On Losing Everything Part Two

On the loss of all we owned, someone commented to me, “You unburdened yourselves.”
True, although not on purpose.  A lot of stuff we lost is better off as ashes, probably.  I wouldn’t have chosen this method of decluttering/downsizing, but it worked.  I don’t have to read that two foot high stack of magazines.  We don’t have to sort through those three boxes of old financial information in the office.  John doesn’t have to make files for that stack of stuff on his desk that he never knew what to do with.  We don’t have to clean out and organize the garage.  We don’t have to clean the house from top to bottom.  I won’t have to stress out over where to put out all the Christmas decorations and it won’t take any time at all to take them down and put them away on Epiphany.
This forced unburdening gives us an opportunity to reflect on our relationship to stuff and how we want it to change or not going forward.  And it’s confusing.  John and I talk about it a lot.  Are we supposed to be learning some kind of lesson from this?  Is it wrong to like having things and to be attached to them?  Should we buy as little as possible?  We are both feeling reluctant right now to get attached to anything.  Should we replace things–books, for example, or collectibles?  Or should we get all new things?  If the book isn’t the book I always had from my childhood, or the one that belonged to my grandmother, would it even be the same?  I have spent so many hours sorting through the clothes that we saved over the years–culling the best garments, sorting them by gender and size.  Since in retrospect all that time was wasted, does that mean I shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place?
So far, I find myself trying hard not to care about the new possessions we are acquiring.  I let other people arrange my furniture.  I told my sister to decide what pictures looked good where.  I let a friend organize my entire kitchen.  I look around this nice house filled with unfamiliar items and feel more like a lucky guest at a great hotel than someone in her own home.  I feel afraid of committing myself to buying things that I might actually come to care about.
Is this a healthy detachment from material goods, or is it a symptom of trauma?
[Six years later, albeit in a considerable more cluttered house, I am still wondering.]

On Losing Everything

What’s so terrible about losing everything (okay, let me just say that there is LOTS that is terrible about losing everything) is that “everything” is too big to grasp or think of or remember all at once.  I KNOW I lost everything–every MATERIAL thing–I ever owned, collected, saved, cherished, treasured, hoarded, bought, was given, made, wrote, cared about.  I know this intellectually and have known it since I was told my house had burned down.
But I can’t think what everything encompasses all at once.  There were things that leapt into my mind immediately–the pictures (which is the first thing everyone mentions), the baby clothes, my wedding dress, my grandmother’s portrait.  But not a day goes by (honestly, it happens several times most days) that I don’t suddenly remember some cherished item and think, “That’s gone too.”  Pictures my kids drew–all of them.  John’s nutcracker collection.  The two complete books I wrote as a teenager.  My Eloise Wilkin picture book collection.  The Uncle Lem painting.  The dress I wore when I graduated from college.  The Global Babies picture book I bought for the baby that we lost.  My Barbie dolls and my mother’s storybook dolls.
Going shopping for new things, which ought to be fun, is tainted by sad thoughts as I walk through the aisles and everywhere see reminders of the things I used to have.  Going out with high school friends brings painful reminders of my yearbooks and my clippings and all the notes my friends wrote me and the drawings I made of them.  Hearing people talk about all the clutter in their houses and all the stuff they need to get rid of, thinking about decorating for Christmas, visiting other people’s homes and seeing their family portraits and decorations–all of these stab me through the heart, more or less.
Sometimes the realization of something that is gone will hit me suddenly, brought on by a remark someone has made.  Like the other day, when I suddenly remembered the love letters in my dresser drawer-one of the few times I was actually brought to tears by one of these memories.  Other times, I obsessively walk my way mentally through the house and force myself to remember.
The kids all seem to have moved on.  John doesn’t let himself think about it.  I can’t do that, and I’m not sure it’s healthy, at least for me.
Nobody died.  We have a new house.  People have so, so generously furnished it for us.  We have everything we need.  Yes, we are getting settled in.  Things are getting more normal (that “new normal” you hear about).  But I am still sad and angry and missing my stuff. [Update: Six years later, still hurts although obviously not as bad–and I still occasionally remember some item and mourn its loss specifically for the first time.]

