I'm going to take a small break into reality for a moment and talk about something that I need to talk about.
Last week, last Tuesday, I had one of those life-jarring, steaming-fat-turd things happen; my house burnt down.
One of the things that has been helping me process this huge burden and back-handed blessing, is writing it out. I've been writing stuff for myself all week, but this is my first chance to write something for everyone - to hopefully help you understand where my head has been at, maybe give you a glimpse of what it's like.
It's one of those things that, unless you have experienced sudden and total loss - complete, down to not having a toothbrush or only the clothes on your back, I don't think you can fully comprehend how it actually feels.
Granted I had some things of mine still, thanks to an enduring laziness that has crept in over the years to keep everything spick and span. Casually thinking "I might need that scarf again soon, even though it's almost summer,' or, 'I'll leave my tripod in the car because I'll never use it at home." meant that some things that previously had no meaning, now mean something to me; they survived.
The psychology of this is more than just having some stuff that made it through the chaos through no effort of my own, they become remnants of what was - the perceived value of them is now more present than ever. They represent an identity - what I used to wear, what I used to prefer over other things. Learning to be comfortable in donated clothes, for example, has been some what of an existential struggle, but one I am getting over by simply not giving a shit what others think.
At the time of the fire, I lost my furbaby Bailey - a late-in-his-life adopted Maltese Lhasa-Apso with a kickass attitude and an overbite. He loved to sing to Bernard Fanning, Nelly Furtado and a few others. He loved long walks in the park, eating corn cobs, belly rubs and playing Catfishing on my ipad. He loved girls, hated some men and really hated children. We were best buds, I doubt I'll find a dog as personable as he was.
My cat Charlotte - an ex-stray kitty with street cred - she was an independant soul who loved the outdoors, drinking water from taps and was a master manipulator, disappeared at the time of the fire. Because she had mastered the art of running without setting off her collar bells, she was well, a ninja. She hated loud noises, even unloading the dishwasher or closing a door would see her scurrying for shelter. With this in mind, I had no doubt that she was hiding somewhere, waiting for the commotion to die down before remerging and hopefully, finding her way back to us.
Two days ago, Charlotte found us. We had just finished dropping letterbox flyers for her in the neighbourhood. One of our previous neighbours was leaving just as we were arriving back to the car, "I just saw her enter the yard, she said excitedly, 'through there." It was the best lead I'd had since I'd seen a cat that looked exactly like Charlotte minutes before.
Cautiously, (and hopefully) I entered the scorched backyard, bits of wood and roofing tile scattered about the burnt dirt, bits of things I recognised as house or contents scattered around. I called out for her, trying to calm my pounding heart, would I find her?
"Cha Cha Cha... kitty kitty kitty..."
Wait. Anyone who has ever had to find a cat will know the importance of the pause in the calls. You need to make them think you're not panicked, or that maybe you've lost interest.
"Puss Puss Puss..."
I'm looking around madly for a grey cat in a very black-grey-white-brown scene. I'm scouting the trees, the bushes, the house, trying to find the pattern that suggests that a cat might be around close by.
I hear a sound and stop, my head snaps back to where I think I heard it. There's a squeaking sound coming from inside the wreckage of the house.
Again "meep... meep...."
And there she is. Sitting on the blackened and fallen beams of what was the structure of the house. Inside the fallen chaos, right where her food bowl would have been.
She's scared, not amused and staring at me as if to say "What the hell happened here Mel! Seriously, what the freaking hell. I'm hungry!!!"
We quickly sourced food from the neighbour, and a towel that I wish had been a straight-jacket. The commotion that ensured next was like trying to pack an octopus with claws into a shipping crate with holes. She got us good, she wailed, she whined. Eventually, we got her into a room at the neighbours house. We got her some food, litter and comfort.
It was at that moment that the weight I had had on my shoulders lifted; everyone was accounted for. There were no more things left for me here at this place.
((The rest from here is pretty raw, I need to write it for my own memory which I know will make things up and fade... just a warning, this is rough))
But I'll take you back, because the more I talk about it now, the more I think it's helping me.
Around 3:30pm last Tuesday afternoon, I get a call at work from my other neighbour who I barely speak to, but only because we lead such separate lives.
"Mel, your house is on fire."
WHAT. From here on in, my head is a mess, "What, What." I yell into the phone, rousing the attention of my colleagues. "Fire, my house is on fire...."
My head is spinning, I cannot make sense of this feeling - like I'm going to faint. Through some semblance of survival mode kicking in, I get on a bike with Sam and we race out to my house.
I can see the plumes of smoke rising before we even reach my suburb, knowing that that was my stuff - my things - my everything BURNING, I can feel my body going into shock, I get that feeling where I feel like I've been impaled and I can't comprehend. I close my eyes and silently hope that it isn't as bad as it looks, I can't imagine what's going on and I know that I'll know soon enough. My head fills with white noise.
