Today is my Alive Day — the 11th anniversary of my apartment building fire when I almost got trapped inside. Every day since September 5, 2009, I’ve thought about my own death. The fire started in the first floor apartment directly in my line, and it grew so big that eventually it burned through the ceiling, out into the first floor hallway, and up the stairs I ran down just moments before. The fire fighter who later spoke to me as the EMT checked my lungs told me that if I’d hesitated even a few seconds longer, I would have run right into the flames. “You’re very lucky,” he said to me. Those words have never left my mind.
For years PTSD and massive depression tortured me. I was watching myself fall into madness. So much so that one night I climbed out onto the roof of my new apartment building because I wanted nothing more than to stop thinking about the worst day of my life. A handful of things kept me from jumping — the enormous full moon, the water towers in my neighborhood that looked like guards standing watch, and a little girl name Emerson Page who started to form in my mind. A scrappy triumvirate, the three of them — the moon, the water tower, and Emerson — protected me from me. And I started to write it all down.
Shortly after that night I was on a plane that was hit by lightning (right on the wing near my seat) and we made an emergency landing just before the wing fell off the plane and onto the tarmac. I was deep into therapy at that point, working hard to shine a very bright light into all the dark places of my mind. My therapist, Brian, saved me many times over the years that followed until finally something changed, something shifted. Not in the world or in my circumstances, but in me. In my bones I internalized that the fire didn’t destroy me; it set me free. Every day after that fire has been a gift, and not one that was promised to me but one that I was so fortunate to be given. These days are extra, in the truest sense of the word.
I’ve certainly had bad days since that fire. Just look at this year we’re living through. I’ve had broken hearts and dreams that fell apart even when I tried so hard to hang onto them. I’ve lost a lot of people I love. I’ve lost, and lost, and lost. And I’m grateful for all those days and losses, too.
At one point about a year after I started therapy, I told Brian how much I hated going to therapy. He looked at me very simply and said, “Well now we’re getting somewhere.” We were getting somewhere. Freedom isn’t free — it takes work, time, and patience. You have to crawl through all the muck if you want to leave that muck behind. And I did. So I crawled, inch by painful inch until I was free of it.
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said that many people die with their music still in them. If I hadn’t survived that fire, my plane hit by lightning, and that night out on the roof of my new building with the moon, my music would have died in me. People would have said things like, “How sad. She was so young. She had so much left to do.” They would be right. But I didn’t die on those days or any days after. Today I get to be here with all of you, in our socially distant, masked up weird ways of 2020 but still here. Still breathing. Still living. It’s some kind of miracle, and every day I work to make the miracle matter.
It’s a strange feeling to look your own death in the eyes and live to tell about it. I had lived through the death of family members and friends, but living through my own was different. It’s given me an unimaginable strength, an unending sense of joy, wonder, and curiosity. There’s a deep peace that lives in me now that I never had before. Building back my mind, body, and spirit from that level of devastation made me fearless, grateful, and happy to just be. We really can build back better, even and especially when all the odds are stacked against us.
At the end of every day, I say thank you to that drive to survive that was there in me that day 11 years ago today. I opened my door to pitch black smoke so thick I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I had a split second to decide: should I chance it and run blind down flights of stairs not knowing what I was running toward or close the door and hope someone would come rescue me? I took the chance and ran. I rescued myself, and all these days since I’ve been trying to make that rescue mean something. Making meaning of my survival is exactly what I intend to keep doing every day that I’m given.