Learning to Speak "Basset Hound" or What we Lost in the Fire
Only when the adrenaline rush is over can we begin to count our losses: the things we can’t replace and the fire’s impact on us: mind, body, and soul. Only now, days—weeks—and even months after the smoke has cleared, can we really see. And only now, does the fire get personal: it was your favorite mug, books inherited from your grandfather, your wedding dress, your Christmas ornaments, your children’s artwork, and your photographs. And then, the pain hits hard; our memory of each loss throws us back into the fire and tears open the same old wounds. They may be just material things, you may not be able to take it with you. But if it’s your stuff—it’s not just material goods, but tangible objects infused with your memories and your identity—your life. Still, we were lucky or blessed, depending on your point of view. The wildfire burned throughout the night, threatening surrounding neighborhoods and even O.C. (the students were evacuated twice during the night), until it ultimately succumbed to exhausted firefighters. Late that night friends hiked past barricades to bring us food, walking in the eerie candlelight of cedar trees exploding in the distance. Our next-door neighbor tossed us his keys and left to spend the next couple of nights with his girlfriend: “the house is yours.” My good friends Eric and Linda King also showed up with a set of keys to their house, offering us full reign of their second floor for the duration. Our insurance, however, covered the full cost of a furnished rental house or apartment. So, we declined their generous offer.
A troupe of men and women from church showed up early Wednesday morning. Jenny Hebbard, our real estate agent, came and took her assignment directly from our insurance agent (working on site). Two other women took our children shopping for clothes. My students came to catalogue (and then trash) everything left in the house that had been destroyed: a box of crayons (melted), two spiral notebooks (smoke stained), twelve folders (water logged), three rolls of toilet paper, four toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, movies, videotapes—so much stuff that they lined the street with bags full of newly minted garbage; a massive task in paperwork that they knocked out in three days.
On Thursday, another good friend and colleague, Curt Niccum, came and sifted through piles of burnt sheetrock, glass, and ashes to find crystals that once hung in windows of my study. He succeeded in retrieving both the crystals and a bright red sunburn on the top of his head. That same day, two nights after the fire, we drove to an apartment complex, followed Jenny’s directions, and found a key under a welcome mat. We unlocked the door and walked into a fully furnished three-bedroom apartment—beds already made-up, new pillows, towels hanging in the bathrooms, with plates, knives, and silverware in the kitchen.
Finally, Friday evening we brought the basset hounds home. The dogs were happy to be reunited with the family. Bailey, however, was acting a bit odd—even for Bailey. We had adopted him only a few months earlier, after his house and backyard narrowly missed the path of an F-5 tornado tearing through Moore and Norman (May 1999). The dog had his problems, understandable in view of his past. If he was outside and could hear distant thunder, he went nuts until someone took pity on him and let him into the house. The poor dog already needed therapy. So, I watched him carefully in the apartment as he sniffed around, found my bedroom, continued to sniff, and jumped up on the bed. Then, he identified my pillow (of one night), lifted his leg, and let it rip. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nor did it make sense; Bailey never marked territory like this at the house. So, a few days later when we took the dogs for a careful check at the vet, I told him about Bailey’s bizarre behavior and asked him what he thought.
He laughed and said, “Well, dogs only have so many ways to let you know how they feel about a situation. Think about it: He had been frightened by the fire, tossed from one yard to another like a sack of fertilizer, and then forced to stay with people he didn’t know. Bailey was telling you what he thought about your leadership of the pack. And if I may say it, he’s pissed off and doesn’t think much of your work.”
I have to admit, it made sense. And frankly, not only did I agree with his opinion of the past week—I wish I had said it first.
Two weeks after the fire, our church hosted “birthday parties” for both of our children and a reception (please, no house warming) for Pam and me. We were overwhelmed with gifts of linens, blankets, dishes, kitchen accessories, and so much more. And still, over the next seven months, we went shopping almost everyday to replace things we took for granted: a pencil, something to write on, refrigerator magnets. We lofted a furniture salesperson to employee of the month when we told him that we needed to refurnish a three-bedroom house. We were in “Good Hands” with an insurance policy and company that paid us to replace everything we could find or remember, itemize, and catalogue. I’ve never been so sick of shopping in my life.
Meanwhile, our contractor gutted the house, stripping the walls to bare studs and brick, and then painting the studs to seal-in the smell of smoke. Carpenters then began the long process of tearing away and rebuilding the ceiling, rafters, and roof—one section at a time, followed by electricians, plumbers, painters. Eight months later, at the end of the spring semester, we moved new furniture into a new house. We had begun to pass our second ordeal by fire in Oklahoma.
Some physicians still insist on using the term Causalgiafor RSD or CRPS, a term that originates from the Greek, kausos(heat, fever), and means severe burning pain, a primary condition or indicator of CRPS. It’s true for me, or at least it’s one type of pain I experience frequently enough that I keep a stock of reusable ice packs in the freezer. When my feet, calves, or hands begin to burn I use the ice packs, and though there is no fire, no actual burning—only confused nerves, they do help.
The deep burning pain of Causalgia has destroyed or taken away so many things from my life that at times, I feel like it’s taken life itself. Some damage I recognized immediately—near the beginning, but most has been progressive, slowly unfolding through the years. For the first few years, I could still walk around the block. My feet would hurt and the pain would radiate up into my calf during and after the walk, but I could still take the steps. In later years, the intensity of the pain increased and I paid a higher and higher cost for a short walk. I might have to stop, sit on the curb, and calm the fire for a few minutes, but I could still make it. Today, I can cope with the pain of the first step, the second, the third, and even the tenth. But each step grows ever so slightly, more painful than the last. So by the time I reach my seventieth step, odds are high that my gait will falter, my pace slowed, and I will look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame lunging forward while dragging my left foot (and then my right foot).
As the years have passed and the Causalgia intensified, I’ve had to deal with more significant collateral damage from the fire, what my therapist (Dr. Larry Norsworthy) calls a “loss.” Whenever I become aware of something I can’t do, something new I’ve lost to the pain, it’s a new loss, another violation of life. But I want to manage my life, recover my loss, and keep living life on my own terms—to stay in control. But I can’t. I can’t recover what’s burned away and I can’t live life on my own terms anymore. Truth be told, neither can you. None of us can, it’s just taken a fire for me to see it. My problem is the memory won’t go away, nor do I want it to go away. And while I’m conflicted, I’m haunted by what I used to do, receiving regular reminders of something significant that I lost years ago. And when I remember, I still smell the smoke and the loss hurts like tearing open a partially healed wound.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).