Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My Five-Alarm Life: Then and Now

By Aabye-Gayle D. Francis-Favilla

Ever since I was a kid I’ve had an affinity for fire trucks—I found them beautiful in all their loud, bright, red splendor. I had my own toy truck, and I loved it—in fact, I loved everything firefighter-related. I wanted to wear the helmet, boots, and jacket; and I really wanted to slide down one of those poles. I treasured my little red plastic fire helmet, and wore it with pride around the house.

Back then, I probably didn’t fully understand what a firefighter does, but I knew they were helpful and important thanks to “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers.” In fact, the only reason I liked going to the grocery store was because it was down the block from a fire station, and if the firefighters weren’t busy, my parents would take me inside for a visit. I wasn’t allowed to slide down the pole, but I did get to try on a real fireman’s helmet and sometimes stick my little legs into a pair of their giant boots. I liked to imagine sitting behind the wheel of the fire truck, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.

Other days, we wouldn’t get to go in the firehouse. The alarm would sound, and I’d watch as that bright red truck emerged with its sirens screaming. People and cars would part to make way, and the truck would speed off. I didn’t know or understand where it was going. I didn’t comprehend that every firefighter on that truck was about to risk his or her life. I just thought it was exciting—the truck, the lights, the noise.

Then one day many years later, firefighters were in our home—our apartment building—which stood burning as my husband and I waited on a frigid, snowy December night for the fire trucks to come. We watched helplessly as firefighters climbed through the window of our apartment to put the fire out. Since then, the sight of a firefighter has made me feel grateful—thankful that because of the brave and hardworking men and women that came that night, our building didn’t burn completely to the ground. They fought the wintry elements and the fire, and not a single life was lost.

I still think the fire truck is an amazing vehicle, but now that I’m older, and have seen them come to my home, they look different to me. Now, when I see fire trucks pass by in emergency mode, I wonder where they’re going. Is someone losing their business, their home, or their life in the flames? And if I’m close to my own home at the time, I can’t relax until I see the trucks pass my street without stopping.

That’s one of the things I unexpectedly lost in the fire, a complete sense of security (where fire is concerned). Even after we had returned to our apartment—a beautifully renovated home—there was some residual damage to navigate internally. Fear had crept in and eroded things. Knowing that the person who had accidentally started the fire still lived upstairs left us feeling uneasy.

On one afternoon in particular—not even a full week after we’d moved back in—we were walking home from the store—our shopping cart full of things like paper towels, frozen pizza, and dish soap. We were three or four blocks away from our building when we heard sirens, and then a caravan of fire trucks passed us. We both looked at each other. Neither of us said anything, but we simultaneously picked up the pace. Those trucks weren’t going to our block, let alone our apartment building, but until I was standing on my street corner, seeing with my own eyes that everything was okay, my heart hung heavily.

These are the little damage residuals that always remain in me after an accident or traumatic event. For years after my dog got attacked in the park, I walked with a big stick. After my first car accident, I drove with extra vigilance. And for months after our fire, I worried every time the smoke detector went off in a neighbor’s apartment, or I found myself part of a fire drill. And when smoke filled our hallway one year and one day after our fire (just two months after we’d moved back in), I worried. Was our home going up in flames again?

Turns out someone had fallen asleep with food in the oven and it had burned, producing a lot of smoke. It never got serious (though it could have). And it poked at a wound that was still raw for all of us who had been there one year and one day ago. I could feel a collective tension permeating the building, and I, myself, didn’t stop worrying until the firefighters had finished their inspection and left.

Trauma changes us—it reveals a possible danger and leaves us looking for a repeat. It takes away some of our security. It makes us look at the world (and our place in it) differently. After our building burned, I was certain that fire wasn’t finished with us. That having touched our home once, it now had an open invitation to come again.

With time, those fears have since started to disappear. I no longer get a sinking feeling in my stomach when a fire truck passes by. I don’t get as nervous when I smell smoke. I know that having a fire in our building doesn’t make us any more likely to have another one. But I still double-check that all the stovetop burners are off before I go out.

How and when did we finally get back into our home? All that (and more) in the next installment of “My Five-Alarm Life.”

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