What Goes Through Your Mind When You Think You Might Die
When I was 10, I had a paper route. On weekends, the papers had to be out by 6:00 am. On those the cold and silent winter mornings, as I trudged through the snow and the wet with the weight of my loaded satchel bumping rhythmically against my legs, the darkness was complete; relieved only by the streetlamps and an occasional porch light. I was never scared, but I hurried along, anxious to be done with the job and get back to my warm bed.
I suppose it's no surpise then, that one morning, I delivered a paper to a house in which all the occupants; mother, father, grandmother and baby, had all perished in a fire the night before while I slept safely and soundly in my own home just down the street.
I didn't notice anything amiss. The crispness of the winter air held not the faintest whiff of anything sinister. I didn't feel anything foreboding or unsettling or sad as I climbed the front steps and placed the paper between the two doors. I didn't notice the depression in the snow where the baby had landed when the grandmother, desperately trying to save him from the flames, threw him out the window.
Nobody had heard the sirens wailing. Nobody had seen or smelled the smoke. Those people died while their neighbors slept, unaware of the tragedy unfolding just steps away from their own doors.
Since then, I have had a deep and abiding horror of dying in a fire. When I moved to the city 20 years ago, I wouldn't even consider living in a high rise apartment building and I turned down several jobs because the offices were located in skyscrapers. If a fire breaks out below you, there is nothing to do but jump. And that is prospect that still turns my blood to icewater and twists my stomach into a desperate and diabolical knot.
The fear that has never left me, but it has abated a bit over time.
This morning, that fear came back to me with sickening swiftness as husband and I were awoken from our blissful slumber on the 8th floor of the Westin Peachtree by the electronic shriek of the fire alarm.
The alarm was interrupted by a hotel wide broadcast.
"Attention Guests. We are aware that the fire alarm has been activated. The Fire Response Team is investigating. Please await further instructions."
I was not disposed to await further instructions. I said as much to husband who agreed.
We dressed hurriedly and I frantically gathered up our belongings.
And that's when I was hit by the realization that I had not said good-bye to the boys. I hadn't told them I loved them. They were engaged in a cutthroat game of ping pong when it came time for us to leave them with the friends who would be keeping them overnight. They are older now, and long past the age of needing assurances that we would be coming back. And so we simply left.
Husband said gently, "Baby, leave it, it's not important. We've got to go."
I nodded and grabbed my wedding ring off of the bedside table. "Everything else can be replaced" I thought, but on the heels of that thought came another, silly, senseless one. "But I just bought that outfit!!". Along similar lines, I was already lamenting the loss of my favorite sandals. They are deep brown silk embroidered with gold, bronze and silver thread and appliqued in a paisly design. I also thought regretfully of the hundred dollar bottle of wine I had bought Husband last Christmas. We had brought it with us to toast our anniversary.
"We can't just leave all our stuff!!" I said.
"We'll be back. It's just a false alarm."
"You don't KNOW that!" I wailed.
"Baby, it's going to be fine. Let's GO." He was trying to be calm, but I heard the urgency in his voice. He was as frightened as I was.
We left our room and made for the stairwell. Other guests were doing the same and everybody wore that peculiar expression of outward calm that suggests barely restrained panic. Once inside the stairwell, I was instantly reminded of all those people who lost their lives in the stairwell of the World Trade center while trying to escape the fire, the smoke, the imminent collapse. It made me feel trembly and breathless. I tried to just focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
I told myself over and over that it was silly to panic. It was a kid, a prank, some illicit cigarette smoke. It was NOT a sweeping inferno that would soon engulf us in flames.
It wasn't, dammit.
But I wasn't having much luck getting through to myself, and neither apparently, was the woman in front of me on the stairs. She banged her small pullman down on each step and jerked it viciously around the corners. Husband commented that she looked pissed off in the extreme, but I thought her anger was simply a mask behind which lurked the hysteria of complete and total terror.
There were people carrying sleepy eyed children and I was once again reminded of my boys. I hoped I would see them again and then, I berated myself for the fatalistic thought.
We exited onto a cobbled terrace in the rear of the hotel. The sun was shining and there was a gentle breeze blowing. The small man made lake in front of us rippled and sparkled. It's the kind of day on which it seems like an awful injustice to die.
But fire or no fire, we were out. My heart slowed and the quaking in my limbs stilled.
After about 20 minutes we were allowed back into the hotel. Everything was fine, apparently. But the emotional aftermath was obvious on the faces of all the guests who milled about in the lobby. It's hell to wake up fearing for your life.
Later, when we picked up the boys, the first thing I said to each of them was "I love you."
They both gave me a strange look and then looked at one another. Pre-Pubescent One said "Um. It was just one night Mom."
I know. But it taught me a very important thing.
Always say good-bye.