Family, Fires, and Gratitude: How 1 Year After My Dad Died, He Saved My Life
July 10, 2013 Kristance Harlow
Today my blog post is really personal, it’s a story that I need to tell and I haven’t known who to tell or even how to tell it, so I thought I’d start here with my readers. I hope it’s a story that can in some way inspire you to keep moving forward, no matter what.
I was visiting my family for the first time in nearly a year and half for Christmas in 2011. I had been living abroad, studying for my Masters degree at Durham University in Great Britain. I was traveling Europe and discovering the world. It’s true though, there is no place like home, it was great to be home again. We laughed over my dad’s hilarious dance moves, and enjoyed dining on delicious family recipes. The annual tradition of exchanging joke stockings lived on because even though we’d agreed to not waste money on useless junk, my dad confided in me that he still wanted to do the gag gifts, because a laugh is never worthless. When I pulled my dad’s name for Secret Santa, I knew shopping for his stocking would be a blast. If anyone loved a good joke, it was him. We all laughed over the ridiculous gifts I gave him, and he wore the elf hat with fake ears and pulled out the comically-huge-and-ridiculously-bright sunglasses randomly throughout the day. The one thing my dad loved more than anything in the world was when he had all of his kids together, and that Christmas he had it.
Shortly after Christmas, my dad went in for an intensive general surgery that had been planned for quite a while. He was recovering in the hospital and I flew back to England to go back to work. I dragged myself back to my flat in Oxford and attempted to reset my internal clock by sleeping off the jet lag. My first day back at work came much too early, but I was revitalized from the trip home. It was a Friday and work was slow, I processed some orders and answered a few queries but mainly caught up with my coworkers about everyone’s holidays. That’s when my cellphone rang. It was a number from back home but I didn’t know who. Usually, I would have let an unknown number go to voicemail, particularly since I was working, but I felt compelled to answer it right there at my desk.
“Hello…?” I hesitated with my greeting, wondering who was on the other line.
“Kristance?” It was my sister, my heart was pounding, she never had called my UK phone before this.
I swallowed a lump in my throat and mustered a hushed “Yea”
“He died. Dad died.” I collapsed in the middle of my office, in the middle of the day, beginning one of the hardest years of my life.
I flew back across the ocean the next day, shaking from the shock. My vision was blurred and my mind was completely unbalanced. The next few weeks my family rallied together. We cried, we screamed, and we laughed remembering all the times he made us crack up. We didn’t cook but friends and extended family brought us food and encouraged us to eat. An endless stream of visitors offered their condolences. My father’s memorial service was held in a small local church and there were so many people that they spilled out of the chapel into the entry hall. I hadn’t planned to say anything at the service. I didn’t think I could do anymore than hold my mother’s hand and sob. At the last minute, when they asked if any more family members wanted to say something, I found my feet taking me to the pulpit. My voice shaking, I paid tribute to the wonderful man my father was, and said that if in all my life I could be half as goodhearted and generous a person as my father was every day of his life, I would consider myself lucky.
Time always seems more difficult to process in times of emotional distress. The days stretch, and the weeks shrink. Days of the week jumble and become harder to keep track of. Before I knew it, I found myself on a plane heading back to Oxford. That year I quit my job and moved to Scotland thinking I would be closer to friends. The truth was I was running away from my success and seeking a change. I spent that year lonely, depressed, and full of struggle. It was a silent struggle that I revealed to no one back home, I pretended life was moving forward positively when really it was getting harder every day to get out of bed and face the day.
After 10 months of tears, heartache, and isolation I had an epiphany. Winter was nearing and it was snowing in Scotland. The days got colder and there was less and less sunlight. I realized if I was going to keep myself from losing myself entirely I had to leave. At the time my sister was building a life with her husband and new baby. My mom was with her mother, helping my grams kick breast cancer to the curb for a second time and my brother was staying with our uncle. The fear of not knowing where I was going to go subsided quickly as my aunt and uncle welcomed me with open arms into their home. I was back in my home town, living with my brother and cousin and my aunt and uncle, and not to mention a turtle, dog, and two cats. I was working at our local ski resort, snowboarding on my days off and partying with old friends. I had a new man in my life and was smiling again. One year had gone by since my father passed away and life finally felt like it was moving forward.
The first night my boyfriend spent the night at my house, I woke up in a daze to Alejandro shaking me awake.I heard someone hollering “FIRE! FIRE!”
I was half asleep and confused, “A real fire?”
