I Want My Cigarettes

There’s a scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where the men are sitting in their group circle talking, and Cheswick tells Nurse Rached he wants his cigarettes. Murphy tries to get one of the other men to give him a cigarette, and Cheswick gets angry, shouting that he doesn’t want anyone else’s cigarettes, he wants his cigarettes.

I’ve had a hard time going shopping. There are tons of things I need. New bras. New socks. New toothbrush. But every time I go into a store and see all the things I used to have, my mind just stops, and I stand looking at things like I’m hypnotized, which, in a way, I guess I am.

In addition, everyone has been beyond kind in offering things to us, especially our mothers, with whom we’re staying. It’s hard not to seem rude by refusing these very kind offers. I have two perfectly valid excuses: we don’t have the space to store anything, and there are plenty of things we won’t need until we have our own place anyway.

My husband and I went and visited the house, partly out of curiosity to see what might be left, and partly out of the need for pictures to prove to our insurance company the house is not salvageable. What we saw was like every apocalypse movie you’ve ever seen. Random bits of metal sticking out of drifts of ash, with occasional nonsensical, whole, undamaged things amid the carnage.

a pot, a pie server, a mug

Our 6-gallon stockpot, a 3-tiered pie stand, and an antique shaving mug belonging to the Pirate’s great-grandfather.

The stockpot was seldom used for food, and we got the pie stand out perhaps once a year. The shaving mug wasn’t technically whole, but it had been in the Pirate’s family forever and had an interesting history. I had no emotional attachment to these things, and am, at best, indifferent to their survival.

two and a half foot celtic cross made of metal

The Celtic cross from the front gate of our garden – the thing I saw as I came down the driveway, and as I went inside the house from the garage.

This Celtic cross was a newer addition to our house, but one that gave me a lot of joy. We’d gotten it at the Highland Games four or five years ago, and affixed it to our front gate, where the wisteria slowly surrounded and framed it. Every time I looked at it, its beauty struck me. This is the one and only thing whose survival touches me.

I went today to replace my Doc Martens. I wanted the exact pair of sandals I’d had, because I loved them and thought they looked great, but the store didn’t have them in my size. And then I realized that I didn’t want a replacement for the things I had.

I didn’t expect shopping to be this hard. I tried to go by myself once, and ended up having to call the Pirate for emotional support from the middle of Costco. I can be upbeat and optimistic about constructing a new house, but now I know that replacing the things in it will be a very different story.

Because I don’t want your things, or their things, or new things. I want my things.

The Popularity of Tragedy

We’ve all seen it. A beloved celebrity dies, and people who have never once mentioned that celebrity’s name, let alone their work, is utterly distraught and demands comfort. Someone at school dies and people who had never known the kid’s name, let alone said as much as “hello,” are front and center with their disconsolate weeping. Disaster strikes, and people who were not only not affected, but who didn’t even know anyone who might have been affected need to insert themselves into the event. People are fascinated by tragedy, and there is something about being close enough to touch it that seems irresistible to people.

When we were evacuated, close friends and family called and texted. It was lovely to know that people were thinking of us, but this was in the first couple of days after we’d left our house, and before we knew whether we still had a house (spoiler: we didn’t), I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed by the need to give them clarity I didn’t have. I stopped answering the phone.

Next came people at a bit of a remove from me. People I knew, but with whom I’m not especially close. They expressed support, they said very kind things, they made offers of staggering generosity. Nearly everyone wanted to know if we needed anything, but with our very most basic needs (shelter for us and our four dogs, food, money to purchase necessities) already met, I didn’t have the least idea what else I needed. People came forward with fabulously helpful resources – the name of a public adjustor firm, a recommendation for a builder. These things were solidly helpful, and not resources that everyone would necessarily know about (I’d never heard of a public adjustor prior to needing one, so why would anyone else?), so I was utterly grateful for the information, but still warmed by the other offers.

Next came people I didn’t really know. This was the weird bit. We’ve heard from the daughter of our real estate agent (a woman I’ve only met a couple of times) who now lives in New Mexico. We got a very surprising and incredibly sweet call from a woman whose father had built the house we lost. She grew up in it, so the loss felt very personal to her. She offered to come and help us clean up, and I suspect that her offer was motivated by a desire to walk the property and see what was left of her childhood home, but that didn’t make it any less touching to me.

But now we’re coming to the last group, which makes an interesting coda to those first days after we evacuated. Now I’m starting to see Facebook posts by people who used to know people who used to live in the area, people who vacationed here once and remembered it fondly, people who used to live in another town that caught fire but not when they lived there. These folks are expressing trauma and grief of their own, not even on behalf of people who’ve actually been affected.

As in the first days after our evacuation, I don’t know how to process the feelings of someone who is claiming the same trauma I have. Honestly, I don’t really think I have to do anything, but there is a part of me that’s a little angry that there are people demanding comfort and sympathy that I’m uncomfortable receiving.

I have gone shopping for necessities nearly every day since we got here, and not once have I told a store clerk “I’m buying new sneakers because my house burned down.” “I’m buying dog dishes, toys, and food because my house burned down.” “I’m buying storage boxes and a new hairbrush because my house burned down.” It seems manipulative to me to put that information out there, not because it’s at all relevant to our interaction, not because it’s a way of making small talk, but because I’m expecting to receive something for it – comfort, sympathy, a fat discount.

It makes me wonder what the people who need to feel a part of trauma they haven’t experienced are looking for, and whether maybe I should start looking for that thing, too.

Staying Still Before Moving Forward

I’ve replaced another couple of things – my microphone and my external keyboard.

There are tons of other things we’re nowhere near to replacing, but I keep looking at them and having the same reaction. I have an absolute need for this stuff, but none of it looks like anything I want. Dresses, dining room tables, rugs – none of them are what I want.

Consciously, I’m not even thinking “it’s not like the old one!” Which just tells me that the hurt is still subconscious, and that I’ll need to do a little more mourning for the life I had before I can move forward on rebuilding.

When I think of my house, I feel numb. It’s not all the time. I am still laughing with my friends and taking joy in walking in the park with the dog, etc. I’m excited about planning what the new house will look like, but when I think about the old house and everything in it, there’s just…nothing. No sadness, no sense of loss, no nostalgia. There’s a part of my mind that’s standing at a remove from the whole thing and just observing.

The last time I talked to my psychiatrist, she asked me if I felt guilty about anything, and I told her I wouldn’t know what to feel guilty about. I didn’t start the fire. I don’t think I was particularly reckless, selfish, or stupid when gathering things on short notice to take with us as we evacuated. I don’t even feel guilty about invading my mother’s house and staying here while we get our next steps together.

What I feel guilty about is not feeling sad. Not bemoaning the boxes of family photos in the garage that I never looked at. Not shedding a tear over the new dishes we’d had for about a week. Not even allowing myself to have much curiosity about what might have survived. What does it say about me that the only emotion I have so far is a sense of exhaustion at the enormity of rebuilding? Whatever it says about me, I don’t feel guilty about that either.