We arrive in the street and it's blatantly obvious that this isn't a small fire. The street is cordoned off with police, fire and ambulance officers. We're initially stopped, but it's my house and I tell them so. An officer escorts me up to my neighbours fence, as close as they'll let us get to it. Other neighbours are all in the street watching silently, all standing in groups outside their homes. I feel like I'm suspended in time and now the subject of a reality TV show. I wish I could tell them to go about their day as normal, they don't need to witness my grief, but there's nothing that can be done except watch.
I see my neighbour who called me, Cheryl, my dads partner, and A policeman. The impact of the scene hits me.
Hot tears stream down my face as I realise my life is going up in flames and how damn useless I am standing here.
Above: Bailey and Cowgirl in happier times
My dog, my bailey, my sweet boy is trapped inside. Bailey... my bailey. Charlotte. My furbabies... my knees are weak and I feel like I'm going to collapse from the hopelessness of it all.
My computers, my backups which were inside the house, my everything. My trip stuff. Holy crap I've got a trip in 2 weeks and I've now got nothing left.
Bailey... bailey, can someone help him!
The looping is a repeating of the thoughts, feelings, time suspension and helplessness that comes with watching your things burn. It's that feeling that there's nothing you can do when all you want to do is storm the house and grab the things that matter. Firies tell us they won't sacrifice a human life to save an animal. In that moment I know from what I'm seeing that there's nothing that's gonna save my bailey. My sweet boy.
Flames are licking out the ceiling which has collapsed, the living room is gone. Blackened. Smoke shoots out the windows of my study, my bedroom, the other bedroom and well, pretty much everywhere. The garage is on fire, smoke billows through the neighbours house and down the street. Burnt bits of trees, papers flutter out and rain down over the houses, trees and everywhere it can reach.
A car has been pulled from the garage and whoever discovered the fire has pulled away all hazardous things from it.
The pungent smell of melting plastic and burning wood has engulfed the street. Time suspension continues, the looping in my mind continues. I feel numb.
My phone is ringing but I can't answer it. I can't talk, I can't make sense of my own thoughts let alone have to put them into a sentence for someone else.
We're ushered into our neighbours' house so that we don't inhale any more smoke, but I know it's because there's some difficult things happening which they don't want me to see.
A police investigator interviews us, what we did that morning, what was on during the time we were out, what did we have in there, etc.
I sit down and we're given a glass of water. I don't remember much except holding sams hand really tight and staring into the blackness of the kitchen bench. People rush in and around me, different factions of family, police, support workers, chaplains, and Louie, the Logan House Fire Support Network guy.
He introduces himself, what he does and this amazing angel guides us through what we're meant to do from here. When noting makes sense, when the media are knocking on your door asking to speak to you, in the most tragic of circumstances, he arranges and guide you through it. They set up the GoFundMe for us, they started promoting and doing all the incredible things that require more courage than I could ever muster. He brings water, towels and tooth brushes, he brings a book of what to do. He arranges things, gives advice, acts as a point of contact for everyone experiencing these kinds of sudden losses.
Appearing on camera infront of the media is the absolute last thing anyone in this situation EVER feels like doing. It's disaster porn. My hair is gross, my nose is red from crying, I'm in my least-favourite work shirt. Urgh. All meaningless things to worry about, but when there's nothing to do, the most irrelevant emotions are stirring around and not being helpful at all. It's the whole train-wreck of a situation kinda thing. You know the type. While horrible to do, it is a necessity, he explains. Indeed many people I know were dumbfounded to see mine, my brothers and fathers face on national TV after we'd lost pretty much everything.
My memory is a bit burry after this.
At some point Louie comes in and confirms that they have found the dogs- my Bailey and Cheryl's Cowgirl and confirmed they are deceased.
Another round of tears, looping memory and complete time suspension.
A family friend reports he is taking the dogs direct to where they will be buried with family. More tears.
My mum shows up, comforts me. My brother is around. At some point I hear a giant crashing sound from the direction of my house. People are going over to the balcony of the house where we are and looking at it. I can't bring myself to go and see, so I sit at the counter and stare. The next day I'll realise the noise was the roof collapsing into the ashes as the supports for it had burned through.
Facebook is going off now, my phone is ringing off the hook and messages are sweeping over it. I put it in silent and push it aside, I don't have the energy to reply to people right now.
I feel suspended like a puppet, strung by strings put there for me and powerless to stop them.
After what feels like several long hours, darkness falls and the firies are still there. Police tape is across the drive and parts of the house are still being extinguished.
The silence that has fallen around the house is only broken by shouts from the firies communicating to each other. The house is blackened, part of the living room roof has collapsed and it's still too hot to go inside for the firies, we're told.
