That Which Does Not Kill Us, Makes Us Stronger

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     Waking up to a room full of smoke is not a wakeup call that I am used to. No words can describe the panic and confusion I felt during those minutes that I was stuck inside of a burning house, my house, with every object and every person I held most dear. The fear I felt, not for myself, but for my family was life changing. I realized how much every single member of my family, my mom, dad, older sister, younger brother, and nephew, truly meant to me. After that dreadful day, it was difficult not to hold each of them closer in my heart.
      On May 13, 2013, the day after Mother’s Day, I woke up at 3:28 a.m., in my bed, truly confused as to why I could hear my mother shrieking my name and why it was so hard to breathe. After turning on my phone and shining my phone’s light around the room, the answer was clear to me. My bedroom was filled with a dreadful black smoke, and I could still hear my mom screaming my name with such a panic in her voice that it filled me with the deepest fear I had ever felt in my life before then. I struggled to make it to my door because I could not make out any object in my room. Familiarity is the only reason I was able to find my door. At last, I opened my door and walked out into the family room. Immediately, I was hit with an incredible amount of black smoke in my face, and the air became denser, harder to breath. The closest exit to me was the garage door, but as I reached for the doorknob, I vaguely remembered those fire safety classes that the firemen would give when they visited my elementary school. Luckily I remembered what I learned in the third grade, and I touched the wooden door before I touched the metal doorknob. I retracted my hand from the door so fast, I almost gave myself whiplash. The door was scorching hot. I knew not to open that door because the heat coming through it meant that was where the fire currently resided. I crawled my way across the living room to the sliding glass door because there was no closer exit than that. If something would have been wrong and I could not have made it out of the back door, I would have had to have crawled to the other side of the house to the front door, but doing that would have caused me to expose myself to the dense smoke for a prolonged period of time, and I could have easily passed out from the smoke inhalation. Thankfully, after fumbling with the lock for a few moments, I managed to pull the door open. Finally, I was able to take a long gulp of much needed fresh air.
       Little did I know that would be the last feeling of relief I had for about the next fourteen hours. I could still hear my mom screaming for me, and I heard my sister, Meaghan, yelling for my nephew, Brrayden. I ran to the front of the house asking about Brrayden because I was terrified he was still in the house. When I finally reached the rest of my family in the middle of the cul-de-sac, I tried to take in my surroundings. My dad was staring at the house looking awe-struck, my mom was looking frantic but also like she was somehow in control of the situation, my little brother, Brendon, was just looking around as if he did not know what to do, and my sister and nephew were thankfully okay and were sitting on the curb diagonal to the house. Our neighbors, who lived in the house behind where Meaghan and Brrayden were sitting, were wrapping my sister and her son in some blankets and trying to make sure they were warm on that unseasonably cold May night.

      Suddenly, Brendon jolted me from my thoughts when he screamed, with the greatest amount of despair that I had ever heard him use, “Where is Paris?!” Paris was our beloved German Shepard-Pitt Bull mix that we absolutely doted on all the time, and she was not outside with us. For the next three minutes, we all desperately yelled for her and hoped with every fiber of our beings that she would come prancing out of the front door, but we were not so lucky. The devastation that I had experienced in the previous five minutes was too much for me to handle on my own. I pulled out my phone and called my boyfriend, Zach. On the third try, he thankfully answered, and after I told him what happened, he told me he was on his way. Comforted by the thought of Zach being there soon, I sat down on the curb next to Meaghan and Brrayden and stared at the blazing home. I did not realize how lucky I was that I was not harmed. The entire garage was an inferno, and my room shared a wall with the garage. It was truly amazing that I exited the house before the fire entered through my bedroom wall and ceiling. For the next ten minutes, I watched the fire chief drive up, a fire truck drive in, and the fire continue to grow larger. I wondered where all the fire trucks were at and why they were not putting out the blaze because one fire truck was not going to be enough. Then I saw Zach’s white Nissan Altima come screeching to a halt in front of my neighbor’s house. He ran over to me, and as I hugged him, I felt immensely relieved because I knew he would be there to help cope through the next few hours.