A Sorrow Shared

Friends from school and church have been bringing us several meals each week since the house burned, and even though we have a house now it is still a blessing.  I have not had time for a big trip to the store yet, and we don’t have any of the staples you need to have on hand.  Plus we are still so busy trying to organize the house, and now trying to catch up in the office, that not having to worry about dinner makes a big difference.
A few nights ago, our church friends brought a poem to share along with the macaroni casserole and spinach salad.  I had read Anne Bradstreet before, first as a sophomore at KCHS in my American Lit class.  I don’t think I ever read this particular poem, though, and if I did I doubt it would have resonated with me the way it does now.  I wanted to share it with you.
In silent night when rest I took, 
For sorrow neer I did not look, 
I waken’d was with thundring nois 
And Piteous shreiks of dreadfull voice. 
That fearfull sound of fire and fire, 
Let no man know is my Desire. 
I, starting up, the light did spye, 
And to my God my heart did cry 
To strengthen me in my Distresse 
And not to leave me succourlesse. 
Then coming out beheld a space, 
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And, when I could no longer look, 
I blest his Name that gave and took, 
That layd my goods now in the dust: 
Yea so it was, and so ’twas just. 
It was his own: it was not mine; 
Far be it that I should repine.
He might of All justly bereft, 
But yet sufficient for us left. 
When by the Ruines oft I past, 
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast, 
And here and there the places spye 
Where oft I sate, and long did lye.
Here stood that Trunk, and there that chest; 
There lay that store I counted best: 
My pleasant things in ashes lye, 
And them behold no more shall I. 
Under thy roof no guest shall sitt, 
Nor at thy Table eat a bitt.
No pleasant tale shall ‘ere be told, 
Nor things recounted done of old. 
No Candle ‘ere shall shine in Thee, 
Nor bridegroom’s voice ere heard shall bee. 
In silence ever shalt thou lye; 
Adieu, Adeiu; All’s vanity.
Then streight I gin my heart to chide, 
And didst thy wealth on earth abide? 
Didst fix thy hope on mouldring dust, 
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust? 
Raise up thy thoughts above the skye 
That dunghill mists away may flie.
Thou hast an house on high erect 
Fram’d by that mighty Architect, 
With glory richly furnished, 
Stands permanent tho’ this bee fled. 
It’s purchased, and paid for too 
By him who hath enough to doe.
A Prise so vast as is unknown, 
Yet, by his Gift, is made thine own. 
Ther’s wealth enough, I need no more; 
Farewell my Pelf, farewell my Store. 
The world no longer let me Love, 
My hope and Treasure lyes Above.
And I just read in the Wikipedia article about her that “her personal library of books was said to have numbered over 800, before many were destroyed when her home burned down.”

The Lord Will Provide

My husband was the second reader at Mass today.  Of course I always expect to find meaning in the readings or the homily, but hearing John read the following this morning hit eerily close to home:
Brothers and sisters:
I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry,
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.
My God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
Was it no more than a coincidence that this would be today’s reading and that John would be the one to read it, almost exactly one month after our house burned down?  I don’t think so.