“Yes! Get up!”, he grabbed a scarf laying on the floor and covered my face, forcing me out of bed and into the hall that was choked with smoke. I couldn’t see and don’t remember how we made it down the stairs. Normally you would go down the stairs, hang a right, and go straight on until you reach the front door, and then straight out the mud room, into the garage. I know we turned right, and I can still hear my uncle shouting for me and Ale responding “We’re here!” At the kitchen, something was knocked over and we stumbled and got turned around. I couldn’t see anything and panic was surging through my body. Ale pushed me below the smoke and we were caught in a corner, unable to find our way out. The smoke was burning my throat and stealing my words. I tried to scream for help but could barely even cough. Ale said not to yell, but then he yelled for us. He kept trying to cover my mouth and protect me from the smoke. I cried out, “Oh my god, I’m going to die! I am dying! This is where I am going to die!” My life didn’t flash before my eyes, I came to no big realization, it was pure fear and acceptance that I would not make it through this fire and that the nightmare would take me with it. It was harder to breathe, my lungs were burning from the smoke. The flames neared and I could feel the heat on my face. Just as my last hope vanished, I saw a faint light. I remember the light because I thought it was a fireman. Ale yelled for them to help us, and he pulled me up and pushed me ahead of him, guiding me towards that light. We scrambled out the door and as we ran through the mudroom the windows in the kitchen began popping from the heat. No shoes, no socks, just short leggings and a t-shirt, in the middle of a Vermont winter with more than a foot of snow on the ground. My body convulsed and I threw up black soot, ignoring the frozen ground at my feet.
Every one of my family members made it out of that fire alive, I didn’t know it at first but Ale and I were the last ones out. I also didn’t know that the light, the light which saved our lives, was no fireman. It was my brother holding up his iPhone. To be more precise, it was our dad’s iPhone. Before my dad passed away my brother never had a smartphone. My brother isn’t into it, he doesn’t check Facebook, he isn’t into emailing. He likes to see people in person and isn’t bothered about the rest of it. He does however, use his phone as his alarm clock. That morning when he heard the fire alarm go off, he slid out of bed, pulled his jeans on over his longjohns and slipped on his sneakers. He thought someone had inadvertently set off the fire alarm and even though he usually woke up early for work, he wanted his extra hour of sleep so got dressed to see who did it. In his pockets were two items, that phone and the keys to his car. Within a matter of minutes the entire house was engulfed in flames and everything was gone.
Serendipity, fate, luck, happenstance. Whatever you want to call it, if that combination of circumstances hadn’t happened the way they did, I know I would not be here today. It has been nearly 6 months since the fire, and I am finally ready to talk about it. I still have trouble near bonfires and the sound of an unexpected alarm jolts me, but telling what happened no longer flashes me back into the panic I felt that night.
While we still have our struggles, we are all alive, we have each other and thanks to the generosity of family and friends we are back on our feet. I was given so many clothes that I was able to donate three bags full of them back to our local charity thrift store, even with so few belongings, I still feel that I have more than I need. We often laugh about the fire now, learning to let go of the things we own, and hold on to the people around us.
Fires happen unbelievably fast, before the fire trucks had arrived, a two story house with a finished basement and two car garage was gone. Test your fire alarms, and if you don’t have them, install them. Plan an exit strategy. I hope you never have a house fire, being in the smoke was the most disorienting thing I have ever experienced. Don’t forget to tell the people you care about how much you love them, and tell them often. Tragedy can happen in a flash and regrets are a terrible thing. I have made a promise to regret nothing again and to take every opportunity that comes my way, and to pay it forward. Soon, I am moving to Argentina to be with my boyfriend, the same one that saved my life. I can see promise in the world again. I no longer fear the unknown.
I am also using this as a chance to say thank you to all the people we haven’t had a chance to thank. I think I speak for everyone when I say, thank you for all of your generosity and kindness.Thank you to each and every person who donated online to help us in our time of need. Thank you to the firefighters who battled the blaze. Thank you to the firefighter who gave me a bottle of water while I watched our house burn. Thank you to the neighbors who took us out of the snow and gave us shoes and coats. Thank you to the family members who sheltered us. Thank you for every article of clothing (sent from near and far). Thank you for the gift baskets of food. Thank you for mailing us donations. Thank you to Okemo Mountain Resort (where my brother and I both worked) who collected donations from employees. Thank you Black River Good Neighbors who opened their doors to us to get clothes after the fire. Thank you for your kind words of support. Thank you for showing us how wonderful people can be. Thank you for reaching out. Thank you to my sister who made sure we were okay, even from far away. Thank you to my mother who rushed back from the west coast to be with us. Thank you to my brother, the hero who braved the smoke and wouldn’t leave the burning house until he knew we were out. Thank you to Alejandro for protecting me and being the last one out of the house, without whom I would not be alive today. Thank you to my aunt and uncle who still make sure we know that we have a home with them. Thank you to my cousin for welcoming my brother and I like siblings. Thank you to my dad for leaving my brother with the phone that saved my life.
I can see clearly now the ‘smoke’ is gone. The future is brighter, the love is more genuine, the friendships are more truthful, the moments are full of more gratitude. Sometimes things have to fall apart before they can be put together. Give from your heart. Do for others as you would have them do for you. And never forget this, life is mostly how you see it and if you can control your perspective you can find happiness in the darkest of hours.
Also, don’t forget to keep on swimming. Always keep on keepin’ on!
If you want to know how to help families that have lost their homes due to fire, get in touch with community organizations in your city and see what you can donate, whether that is time, money or goods. I’ve never been so grateful for a pair of sweatpants and socks before in my life.
You can also check out some of these organizations:
The Red Cross (The Red Cross was there the day of the fire and gave us each kids containing essential items like water, toothbrushes, soap, etc.)
Black River Good Neighbors (This is my local charity that opened their doors to us after the fire and gave us clothes and money to buy food and necessities)
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