      We went and sat next to my parents and brother who were all sitting on the curb directly across the street from our house. Our neighbors were saints that night and selflessly gave us what we needed. They retrieved drinks, shoes, blankets, contact solution, and really anything we physically needed. However, they could not do much for us emotionally. I would try to describe the way I felt for those three hours that I was forced to sit and watch my home go up in flames with my dog inside knowing there was nothing I could do, but there are no words for it. There are no adjectives or adverbs that could accurately depict the feeling of knowing every single possession I owned, loved, and had ever cherished was burning to a crisp; the feeling of knowing that every piece of evidence from every memory that was ever created in that home would no longer exist; the feeling of knowing that from that moment on the future was going to be drastically different than had been imagined. There will never be a word to describe that feeling, but I felt it for the next three hours until that fire was banished from my beloved home.  
When we were finally able to approach the house, my immediate first thought was to find Paris. Even though I knew there was no way she could still be alive because either the fire or the smoke inhalation would have reached her, I still wanted to find her. Looking through my parents’ bedroom windows, the back door, and my bedroom window and seeing all of the devastation was heartbreaking. Unbelievable that only four hours before, we were all sleeping peacefully, unaware of any danger. The firefighters were picking through the debris in my room and asking me what I wanted them to grab for me, but I did not know what there was left for them to grab. Every object that would have been on the floor, every picture hanging on the wall, every electronic device was absolutely ruined. So I turned my mind to the important mementos I held dear to me. Every object that I felt had only sentimental value from my childhood, my middle school, and my high school days, were all in plastic boxes in my closet. My closet door was shut, however, so I could not tell if the sentimental pieces were all right or if they were damaged. I asked the fireman to pull open my closet door and hand me whatever was not ruined. To my disbelief, yet utter satisfaction, every object in my closet was unharmed. After some tough few minutes of trying to squeeze the plastic boxes through my window, I finally had the only objects that were valuable to me. Then I went and stood next to my dad and helped him grab what he considered valuable from his room. The next hour or so consisted of every member of my family asking the firemen to dig out the valuables they wanted from their rooms and after that, with no distraction left to keep us occupied, we had to face the harsh reality of this grave situation. We had no cars, no food, and no house. The only reason we had access to money was because my dad grabbed his wallet on his way out. To make matters worse, we had lost a dear member of our family. Paris’ body was recovered from my brother’s room, not burned, not broken. She was just a little damp from all of the water. She could have been sleeping if it was not for the fact her eyes were not shut all of the way. After saying a tearful goodbye and burying her in the grave that Zach dug, it felt like there was no way to recover from this horrific morning. 
It was only 8:00 in the morning, and it felt like my entire world had been turned upside down, but as I turned around to leave Paris’ grave, I saw my entire family. Some crying, some still in shock at the situation, but they were all or would all be okay, and I had Zach right next to me to make sure I would be okay too. In Greek mythology, there is a story about Pandora who held a box full of all types of evils that could plague mankind. Out of curiosity, Pandora opened the box to let all of them loose, but one spirit stayed in the box, and it was called Hope. Hope vowed to never leave mankind no matter the devastation or turmoil and to always fill them with hope. Hope is what I felt as I stood there watching my loved ones mill about. I believed that no matter what, my family and I would pull through and come out on top; I believed in myself. This was something that I had not done for quite a long time. I learned to believe that I was stronger than I had thought before. I could be there for my family and make sure they were okay. I learned it was okay to tell someone how I was feeling, and it was okay to cry on a shoulder every now and then. I also learned not to take my family for granted. The previous day, on Mother’s Day, I had not given my mom any gift or card. I needed to start appreciating every single one of them for everything they did and still currently do for our family, and that was what I did. In the months following the fire and now, I talked with, joked with, and just loved my family because I appreciated the time I had to spend with them.
I would not be who I am today without going through this tragedy. I would still be selfish, I would still take life for granted, and I would still be unappreciative of my family. Slowly, but surely I realized the amount of strength that I possessed within myself. I refused to look at the fire as an obstacle that had hindered me. The fire was a learning experience and that was how I was going to look at it. I started to appreciate the little moments in life that should be cherished forever rather than the valuables that were expensive, but held no real worth. I am a different person today than I was five months ago, and I am thankful for that. After all, what does not kill someone only makes him or her stronger and that could not be a truer statement in regards to me and my family.

by Sarah Rieso
I’m a college student trying to earn an A in English. 

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