January 16, 2020, The Night My House Burned Down

On the evening of January 16, 2020, I was attempting to be attentive during my theories and practices class while my phone, buried deep in my bookbag, was buzzing relentlessly. It was about 6:20 p.m. when I finally gave in to sneak a peek at what was up with my phone. When I saw the never-ending green blobs as I scrolled down my phone, all the messages seemed to blur except for the one. “Call me now!”

If any of you know my husband, he does not text, at least not me, ever. I am sure he had called and left messages but, he must have known that I would not have attempted to answer, and I would be more likely to see his text. I immediately stood up from my seat, in the middle of class discussion, walked out of the classroom, and made the call. 

My husband’s voice was cracking, and he was clearly crying through his words. John had been skiing all day with family and friends. As anyone’s would, my mind immediately went to the worst-case scenarios. You are in the hospital, you broke your back, neck, leg…oh my God!

“Honey, the house burnt down, it’s gone, everything.” 

“Is Cash okay?”

“Yes, he got out. He is in the truck. He is fine. 

“Are you okay?” I am okay. I gotta go, the fire inspector needs to talk to me.” 

Without any forethought, I opened the door to my classroom while my professor, Andre, and my peers were conversing over the required reading. “Andre, would you come out here? Please, I need to talk to you.” 

Those of you who know me, know this is not something I would ever do; disrupt a class or disrespect my professor for anything other than dire reasons. Andre got up and came out without hesitation. At that moment, I was still composed or at least I thought I was. However, my expression and demeanor may have told onlookers another story. I told Andre of my situation. He gave me his genuine comforting concern which brought my attention to the fact that my body was now physically shaking. My eyes were beginning to hurt, but I was planning my next steps leaving my tears at a bare minimum.

My drive home was almost an hour from the University of Rochester which gave me plenty of time to process my present situation. I need to stop at Walmart; buy a dog bed, dog food, chew toys, and food bowls. We need toothpaste, mouthwash, underwear…

When I arrived at what was left of my home, there were way too many fire trucks and emergency vehicles to take in. Four or five fire departments were there, I am not sure of the count. Ambulance crew, firemen, Sheriff deputies, the chief of police, and the fire investigator littered the property and the nearby roadside. If I had to guess, there had to be at least 60 uniformed first responders moving about the eastside of our picturesque, creek lined property.

As I walked up my long and slippery driveway weaving through the trucks and the hoses, I noticed that several firemen were in a circle on their hands and knees while inspecting debris from the fire. They were in the vicinity of the forever-gone front stoop looking through the ashes brought up from the basement where they suspected the fire began. The investigators eventually concluded, from the tiny metal-like pellets, that the fire started in the electrical box of our 12-year-old home.

The only other non-uniformed person, besides John and me, that got past the nearby barricaded roads, was our good friend, Bits. Bits, one of John’s best and supportive friends, own’s Walter’s house. Walter is a 9-year-old beagle and is one of Cash’s favorite playmates. Bit’s and Walter’s dog-friendly environment was ideal for us to accept their generous offer to take us in for as long as we need. Thank you, my friend.

The only thing that I did not lose in this devastating inferno, was my computer, my car, and the clothes on my back. The fire was so hot that it melted Cash’s car that sat about 30 feet away from the house. Cash’s car is a 2007 Fusion full of dried mud and dog hair which comes with his own on-demand chauffeur (John or me) to take him on his daily outings for a hike or ski in the nearby parks. The control panel on John’s relatively new plowing tractor melted, along with the siding on our small gardening shed located about 40 feet north of the house. This was a brutally hot and dangerous fire.

The Only Moment that is Real

Some of the most valuable things that I lost were things without much monetary value. I lost my father’s WWII duffle bag covered in writing, in languages unknown, from all the different regions during his travels through the Panama Canal all the way to China. In addition, I lost my grandfather’s NYPD Captain’s hat along and other family heirlooms dating from the early to mid-1900s.

Nonetheless, without despair, my heart is not distressed over the things we lost. Throughout my education and practice as a mental health counselor, I have learned a great deal about processing and living through traumatic events. No lives were harmed or lost from this horrific fire for which I am truly grateful. The fire is no longer. It is in the past. Our present moments feel warm and safe. Many people are reaching out to offer their sympathy, empathy, and if there is any way in which they can help. Some amazing soles have offered to open up their homes to shelter their newly homeless friends, and we truly thank you. 

