On December 18, 2012, two days after my 25th birthday, I was sitting in my living room around noon. It was a day like any other, except something unsuspecting would happen. There was a pop in the wall behind me. I didn’t have time to evaluate the situation or ponder on what caused the noise because the burnt plastic smell told me right away. It was a spark.
I immediately threw the couch away from the wall and saw the old curtain was already on fire. I tried to kick it and put the fire out, but my attempts were to no avail. I ran to my refrigerator and grabbed a giant container of water. I even thought for a second how lucky I was that I hated the iron water from my well and kept distilled water for drinking. Those positive thoughts quickly dissipated as the water hit the fire and did basically nothing. It was at that point I saw the fire was coming out of the outlet and that’s when I knew that the fire was inside the wall. I ran into the kitchen and frantically looked for something, anything. I turned around and saw the fire was already at the ceiling of the living room. I grabbed a shirt and covered my mouth, ran into my living room, grabbed my cell phone and darted out the back door. That move actually singed the front of my hair, but I didn’t realize that until a firefighter pointed it out to me later.
As I ran down my back porch steps, there was a sound similar to a cannon firing and the living room window blew out causing glass to fly everywhere. I called 911 and waited at the road with nothing but the pair of gym shorts I was wearing and the phone in my hand. Slowly, the rest of the neighborhood came and stood with me offering me apologies and small tokens of help. I appreciatively smiled to them, but my mind was still numb at the sight in front of me.
The house that was burning was where I grew up. It was old. The walls were covered in wooden panels, a practice not done anymore because it is essentially turning your walls into flint. The insulation was old, as was the wiring. Perhaps I was lucky that something like that didn’t happen earlier. After all, it could have happened while I was sleeping.
I have always considered myself a strong person, but there is no denying that it was devastating. Not only did I lose everything from my childhood, I also lost everything I owned too. On top of that, I received a dose of reality on how mortal I am. If it had happened just a little earlier, I would have died in my sleep. Insurance did pay for most of my lost items eventually, but I was in a bad spot right after the fire.
I had no house and belongings. I had no clothes. I lost all of my school work as well as my computer. My dad lived an hour away which would have turned my drive to school into a two hour trip each way. As hopeless as the situation seemed, something magical happened. My friends and family popped up wanting to help, especially my girlfriend and her family. Even my friends’ parents gave me things. People on Facebook that I hadn’t seen in years were messaging me telling me I could stay at their house if I needed to. I must have had more than 30 people contact me wanting to help.
My network turned my tragedy into a manageable problem that didn’t ruin my life. When school started again after the Christmas break, I was able to drive my normal route to school and do my work on someone else’s computer. Because of the charity of everyone, I was able to get my life back on track until the insurance money came in and allowed me to support myself and replace my belongings.
Looking back, I can see that this network that helped me is the same concept that is used in public relations. Whether you need help getting a message out or getting access to new potential clients, a network of friends and strangers is necessary. Like when someone gave me a shirt, someone can give a retweet. A place to stay for a few days is like an opportunity to guest blog. Maybe it is silly to downplay my traumatizing experience by comparing it to the public relations industry, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t be able to learn from it. It is only traumatizing if I let it be. I choose not to.
If there was anything that I gained from the house fire, it is strength. I didn’t crumble to my near-death experience or the things from my childhood that were lost. I’ll never get to show my kids the chess set from Jerusalem or the Slovenian history-themed Tarok card game set their great-grandfather gave to me before he died. I’ll never get to look back at anything I ever accomplished or the hundreds of poems and novels I endlessly wrote as a kid that made me want to be a writer like I am today. It was humbling, but it was strengthening. I am a firm believer that God does everything for a reason and now I look forward, ready to make an imprint in the public relations industry. I’m ready for whatever comes my way because I feel like I’ve already been through the worst.
Did you have a situation in your life that you learned from like this? It doesn’t have to be traumatizing, but I would love to hear it in the comments section.
-Marty F. Nemec