“Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity.” ~Og Mandino
In November of 2007 my life burned to the ground—quite literally.
I lost my house, four foster dogs, my sixteen-year-old cat, four pet rats, all of my possessions—and with that, my sense of peace and safety in the world.
I had called every fear I ever had into my life on that one, dark day. In short order, I was homeless, jobless, and for the most part, friendless.
I was downsized from my full-time job, let go from my part-time job of five years (on my birthday), and my jeep engine blew up, all within three weeks of the fire.
But back to that black day in November… I was living in a small rental house on forty-five acres out in the middle of the country, my dream since childhood. It was a place where I could have as many critters as I could feed, and they would be free to run and play and live out their lives in peace and harmony.
There was even a small lake with a tiny rowboat a few hundred yards from my house. I sat on the front porch most nights and weekends looking out over the cornfields, watching my dogs chase butterflies during the day and fireflies at night.
I thought life was pretty perfect.
Then, on the fateful day, as I was driving up the half-mile gravel road, having finished a long day as an ER social worker, I was stunned to find black smoke billowing from the roof of the house. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
When I came out of my stupor, I ran to the house and promptly did everything I had ever been told not to do in a fire. I ran to the front door, grabbed the red-hot knob, and flung the door open, screaming for my animals that I knew were trapped inside.
When an orange ball of fire hurled toward me, I ran around to the back door and made my way halfway through the dining room before I had to turn around and go back.
The smoke was so thick I could neither see nor breathe.
It was at this time that I noticed three of my dogs, who had been left outside to play and sun themselves on the front porch, had followed me into my burning house. I rounded them up and piled them in the jeep, and called the volunteer fire department on my cell phone between screams and sobs.
My house burned to the ground, along with my four-legged Chihuahua foster “kids,” my cat, my rats, and everything I owned: irreplaceable family photos, my diaries dating back to the age of twelve, things left to me by my grandparents.
I had no renters insurance, and so, no ability to replace anything.
Thanks to the American Red Cross and my sister, Tiffany, and brother-in-law, Gregg, I was able to stay for a week in an inexpensive motel with my Rottweiler, Nikko; Pit Bull, Chloe; and my fourteen-year-old Chihuahua, Solomon.
My mother, sister, and brother-in-law, who all lived out of state, were there for me when I cried endless tears for my lost animals, and as I tried to move through my fog of grief and depression.
Other friends and family, including my boyfriend/best friend of nearly four years, vanished in the aftermath. Most did not even call to ask if I was okay, or if I needed anything.
I came to understand that some people are very inept and uncomfortable in dealing with human tragedy, and so, turn away when life gets ugly.
The loss of these relationships was as devastating as the fire itself. These were people I loved and trusted—people whom I would have bet my life would never abandon me. I was wrong.
I was amazed and incredibly grateful for those who did come to my rescue—strangers, really.
A woman I had never met (and my sister barely knew from a support group she had attended a few times) sent me $1500. With this I was able to put a down payment on a car.
A local animal rescue group provided blankets for my dogs and six months worth of medication for Solomon, who had congestive heart failure.
Another sweet soul sent me a gift card for books—always a treasured companion throughout my life.
A hairdresser volunteered her time and skill putting hair extensions in for six months when my hair broken off at the scalp, due to stress.
This helped me to learn that not everyone that comes into your life is meant to be there throughout your journey. People will come and go, and sometimes it will break your heart. But you may find sanctuary in the most unexpected places.
The kindness shown to me by these individuals allowed me to start the long healing process. I came to realize that if I was going to survive this, I was going to have to find meaning in the experience and become determined to grow wiser and stronger as a result.
I would not allow my animals to have lost their lives for nothing. Their little souls mattered. This would be my way of honoring them.
I began to let the pettiness of others and the drudgery of every day life fall away.
What did it really matter if I was having a bad hair day or someone in front of me left their turn signal on for three miles? What if I lost my job? My car blew up? These things were small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
I felt like I had survived damn near everything the world could dump on me in a small space of time, and I had made it through the other side.
I was a survivor. This title came with the mandate of seeing the world, and living in the world, in a very different way than before. Small things had to fall away and my focus needed to shift to what was truly important—the kind of things that would still matter ten years down the line.
Also in my new way of being was the idea of embracing what truly made me happy, not what I thought other people would admire or approve of.
If I wanted to eat ice cream for breakfast and lay under a tree in the park in my bunny slippers reading Stephen King, then by God, I was going to do it!
A little way down the road I decided that working forty to fifty hours a week in order to have more stuff, a nicer car, and a nicer house wasn’t what made me happy. I began teaching part-time at an area university and opened a small therapy practice.
My income was cut in half, but I had so much free time to spend going to the park with my dogs, sleeping in, staying up late, and just being out in the sunshine instead of being cooped up indoors. And I was doing something I loved for the first time in my life.
Ultimately, what I learned is that any human tragedy is survivable if one chooses to find meaning in the experience. And if you choose to become stronger, wiser, and more compassionate as a result, then no experience, no matter how painful, is ever solely negative.
On the other side of all of the fear and the heartache I found peace and happiness.
Woman with arms outstretched image via Shutterstock