The Story Rarely Told

The story from my childhood that I rarely tell to anyone is the one when my house burned down when I was about 12 years old. It has a not so cold December evening, maybe 10 days before New Years or so and I remember sitting in the kitchen with my grandmother having finished my math homework just moments before and starting to watch my favourite TV show about the police dog who was helping a police officer to solve crimes and basically was the start of the whole police department. It is interesting how you can remember this level of detail about something that has been deeply emotionally ingrained in your brain. At that time, we were living in a two storey house with my grandparents – my parents occupied the whole second floor and my grandparents lived on the first floor and I migrated here and there all the time between the two. On that evening, my parents were still not back from work and it was only me, my grandparents, our dog and my uncle who stopped for dinner for a few hours at home.

What I remember is that at some point, we have the house going completely dark – my grandfather said that the electricity went out, which did happen from time to time so we were not surprised, and sent me upstairs to check if the second floor was disconnected as well. I remember climbing up the stairs and opening the door to a room that I thought was full of fog. I slowly went down and said something like, everything looks fine but there is lots of fog for some reason – my 12-year old brain did not comprehend that it was the smoke and that half of the second floor was already in flames. Luckily, my late grandfather was connecting the dots much faster – he rushed upstairs and back downstairs yelling that everyone has to get out of the house now. I vaguely remember what happened after – someone shuffled me into the neighbour’s house a few houses away and said to stay there. I was not allowed to go on the street to even look, all I remember was walking away and turning around seeing the flames eating up my home. After that – long hours of waiting, not knowing where my parents and grandparents are and the ambulance doctor giving me some pills to calm down along with the injection for my grandmother who was having a mental breakdown. Then, a long night of conversations with my 2 years older cousin at his house where I was driven somewhere at midnight ruminating how our life will unfold next.

Luckily, noone was hurt in that fire and everyone made it alive and safe. From the stories and reports that I heard after, we had 12 fire trucks trying to put down the flames, we had my courageous grandfather who jumped into the burning house to take the dog out because the dummy ran inside thinking it was safe to hide there, we had my uncle who was trying to shuffle all the documents out of the house and my parents who came back home to the house on fire and were trying to take out anything they could. The second floor of the house was completely destroyed – the reason they said was the issue with electricity that started on the side of our neighbours (the house was a duplex) and quickly jumped on our side as we had a better insulation which made it more attractive for the fire.

People often ask me if I was traumatized by that fire in my childhood. The honest answer is that I don’t know. My parents never made a big deal out of it – they just moved on, working even harder and continuing to go on. I did not see what was devastation or sadness, what I saw was the best lesson anyone could ever give me – resilience and perseverance. Shortly before the fire happened, my parents bought a beautiful newly built condo that was not renovated yet – it was just the bare walls and nothing else. Because they could not afford to renovate and rent something else at the same time, we just moved in as we could. Three of us slept on one tiny couch, and my mother cooked meals on a tiny stove for both us and the construction workers that were working during the day on our apartment. Often, I would find myself doing homework along with them drilling the walls or putting tiling – sometimes they helped me with my geometry homework because oh boy I hate calculating space but they are professionals. I did not have a phone or a laptop or even a TV that year – I had no idea what video games my peers were talking about or what TV shows they discussed, I did not have internet or social media – the only world I had was here and now in that dusty condo.

I subscribed to the library and started reading more than ever. When we studied an author in class, I would have already read 3 or 4 of his works ahead of time – I remember coming across the hound “The Hound of the Baskervilles” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and seeing the brilliant character of Sherlock Holmes in class. Next week, I was taking every book I could find about Sherlock Holmes from the library, living through the adventures of the detective, joining for his colourful and adventurous world from behind the grey walls of my apartment. I knew that my life was different from my peers that year but I was never sad about it – I had my loving and supportive parents, I had time with them, I had conversations and talks and cozy evenings with a cup of tea – cozy not because of the place where you are in but because people around you make it feel like so.

So when people ask me if I was traumatized, the only answer I can come up with is that this was the most humbling lesson in resilience and perseverance that I could ever get. It definitely rewired something in my brain – I think it brought the lightness of non-attachment. I know how easy you can lose many things and how fast they can go away so somehow I have learned to move on with what I have is my skills, my brain, my family, my relationships. Maybe it is a trauma, but in the most unexpected wonderful way.

I mean, I also don’t buy candles. Ever. I have a few inside the house but I never started them – they are just for decoration purposes. Maybe that’s that.

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