The gifts continue to flow in from so many generous and thoughtful people, from friends and strangers alike.   Today I want to share two that touched me especially because of their link to my past.
When I was in the first grade, my mother had a Christmas party for me and all the girls in my class.  This became an annual event, anticipated by my classmates just as much as by me, that we called “The Cookie Party.”   Each girl was given a piece of hot-cross-bun dough to knead, add nuts or candied fruit to, and shape, and while my mother baked these, we decorated sugar cookies–three per girl–with some trying to make them pretty and others piling on as much icing as possible!  This party took place each year until I graduated from St. Joseph School.
So when Emily started at St. Joseph, it felt right to revive this tradition.  I even got my mother to run the party.  Things had changed, though.  Growing up with two brothers, Emily was closer to the boys in her class than the girls.  So we had to invite the boys too.  Boys added another dimension–flour flew through the air, dough was pounded more vigorously.  Also, people seem busier these days.  They don’t R.S.V.P., and they don’t bring their kids to every party to which they are invited.  Eventually we began inviting just those children who kept returning year after year.  And they did enjoy and look forward to the annual event.
The cookie party was labor intensive and messy!  When William started kindergarten, I had a new idea for a Christmas party–a Christmas bedtime story party.  Kids would come in their pajamas, and listen to some Christmas stories.  Then I would serve hot chocolate and sugar cookies–decorated in advance!  The children got to take home their Christmas mugs as party favors.  I did this party for William for three years, and then last year when Lorelei was in kindergarten I did it for her.
This brings us to another tradition–the Christmas book tradition.  This one, too, has its roots in my childhood.  Like many children, we were allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve.  At first, it was whatever present under the tree struck our fancy.  Later it evolved to being a certain present–a book–my mother would have ready for us so we could read it before bed as we tried to fall asleep (never so hard as when you are a child on Christmas Eve!).  I had a book for Emily to unwrap on her first Christmas Eve–an alphabet book by Steven Kellogg–but by her second Christmas I had decided the book should be a Christmas book.  I gave her “The Clown of God” by Tomie de Paola–who became one of my favorite children’s authors.
With five children receiving a Christmas story book every Christmas Eve, our collection of special books grew.  We had a large box of very special Christmas books that we brought out at the beginning of each December and read throughout the month.  They were in the garage with the Christmas decorations, and now they are ashes.
“The Clown of God” remains my all-time favorite.  Here are some others I recall:  “The Silver Package,” “We Were There,” “Who’s Coming to Our House,” “The Other Wise Man,” “A Christmas Miracle,” “The Cat in the Manger,” and so many more.
The other day we received a card from the family of a little girl who was in Lorelei’s class last year and attended the party.  Little Gracie herself had the idea to send us Barnes and Noble gift cards to help replace the books that were lost.  I still have not cried a river over all this, but this is the kind of gift that brings tears to my eyes.
And here’s another:  one of the people who attended my cookie parties, starting when she came to St. Joseph in 5th grade, was my friend Katrice.  We became close in high school, we were in each other’s weddings, and she and her husband are devoted godparents to our oldest son.
When we were planning our wedding, Katrice’s dad was starting a photography business and trying to build up a portfolio.  He offered to do our pictures for the cost of the film.  He printed all the pictures and then gave us the negatives to keep and to have larger prints made of the ones we wanted to frame and for our album–an album made for me by my high school roommate.  We were very pleased with his work, and in addition to the album full of 8 X 10s we had several photos framed around the house.
Well, those are ashes too now.  The negatives are in a supposedly fireproof box buried in the ashes of what used to be our office, and we may or may not be able to find them out–it took about 8 hours for John to find the rings that were in his jewelry box in our bedroom.  So imagine how exciting it was when Katrice arrived at my house the other day, bearing her dad’s portfolio with five 8 X 10s from my wedding, including the one of the entire wedding party!  She brought a frame for that one, and put it on a table angled toward the front door, so that in her words, “Everyone can see this is John and Leslie’s house when they come in.”  It was the very first family photo to be displayed in our new home.

The Mills of God Grind Slowly . . .

Knox County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Brad Hall called Yolanda Harper and Russell Houser “Good Samaritans.”  Katie Allison Granju called them predators. who gave her son Henry the drugs that led to his fatal overdose.
Knoxville News Sentinel commenters called Katie a nutcase who was looking for someone to blame for her own parenting failures.  Katie replied that she was not a perfect parent, and that her son had made mistakes, but that she wanted to make sure what happened to him did not happen to anyone else’s beloved child.
An assistant District Attorney said Katie should shut up, and even commenters on her personal blog said she should move on.  Katie vowed never to stop seeking justice for Henry.
Katie wasn’t crazy, and Harper and Houser were no Good Samaritans.  Yesterday the pair were indicted on felony drug charges and taken into custody–based on activities they continued in the months after Henry’s death.  The Knoxville Police Department did what the KCSO would not–they listened to Katie and followed the leads she provided.  They conducted a professional and thorough investigation, and now our community is a safer place.
Thank you, Katie, for your advocacy for your son and by extension for all vulnerable children.  Thank you, KPD, for doing your job and doing it well.  And thank you to those of you who have read and shared my posts on Henry and his mother’s quest for justice.  It’s a happy day for all of us.

