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DISASTERS

Rising From the Rubble

Fires burn spirits as well as homes. Why do some rebound while others despair?

November 09, 2003|Jeremy Larner | Jeremy Larner has written novels, nonfiction books, magazine articles and screenplays, among them "The Candidate," for which he received an Oscar. His book of poems, "Chicken on Church," will be published early next year.

BERKELEY — On Oct. 20, 1991, my house in the Oakland Hills was burned to the ground by a fire that swept through at up to 80 mph and, in the course of a windy Sunday, destroyed nearly 3,000 houses and killed 25 people.

I managed to save a lifetime's worth of photographs and the hard disk from my computer. I strained my back carrying out a huge, damaged printer but left behind my filing cabinet with not only all my financial records but all the letters I'd saved. I still sorely regret the loss of the stories and writings my children, then in their 20s, had sent me over the years.

For reasons I still don't entirely understand, I recovered my good cheer fairly quickly. Some of my neighbors didn't. I've thought a lot since then about why some people have it easier than others after a fire.

Partly, it has to do with luck. I happened to be at home that day and had enough time to save my dog and grab a few items. And because I was a long-divorced father of grown children, I had little family history invested in my house or its lost treasures. I didn't have young children to comfort. I also had a chance to do some good. I knocked on the door of the couple next door, waking them and their newborn baby from a dead sleep just in time for them to get out.

Later, I was able to feel useful again. I'd been through a fire at another house, so I had experience that most of the victims did not. I was able to direct others to the brokers who had helped me negotiate with my insurance company in the earlier fire and had saved me both grief and money.

Feeling useful helped. I noted that my friends who worked alongside the firefighters holding the line at the bottom of the hill were among the quickest to recover, while among the most depressed was a guy whose house was left standing while those of friends all around had burned to the ground.

I saw a lot of long-lasting grief among mothers who had raised their children in the neighborhood and who had now lost the homes that had contained those happy memories. By contrast, there was Maxine Hong Kingston, a diminutive poet and novelist, whom I knew only slightly but saw the next morning at a market. Her manner was as cheerful as it had been the day before, yet she had lost the manuscript of a novel.

Another born survivor was a friend at the top of the creek who had designed half a dozen houses in the hills, built by her husband from natural materials. She had been in Los Angeles the day of the fire, at the funeral of her father, and she lost everything, including her own house and the other six. Perhaps her father's death helped put things in perspective. So did her work and her strong marriage. She and her husband hit the ground running, won their case against an insurance company that had tried to deny one of their claims, and rebuilt all the houses.

Then there were the less resilient. One friend, a woman in her late 40s, came to see me a week later and grilled me all afternoon about how I could be so cheerful. I was surprised, since I'd always known her to be upbeat. She had a tough but fulfilling job, a likable boyfriend, a strong and humorous personality, grown children who loved their mom and had gone out into the world and given her cause to rejoice. But she was a renter and, among the other disadvantages renters suffer, they rarely have insurance. Her divorce had left her with insufficient reserves to replace her belongings, let alone her priceless scrapbooks. She now felt her brave move for an independent life in California had backfired and left her isolated, broke and as emotionally homeless as a person can be.

It was a long and painful afternoon we spent together. She kept quizzing me as if I had some secret. She was particularly probing about the 150 notebooks I'd lost. These were journals and literary notes I began keeping in my early 20s, and from which I'd planned to write my best and most mature work in later years.

But oddly enough, their loss had not plunged me into despair; it seemed instead to liberate me. Now I was no longer the captive of the events of my travels and troubles, nor the keeper of everything wise or provocative that I had heard along the way. Not to face reading those notebooks opened a new world for me. I didn't know exactly why -- and didn't need to.

Over the following weeks, my friend and I talked fairly often. I helped her find an affordable condo. But I was distracted by the need to reassemble my own splintered affairs, too.

A close friend of hers found her lifeless in her living room about a month after the fire. The cause of death was vague, and no one pressed for an autopsy. Natural causes, her doctor said, an attack that had given no previous signs but could have been summoned up by stress. I felt churlish for suspecting suicide, but that suspicion has only grown in the years since.

Having your home suddenly go up in flames hits a person hard. Even those of us who rebounded quickly still have regrets, things we can't quite forget.

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