Wednesday, February 8, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Thank You Notes

By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Since our fire, I have sent out 53 thank you notes. At least 53 times a person, couple, family, or group of people has done something special for us. Many of the 53 notes were sent to friends and family that we’re close to, but a number of them were sent to acquaintances or strangers who, despite not knowing us well (or at all), were compelled to do something generous.

Shelter: One group that deserved our thanks was everyone who put a roof over our heads while we waited for our apartment to be made livable again. Whether for a few days or several weeks, friends and family opened their homes to us. Each was a gracious host, each we owe a tremendous amount of gratitude.

Food: It was a full two weeks after the fire before I had to cook a meal for myself (other than my regular morning oatmeal). Friends and family took turns cooking for us or taking us out and treating us to a meal. It wasn’t something I would have thought to ask for, but I appreciated having one less thing to worry about. And some of the food went beyond basic sustenance—a good out-of-town friend sent us a delicious batch of homemade cookies. Another friend made us bread.

Clothes: It took a few weeks before we had any clothes of our own (beyond what we’d run out wearing on the night of the fire). And especially in those days before we knew what would be salvageable, we wanted to avoid buying anything unnecessarily. But it was winter, so we didn’t just need clothes, we needed layers of them. My husband didn’t even have pants—he had rushed out of our burning building in his pajama bottoms. Again, friends and family and their friends (people who didn’t know us directly) came to our rescue. A former colleague sent me a large box full of clothes: socks, sweaters, gloves and everything in between. One of my husband’s colleagues gave us each a handmade scarf. Some of those gifted items are favorites in my wardrobe to this day. And each time I wear one I remember where it came from, and I’m grateful.

Money: Knowing that because we had renter’s insurance, we would be reimbursed for anything we had to replace or repair due to the fire, we discouraged our friends and family from giving us money and asked them to instead make donations to the Red Cross or our church. But some chose to give us financial help anyway, and we couldn’t have been more grateful for each person who did so. Additional expenses kept cropping up that didn’t qualify for reimbursement. A few days after the fire, my car needed almost $1,000 in repairs, then came an almost $600 medical bill, but because of the financial gifts we’d received, we had the money to cover whatever expenses came our way. Again, some of these people hadn’t even met us before, but they had heard our story through someone who knew us and were moved to give.

Transportation: When we had to evacuate due to the fire, I left my only set of car keys behind. Even after I got my car keys back, sleep-deprived as I was until my insomnia subsided, I didn’t have the energy to drive. Friends took turns offering us rides from point “A” to point “B” and helping us move our stuff. One friend in particular drove us to church on two different Sundays, and for you to fully understand how moving his gesture was, I have to tell you that we were staying in Manhattan at the time, our church is in Queens, and he lives in the Bronx. And he didn’t just give us a ride; he also brought breakfast for us.

Miscellaneous: There were lots of little inconveniences right after the fire as well. We didn’t know where we’d be living at first or how long we’d be able to stay there, and so while we could put some things in storage, other things we wanted more accessible, but didn’t want to have to transport every time we moved—we were nomads now. A good friend stepped in and offered his closet space to us. As we got things back from the dry cleaners, we were able to store all of our out of season clothes with him. Someone gave us a power adapter for the laptop that had miraculously made it. Another friend gave us a shopping cart. That shopping cart proved extremely useful. It was very large, and I used it to transport the majority of our stuff from one temporary home to another via the subway.

Fun: People went beyond providing for our necessities, and gave us opportunities to play and have fun. We were given movie tickets and games. Friends and family had us over to talk, play, and just forget our worries for a while. Each person who helped us laugh or rest (or otherwise appreciate the joys of life a fire can’t take away) was invaluable to us.

My husband and I were overwhelmed by love. We had always known we had good and generous family and friends, but they still surprised and overwhelmed us with their kindness. And so I was compelled to send out 53 thank you cards. And those notes of gratitude don’t even fully encompass all I’m thankful for. They don’t include all the people who were working behind the scenes, the anonymous givers, or those who offered help that extended beyond our needs. It doesn’t include all my prayers of gratitude for making it out alive and uninjured and for everything we didn’t lose in the fire. And it doesn’t include any who (in my frazzled mental state) I simply forgot to thank formally.

I’m grateful for the Red Cross. The help offered by this volunteer and donation-based organization addressed our immediate needs for food, shelter and clothing, and reduced our mental strain by providing us with guidance. Without the Red Cross we would have wasted countless hours spinning our wheels as we tried to figure things out. We came in full of uncertainty and questions. We walked away with just one or two forms to fill out, the information we needed, and clear instructions.

I’m grateful for every person and resource that helped us. Because of them, we were able to look beyond our loss. The fire took a lot from us, but in its aftermath we gained incredible amounts of love and support. And ever present was the knowledge that it could have been gravely worse. We had lost stuff (and, temporarily, our home), but we hadn’t lost our lives or suffered serious injury. We were surrounded and embraced by generosity, thoughtfulness and love. We had a lot to be thankful for—much more than 53 thank you notes worth.

In the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life,” I’ll tell you about all of our temporary homes and the six moves we made in the ten months it took for our apartment to be restored.

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