And Justice for All

Lorelei stated rather matter-of-factly the other day that the next time we go out of town, our house will burn down again.  And of course I told her that will not happen, that it is very, very rare for a family to suffer such a random, terrible accident.
That’s one aspect of this situation that makes it difficult and strange:  I’ve never been close to anyone this has happened to.  I don’t have experience knowing how to feel or what to do, and I can’t really explain to people what this feels like.  “I can’t even imagine,” they say.  I wouldn’t have been able to imagine it either, before.  Even if I did imagine it, I would not have truly felt the way I feel now.
My friend Katie and her family suffered a far worse tragedy than ours when her teenage son died last year.  She, too, has written of the strangeness of being part of a club that no one wants to join–in her case, the “very undesirable club of grieving parents“–of feeling “like a Martian” as others go on with their everyday lives even though her world has changed forever.  I think in a small way I understand that better now.
Katie’s tragedy continues every day, as she not only continues to grieve for her lost son, but she must also fight to bring those who supplied him with the drugs that killed him to justice.  The KCSO closed his case, the Knoxville News-Sentinel dragged his name through the mud with a sensational, poorly researched article,  and its classless commenters sling mud at Henry and his mother on a regular basis.
Katie is a good person.  She used the powerful platform of her nationally recognized blog to promote a fund to help our family through this tragedy, even though we have only met in person a handful of times.  Her writing has raised awareness of the prescription drug addiction problem and has already helped some addicts turn their lives around.  She allowed WBIR to make a documentary about Henry which is being shown in schools as well as online, and is changing the way parents talk to their kids about drugs.  She started Henry’s Fund, which provides scholarships to drug treatments programs to help other kids like Henry.  All this while working full-time, seeking justice for her son, and raising four other children, one who was born just weeks after her big brother died.
Katie is helping me, and I am asking you to help her.  Will you go here and learn how you can promote this story through Twitter and Facebook?  If you have any contacts in the media, will you consider sharing Henry’s story with them?  Thank you.

Very Good People

Once we received a printed thank you card for a gift we took to a wedding we attended.  It said something like, “Words cannot express how much it meant to have you at our wedding.  And thank you for your thoughtful gift.”  I’m not kidding–that was IT!  Not even a handwritten signature.
Well, just because words cannot fully express our gratitude doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  I’ve written thousands of thank you notes–four wedding showers, a wedding, and five kids with, I believe, seven showers all together generate a lot of gifts, not to mention birthdays and Christmases–and I’ll be writing more in the days to come, although not for awhile yet.  And I am also going to make as many grateful posts as I can here, both to provide some relief from all the gloom I am dishing up, and to keep up my own spirits.
Because despite what some people have indicated by their kind comments, I don’t really feel like a person with a positive attitude right now.  The fact is I feel very, very sorry for myself and my family.  Without mincing words, this is a terrible experience.  More on that later.
But the kindness of so many people does help.  It really does, as do the many prayers which are holding us up at this time.  Today I want to highlight two especially thoughtful gestures.
My grandmother–Mima–loved to crochet.   Even after her first stroke she was able to continue with this favorite hobby.  Mima made afghans for all of us when we were children, she made them for our weddings, and she made them for her great-grandchildren.  She gave them to friends as wedding and baby gifts as well.  She always had a spare one on hand if you needed a quick wedding present.  She made baby ones for the Ladies of Charity layettes.  And she used her leftover yarn to make lap rugs for old people in nursing homes–she said the loudest, tackiest combinations were the ones in most demand.
Two weeks ago, we had close to twenty afghans that Mima had made–two from my childhood, a crib blanket and soft layette blankets for each of my first four children (pink, blue, yellow, and green), two she made for me to use at Georgetown,  one she made for my wedding, one that she made to match my wallpaper in my old house, and a few she had made for Jake and Teddy.
After the fire, two remained:  one that Emily has with her at Spring Hill, and one that was undamaged by water or smoke in Lorelei’s room.
A couple of days ago I received a Facebook message from someone I went all the way through grade school and high school with.  Susan was two years ahead of me.  I have not actually seen her in person, I don’t think, since high school, but after Mima’s first stroke she was her speech therapist, and my family thought very highly of her.
Mima had given her an afghan for her baby and one for her own bed, and she wanted to give them back to me.  “They belong with you now,” she wrote. [Another friend followed suit later.  So thoughtful.]
On that same day, Jake received a very special and moving treat from a fifth grade class at Sacred Heart Cathedral School, where Lorelei is in first grade.  The kids knew about the fire, of course, and because their teacher is the mother of one of Jake’s friends, they heard about Jake.  They decided they wanted to do something special just for him.  So he was taken to SHCS after school, not knowing why, and surprised with cupcakes and a poster and one of those giant checks like in the sweepstakes pictures.  One of the little kids had actually donated his own $50 birthday gift card (Jake wanted to give that back but the child was absent.).  They had stayed after school just so they could surprise him.  He was so delighted and touched.
Materially speaking, Jake of all the kids lost the most in the fire.  Emily’s room was entirely burned but she had a lot of things with her.  Jake’s was the only one of the downstairs bedrooms to burn and the only things to be recovered were two watches  on his closet shelf–one of them John’s father’s so that was actually a pretty big deal.  Jake collects knives and he got two of those, plus a book and a record album, out of the den in the basement, soot-covered but undamaged otherwise.  He had a habit of putting his things upstairs where he could easily find them in the morning, and his clothes were all sitting on the sofa in the living room waiting to be folded, so all of it was burned.
And unlike Teddy, who has reached a state of enlightenment (his words) and doesn’t care about personal possessions, Jake does care.  He likes nice clothes and had been working to assemble a wardrobe.   Yesterday a very happy Jake went to Kohl’s with us and bought shoes and a jacket.  He will probably go shopping again today.