The watchers in the street have gone back to their lives, the ambulance has gone and the police are wrapping up their work. They guard the house overnight until its no longer deemed a crime scene.
Getting back to my now-home was nothing short of surreal.
I realised everything that I had left behind in my car, at sams place. The small collection of stuff I had amassed here now held tremendous value, because it remained.
I slept a little bit that night, but only due to the help of a few stiff drinks and pure exhaustion.
I woke the next morning with the weight of what had happened on my shoulders again.
Realising that I wouldn't see Bailey again, that I didn't know where the cat was, all sorts of emotions rushed over me.
We weren't due back at the house until the afternoon, we expected the forensics guys to finish up late afternoon and hand it all back to us.
The untold part of this story so far was that I had two weeks until my trip of a lifetime was due to begin. I had booked, planned, spent and saved money for an once-in-a-lifetime trip to Antarctica and Argentina. I was two weeks out, I had bought my clothes, medicines, luggage, jackets, tents and all the bits and pieces that I needed. The fire had taken it all away from me in a flash. All of a sudden I was two weeks out with nothing bar the few bits of clothing that I had lazily left in my car. I had no passport, no printed tickets, no travel money and no idea how I was going to replace it all in two weeks on a miniscule budget.
I spent Wednesday morning running around official places to get my passport remade (since the old one had been destroyed), the afternoon held a different story for us.
We arrived at the house early, smacked in the face by the reality of what greeted us when we returned. Policeman and firefighters, showing up sporadically to put out spot fires and hotspots that had kept flaring up during the night. We got out what we could, but most had to be left behind due to the soot and smell of burnt plastic. I'm learning that that smell doesn't come out of anything easily. The hardest part of salvaging is dealing with the drive-bys that find my loss and grief as some sort of entertainment. Our street was a quiet one before this happened, I knew every car that drove past regularly. Now, it was central station, it seems rubbernecking has become a family sport. Car after car of people slowing down to get a good look at what was left. And me standing there facing all the things that I had lost. I had begun to feel quite angry by this, as I'm not a sideshow attraction, but it felt like that.
The whole house was blackened and charred, the linger smell was that wood-fire smell that's both sweet and sinister. Windows are smashed, grass is blackened, trees around are dead. The whole outside area feels like loss. Screens in my computer room are melted and sunken forward. One even has melted completely and ejected the electronic components from its grasp.
My computer case paints a picture of intense heat, memory cards melted onto the top, twisted plastic, bubbled perspex.
Each time I show up to the house from this day forth, I know it has happened, I can only accept it.
When I go away, somewhere else, that's when it doesn't feel real and it begins to seem like a nightmare or bad dream. I feel like I can almost sense myself walking through it like everything was there and nothing was out of place. It's almost hyper-real how much recall I have with this, I will wake up in the night swearing that I was just there.
But from all darkness, there is light.
After the intense heat that my computer and its hard drives went through, I still recovered 12TB of backups and current data. Some of these drives were submerged in water for up to 48hrs before we dried them and riced them, and they still transferred data. BIG WIN
But, the biggest, most amazing part of this entire hopeless situation, has been the immeasurable kindness from those around me. I have been simply floored by the heart, thought and support from friends, peers and colleagues. Everyone has come out in support, and for someone like me, this is massive. I have been left speechless by the offers of support and things arranged to help me get back on my feet. The community support has been phenomenal. I have been blown away by the offers of assistance.
I really wish to thank everyone as much as possible, namely:
GoFundMe Backers - thank you so very much for what you have donated, whether big or small, it truly means so much and the funds that are raised will go towards moving on from this situation as best we can.
My AIPP Community and close friends - Sara McKenna, Colleen Harris, Wanda Anderson, Melissa Anderson, Katrina Christ, Roxanne Gorman for the amazing care package/ clothes drop you all put together which I am still finding great value in.
Leighton Jones Real Estate Kenmore - For an extremely generous donation and ongoing fundraising activities on our behalf.
Logan House Fire Support Network - I know you will say you're doing your job, but it's seriously unlike anything else and we're all so grateful.
Nikon Australia - Helping this photographer put her kit back together in time for her trip to Antarctica.
Kathmandu - For also helping me put my technical clothing situation back together in time for this trip.
Lisa Kayes - My amazing travel agent for collecting gift cards and support from your friends.
Work - for being patient and understanding.
Mum - for being amazing and supportful as always
Helen and Dennis - for the same reason as mum :)
So now that I've got that off my chest, onwards with a travel photography blog yes?
I'll be posting what I can, where I can.
There will be no internet for 2 weeeks while I'm in Antarctica - Data rates are prohibitively expensive and well, I'll just want to be out amongst it as much as I can!
Stay tuned for the next post in a few days as I realise how much I've got left to do!