Now, when I start ruminating about things I no longer have, I remind myself that these are only thoughts. These thoughts are not real but what I am constructing. Living in the present is good. It is the only moment that is real, and it is good. We have what we need, I have my family, and I have them with me. 

The Truly Endearing

The very next day, I was honored and comforted to spend the afternoon with two of my BFFs, Jenn and Jules. The purpose of our mission was to do some speed shopping for the basic necessities such as clothes, winter boots, and toiletries. Shopping with your girls is fun, right? No, I hated it. The last thing I wanted to do was shop. My mind was in a fog and I had not eaten in I can’t remember when. Jenn & Jules took such good care of me doing tedious jobs such as finding sizes and digging through sales racks. But what really meant the most to me was that these to insanely busy fulltime workers, doctoral students, researchers, and pet parents, canceled their appointments, set aside their homework and family’s needs to give me a full afternoon of their undivided attention.

Several years ago, I remember there was a group of Tibetan monks that came to the University of Rochester to create their beautiful sand mandalas. To have experienced the time involved, the skill, and cooperative detail needed to create these beautiful works of art was simply mesmerizing. But only after a few days it was gone! Why? How can they destroy such beauty when it brings so much joy and awe? This was the defining moment when I learned the valuable lesson of the theory of impermanence. Nothing lasts forever, nothing. When I catch myself thinking, I can’t believe I don’t have that anymore, I remember the meaning of the theory of impermanence. If I mindlessly ruminate over the loss of my material possessions, I will be creating more of own my suffering. So, I remind myself, nothing is meant to last forever, not even me. And now, I feel better and I can move on.

Now we Move Forward

So, we are okay. Our needs are being met. Our jobs, our passions, and our love still exist. This tragic event makes me reevaluate what I am truly grateful for and what brings meaning to my life. My reflections on this recent event had given me time to think of how we will rebuild our new and comforting safe space.

One thing I know for sure is that I want less. I want to value the things I have and not want for things I don’t need. I want our home to be warm and inviting with minimal intrusive “stuff.” I now realize that happiness from stuff is fleeting, only to drive the want for more stuff. Going without, without unnecessary stuff, foregoes the wanting. The wanting limits present moment joy that comes only from within. I will cherish and embrace such a valuable lesson. 

My joyous memories, my loved ones, my creativity, and my drive is what truly fulfills me. And, from this great loss, I find new enlightenment.

Thank you for my story reading,

~ Catherine

Postscript

Thank you to all the volunteers and first responders. Your generosity and compassion do not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Thank you, Andy you are a rare and true friend. Thank you, to Jenn & Jules. You got my back! Thank you, Michael, for your generous efforts to replace our ski gear. Thank you, Julie for setting up a gofundme page. And thank you for all for your love, support and well wishes. It is truly comforting as well as appreciated.

12 thoughts on “January 16, 2020, The Night My House Burned Down

  1. Genevieve

    Those are some haunting photographs. I can’t imagine how heartwrenching that must have been in the moment. Your processing of it is truly admirable. Wishing you the best in the present moment and moving forward.

    Reply
    1. Mark Taylor

      Catherine and John,
      I just now saw your post. I am so very sorry about your loss. So glad the three of you are ok. My thoughts and prayers are with you all. If I can be of any help, please let me know.
      Mark Taylor

      Reply
  2. Julie Emke

    CATHERINE AND JOHN,
    I am so sorry for your loss! I was thinking of you both when I heard of this! Please know that you both are in thoughts and prayers!

    Julie Emke

    Reply
  3. Mark Mullikin

    Catherine,
    My name is Mark Mullikin I am the town Building Official and was onsite that night I spoke with John breifly as I have known him for quite sometime. I Offered my sincere condolences an anyway I could help just say the word. I was in with the investigators and I believe it was you that had come up and asked what it was we were looking at. Please know that however I can be of assistance in this process by all means reach out to me. I believe John has my number. 585 519 3321. Thoughts and prayers are with you and John and your beloved Dog. Do not hesitate to call me for anything.

    Mark Mullikin

    Reply
  4. Silvia

    Catherine, i am so sorry this happened to you. And glad that noone was hurt. I hope you get the support you need from your Warner school family as well. Let me know if there are ways I can help.
    Best, silvia s.

    Reply
  5. henry j. potter

    hang in there kiddo, digger is tough as nails. hes been kicked in the shorts before and come out of it just fine. as long as the three of you are together how bad could it be.

    Reply

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