Jake, sitting in Teddy’s room last weekend, covered in soot during our salvage operation

An Unanswerable Question

Today my six-year-old was crying for her cat, missing since the fire.  And she asked me, “Why did God let this happen?”
All I could say was the truth:  “I don’t know.  That’s one of the things that we won’t understand until we die.”
The other day, someone said to me, “I know God has a plan.  But I think this time He made a mistake!”  I said perhaps this was the devil’s plan.  But really I was only joking.
I believe God has an ultimate plan.  I believe that all things work together for good.  I know that many people believe that everything that happens–bad or good– is part of God’s plan and is therefore willed by Him. But  I DON’T believe for one second that God planned for my house to burn down.  I don’t blame Him, nor do I think it was His will.  It was a random, awful accident, like a whole lot of the bad things that happen to people.
I do believe that God–if we let Him–can take all the tragedies in our lives and incorporate them into His plan.  He enables us to rise from the ashes and to learn and grow and even profit from the trials we go through.  I’m sure that we will look back one day and realize that this terrible time made many things possible, good things that could not have happened otherwise.
I’m not there yet, though.  But the only way out is through, right?

Good People, Bad People

It has long been one of my convictions that most people are good.  I’ve said it, and I’ve believed it, and if I hadn’t, the outpouring of affection, prayers, support, and gifts we have received since the fire would have convinced me.  Gift cards, money, clothes  and toys for the children, offers of lodging and furniture, and delicious meals remind us that we are poor in possessions but rich in love.
Yes, most people are good, but as Sister Louise, my U.S. History teacher, used to say, “There’s always that five percent.”
Less than three weeks ago I posted on Facebook something like, “We now have three working cars!  I wonder how long that will last?”  Silly me to tempt fate in such a way.
I’ve written here before about our trusty 1998 Dodge Durango.  That was the car I was driving up until last December when John got a really good deal (he has a regular client/good friend who sells used cars) on a 2001 Pontiac Montana.  So the minivan became my main car and we decided to hold on to the Durango, both in case of break downs of the other cars and so that we’d have something for the kids to drive eventually.  John was driving a 2000 Lincoln Towncar that the same friend found for him.  The last car he’d had before that was pretty grim, so he was very fond of the nice-looking Lincoln.  As it turned out, with all these old cars, repairs were frequent and there were times that two were out of commission at once.  We had just spent quite a bit on the Lincoln, which needed a whole new back end, right before we left down for Grandma’s funeral.
The two cars we left parked in front of our garage when we went out of town caused a lot of concern to the fire department and friends who saw the blaze and feared we were inside.  The first began in the garage and when we saw the cars they were pretty melty and singed on the fronts.

I know they look pretty awful but it seemed like all body damage.  My Uncle Jack and my cousin Rick own a body shop is Strawberry Plains.  We have comprehensive coverage on those cars for a wonder so we were feeling pretty hopeful.  John in particular was really holding on to the thought of getting his car looking nice again.
Here’s where the bad people come in.  The next time we went back up to the house, someone–and the kind of person who would do such a thing is not even something I can conceive of–had STOLEN all four wheels off the Lincoln and one off the Durango.  These same admirable individuals stole our nice new jack and a couple of computers from the car (they were broken computers-ha!!).  Even more horrifying, they WENT IN the intact part of the house through Lorelei’s window.

Now, when it comes to crime and poverty and that sort of thing I am pretty much a liberal of the bleeding heart variety, capable of feeling sorry for almost anyone, full of mercy and all those good things.  I also like to think I am a Christian.  But the thought of despicable people picking through the ruins of our tragedy, walking on the ashes of every thing I used to treasure, all for their own possible profit–well, that just about put me over the edge.  I’m ashamed to say that I was–and still am, although I hope to get past it–full of ill will.
Neither John nor I has had a breakdown yet.  I walked through the ashes without shedding a tear.  This little bit of cruelty brought me closer to the breaking point than anything else thus far.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of you who keep reminding us through your actions that most people are good, and kind, and loving, and generous.