It began like any other day in that no man’s land between Christmas and New Year’s, when you don’t know what to do with yourself because the year is already over, but you have a few more days left to ride out before starting anew with a clean slate. The kind of day when you want to accomplish something, but everything you do feels like killing time. You’re impatient to get on with things, and for your equilibrium to return.
That Wednesday afternoon the last week of 2006, we were standing in a department store, my husband trying on clothes at the post-holiday sales, when my cell phone rang. It was a relative, and I knew immediately something wasn’t right. It was unusual for him to call to chat, but still I asked warily, “Is everything OK?” although I think in retrospect I sensed in his voice the answer.
“No,” he responded flatly, somberly. He blurted that there had been a fire and that two of our nieces didn’t make it out. My thoughts raced, trying to absorb this horror and how to relate it to my husband, who stood a few feet away in the sanctuary of the dressing room, as yet shielded from the burden of knowing the fate of our nieces, who were just little girls. A few moments earlier, coordinating cheap men’s shirts and pants had been the weightiest topic on either of our minds.
I stalled for time, hoping impossibly that the way I received the information might alter the outcome. “What do you mean they didn’t make it out?” I remember asking. “Are they hurt, are they at the hospital?” I demanded. And then came his reply, “No,” and it dawned on me the finality of what he was saying. I entered the men’s dressing room, passing the phone to my husband, wordless except to say, “You need to hear this.” I overheard the same exchange take place that I had just participated in myself; I heard Brian echo my own question, asking “Are they at the hospital?”
We left the clothes where they were and stumbled to the parking lot, headed in the direction of the fire scene at Brian’s eldest brother’s house. In the car only a few minutes, we were soon pulled over by the police: Neither of us must have recognized the traffic sign prohibiting U-turns. We tried to explain to the young police officer what was happening, but he didn’t believe us and waved away our pleas, feigning with a hand cupped to his ear that he couldn’t hear us over the din of traffic. We gave up and waited, silently willing the policeman to write the ticket faster so we could be on our way again, neither of us sure we were ready to face what it was we were on our way to.
On the road once more, I remember struggling to reassure my husband as we entered the highway, telling him, “It might not be true. Let’s just wait until we get there and see.” I recall having said at some point, “If it is true, what is this going to mean? Your family will never be the same.”
When we got to the neighborhood, the emergency responders were still there, and the first of the news vehicles were beginning to arrive. The smell of smoke hung acrid in the air, and fire trucks lined the streets, their hoses still unfurled across the pavement, water running by in rivulets. Once the charred skeleton of the house came into view, we could no longer hold out hope.
I was on winter break at the time the family car caught fire in the garage, preparing to start the final semester of graduate school in January, on my way to a master’s degree in counseling. Some months earlier I had completed the required course in grief counseling, a class heralded by previous students of the program, and that many considered among the seminal experiences of their graduate school careers. The class had resonated less with me than with other students, but it was not any fault of the professor, a wise and kindly woman who was revered as an expert in the field.
As counselors, we approach our work through theories and techniques that access the cognitive, the behavioral or the affective realm, or sometimes combinations of these. Through our interactions in another class we shared, this professor had identified in me a tendency to deal with matters on a cognitive level, perhaps to the detriment of the affective level utilizing feelings and emotion. She encouraged me to better explore this other side, to drop some of the academic detachment.
In grief counseling class, our activities were experiential, like art therapy assignments or bringing in a flower to express something about a lost loved one. Many students cried. I had not. Though I may not have known it then, there would be a time for everything.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina