Thursday, June 18, 2015

Finding Home: Other Voices

Today author Patricia Mann joins us with a story of finding home quite unlike any other I've had the pleasure of sharing with you.

I have a recurring nightmare somewhat regularly. My husband tells me that we can’t afford our house anymore and we have to live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with our two sons and two dogs. I am inconsolable. I beg him to figure out a way to keep our house but he assures me that it’s not possible. When I wake up to realize that it was just a dream, yet again, I feel incredibly grateful for my home and wander through every room appreciating it anew. It’s a modest ranch home in Southern California but we’re very happy in it and I finally have the backyard pool I always dreamed of having while I was growing up in New York.

It’s strange that my dreams point to a strong attachment to a physical home. When I’m conscious I will tell you that I feel no such attachment. I prefer to believe that the moment I lost my home and everything in it in an instant, I was spiritually freed from the suffering that Buddhists say is caused by worldly desires.

On the evening of Sunday, January 16, 1994, I was eager to greet my husband of five months after his weekend away. I proudly showed him all that I had accomplished while he was gone, having spent the entire time cleaning and organizing our apartment. We had a lovely dinner and went to sleep in each other’s arms.
At 4:30 a.m. Monday, January 17, we awoke to the sounds of furniture slamming onto floors, glass shattering, and buildings caving in. How could we have known when we closed our innocent young eyes to rest that we were right on top of what would become the epicenter of the infamous Northridge earthquake?

Our bed became a roller coaster, tossing us up and down and side to side. We rode as one, holding onto each other tight, limbs intertwined to keep us together. Certain of our imminent death, as we felt the ground beneath us moving down into the floor below, time seemed to stop. We were able to say so much to each other – how much we loved each other and how thankful we were for the life we had shared.

Suddenly, everything was silent and still, except for the creaking sounds of debris settling into place. To our surprise we were alive and unharmed. Our bedroom was covered in piles of broken objects and fallen furniture, with our pet parrot cut and bleeding in her cage, far from where it was supposed to be. 

Huddled out on the street with neighbors and friends as the sun rose, with sirens blaring and desperate people asking for help locating missing loved ones, the reality began to set in. Still, it would take some time for my brain to process what my eyes saw - the large numbers of our street address, which used to sit above the front doorway to the building, crumpled to the ground, along with the first floor of our building.

Our second story had collapsed onto cars in a ground level parking garage, thankfully. No one we knew died. Those in the building right next door were not so lucky. Fifteen people in apartments on the ground floor were crushed to death. I remember the news reporters running around with microphones in all our faces. I heard one exclaim, “over there… someone’s crying… get her on tape, quick.”

We hadn’t expected our building to be condemned so quickly. There was no going back in. We lost everything. It was just our injured parrot and us against the world. We were homeless and owned nothing but the clothes on our back and it didn’t matter at all. It didn’t matter because we were alive. It also didn’t matter because it took some time to find out if our loved ones were alive. Landlines didn’t work and we didn’t have cell phones back then. We were able to confirm that my husband’s family was fine right away because they were nearby, but the route to my parents’ home was blocked by a raging fire. I had no way to know if they were alive or not, for hours.

Finally discovering that everyone I loved was safe felt like the greatest gift I could ever have been given. Yes, we lost every wedding gift, every possession. Yes, I had to replace an entire wardrobe piece by piece. Yes, we had to live with my parents for six months to rebuild our lives before we had the means to strike out on our own again. But none of that bothered me for a second. I knew what it felt like to be certain of my death. Strangely, I felt no fear in that moment. It was complete surrender. For a long time after, material things didn’t matter to me at all. And I know they mean something different to me now than they would have had I not had that experience.

Home is not the structure you live in. It’s the life you create with the people and pets who share it with you or visit you. Home is not the knick-knacks and sentimental gifts that you’ve held onto for years. It’s the safe space you come back to when you need to recover from life’s challenges and recharge your batteries to go back out into the world. 

Before my earthquake experience, I would have told you that being forced to leave my friends and family to move from New York to California at fourteen years old was my most life-changing experience of trying to find home. I was despondent and felt lost for some time. But now, though I am deeply saddened by the loss of the 57 people who died in the earthquake… I can honestly say that if it had to happen, given the choice, I would want to be right where I was at 4:30 am on January 17, 1994, and wouldn’t change a thing about my experience. I found my true home that day – with my husband and family, no matter where we might reside or what possessions we might own.

Patricia Mann is a university professor and consultant. She lives in California with her husband, their two kids, and two sweet, silly dogs.

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