly, they set my family up with much-needed therapy.
Fire has a way of purifying and reforming. During a forest fire, the intense heat causes seedpods to burst open. The scorched earth then becomes fertile soil, making the forest lush with new and different life. So it was with our lives. In the aftermath of all that loss, new seeds were planted that blossomed in ways we never could have foreseen.
After filing for bankruptcy we worked diligently rebuilding our credit, and four and a half years after the fire, on the day of our tenth wedding anniversary, we bought our dream home- a cabin nestled in the side of a mountain- it’s foundation bolted on rock. We renewed our marriage vows, and were given the keys to our home.
Two decades later, our home is once again alive with rescued pets, cluttered with sentimental treasures, my photo albums full with new memories. There is a comfortable distance separating us from that time, and yet it will always be a part of who we are. We are stronger now, and dare I say, although I would never want to re-live those years, we are better for having lived through it. I found faith and courage in the ashes. I found my true self. Our marriage, our family, and most importantly, our optimism and spirit survived. There is not much that can shake us anymore. We shrug off challenges others might view as catastrophic. We know what catastrophe is.
We can still see it in our rear view mirror.
Hollye Dexter is the author of the memoir Fire Season (She Writes Press, 2015). Her essays and articles about women’s issues, activism and parenting have been published in anthologies as well as in Maria Shriver’s Architects of Change, Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire and more. In 2003, she founded the award-winning nonprofit Art and Soul, running arts workshops for teenagers in the foster care system. She lives in L.A. with her husband and a houseful of kids and pets. www.hollyedexter.net