As I write this, I’m in my comfortable bed recovering from a kidney infection.
Lying here, with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company, I’m thinking about all the times I’ve been lucky in my life. Or maybe, in this case, not so lucky.
One experience always comes to mind when I question my strength to continue through hardships like the one I’m dealing with now. And, whenever I think of that experience, it reminds me that anything is possible when someone has the desire to never give up.
So, here’s my story.
I was born, raised, and lived my entire life in Fort Myers, Florida. But, one day, in the summer of 2011, I decided to move to Seattle.
I was 25.
I moved on a whim, with nothing but a gas budget and some family support. I packed whatever I could fit into my 2007 Toyota Forerunner (which I still have today), my two furry companions, and my camera close by, so that I could document my adventure driving across the country.
I had every emotion. I was excited, but nervous. Ready, but unsure. Confident, but confused. I didn’t have a plan of action, a job, or a place to stay.
All I knew was I was going to make it, no matter what.
It was a good thing it was summer too, because if it hadn’t been, I may not have lasted very long. Summer in Seattle is when the city is at it’s liveliest. There are no rain clouds. No gray skies. The locals seem much friendlier, too.
Maybe it’s the sun and good weather that brings it out of them.
I spent six months house hopping and couch surfing. I even lived on an air mattress in my cousin’s dining room for a while. It popped numerous times too, so I think I actually slept more on the hardwood floor than the mattress.
During that time, I stayed with everyone ranging from family members, to half acquaintances, to people I didn’t even know.
Sorry Mom. You probably didn’t want to know that.
The worst part was having to live out of suitcases, garbage bags, and handing off my dogs to complete strangers until I could get my own place.
At times, it seemed like I was never going to get there.
Working two jobs as a waitress, I was able to save enough money to put in an application, first and last month’s rent, and a security deposit on my own studio apartment in downtown Seattle.
It took what seemed like forever, but I finally made it!
In January of 2012, I was approved to move in. I got my dogs back and began to build my life in my new apartment. Over the next couple days, I spent a little extra money I had to fix up my apartment and make it my own.
Then, it all came crashing down.
It was 3:00 in the morning on January 16th. I was woken up to the faint sound of a smoke detector going off. I didn’t have one installed in my own place, so I assumed it was coming from the hallway. I laid on my small, flimsy mattress for about five minutes before my aggravation for the inconvenience of being woken up settled in, and I went to my door to find out what was going on.
As I opened the door, I was hit by a massive wall of smoke that came rushing into my apartment.
I panicked. I grabbed a wad of cash on the counter, my nearly dead phone, one dog on each hip, and ran out, leaving everything else behind with the door wide open. There was no time to think, only to act.
When I got outside, there were only a few people standing there. They were watching the flames engulf the second floor window. As I looked around, I knew there weren’t enough people outside, because the complex housed four floors and forty units.
I handed my dogs off to some people standing by, turned around, and ran back in.
As I got inside, I realized there wasn’t much I could do. So, I did the only thing I thought I could do. I yelled and screamed as loud as possible.
“FIRE! FIRE! EVERYONE GET OUT!”
I started to see people crawling downstairs from the upper floors and come outside to join the others. Those who couldn’t make it out in time just jumped from their windows.
The fire trucks came almost immediately. They brought us a bus to sit on while we waited. They brought us blankets and socks too, since we had been standing outside in the snow, most of us barefoot. I met some of my neighbors for the first time. No one talked very much, though.
Everyone’s hope was that everybody got out safely.
After two hours, we were finally able to re-enter the complex. As I walked up to the main doors of the building, a fireman stopped me.
“Do you live in 205?”, he asked.
“Yes”, I told him.
The fireman proceeded to tell me that there was extensive smoke damage to my apartment and it was deemed unlivable.
They escorted me to my apartment. Along the way, I felt the tears beginning to take over my eyes. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what I was about to walk into.
As we walked inside, everything was covered in ash. Nothing was left untouched: Pictures, clothes, books, furniture. Everything I had. It was all destroyed.
At that moment, seeing everything I had worked so hard to get, and sacrificed so much for, completely ruined, a single thought came into my mind.
“How will I make it? Everything’s gone.”
Because the apartment was toxic, I wasn’t allowed to stay. I was offered help from the Red Cross, but instead, I decided to go north to stay with my Grandma to figure out my next step. I packed my jewelry and some clean clothes I hadn’t yet picked up from the laundry room (Which luckily was about two bags full), and headed out.
I left everything else behind, not knowing what would happen to it while I was gone.
While at my Grandma’s house, I contemplated returning to Florida. I thought about returning to my old job, couch hopping again, and leaning on friends for support while I rebuilt my life. It was all just too overwhelming: All the months I spent working. All the sacrifices I made. Everything I brought with me and everything I owned just completely destroyed in single night. It was just too much bear.
But then, I realized something.
I knew I didn’t want that. I JUST got here. I JUST got settled. Why would I leave now? Why would I let this stop me from living the life I knew I wanted?
I just simply could not let myself give up now. Not after coming this far.
After a few days of downtime, I returned to Seattle and had a new plan of action: I was going to find a way to make this work.
I returned to my apartment, still covered in ash. I wore a face mask and sat on the floor, crying over everything that had been lost.
A few people popped their heads in here and there for hugs and support. They had lost most everything, too. Some even came to say thank you for running back into the building that day, because if it hadn’t been for my yelling, they never would have known there was a fire.
I went into some other apartments as well to see the damage others had endured. It didn’t make things any easier, but it did help knowing I wasn’t alone. It was a feeling I had never experienced before, bonding with complete strangers over a tragic event that we had all faced together.
One person in particular was especially helpful. And, he remains a dear friend to this day.
Ryan had seen me outside that night with my dogs and offered me a leash for them since I didn’t grab any while running out. We exchanged phone numbers before knowing the full extent of the damage. He offered his help anytime I needed it. I was certain I would say no.
I am so glad I didn’t.
He took time off of work to help me clean up the apartment, throw everything away, and be an emotional support system if I had a breakdown every now and then in the middle of a cleanup. He even offered up his couch until I figured out my next step.
By this time, word had gotten out that I was in need of some support. Within a few days of returning to Seattle, friends had donated money to get me back on my feet, some of whom I had never met. My co-workers at one of my restaurants even started a money collection to help me as well.
Altogether, people around the country donated a couple thousand dollars to help me. It’s a gesture that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
You may be wondering to yourself: “Did she make it through everything? Did it all end up working out in the end? Did she stay?”
Hell yes I did. I couch hopped once again, rebuilt my life, and little by little, I managed to get everything back on track.
I stayed in Seattle for almost three more years before meeting my boyfriend Josh and relocating to North Florida, which is where we currently live now. But, in the time I lived in Seattle, I made wonderful friends and traveled all over the country, putting some amazing experiences under my belt.
Do I wish that fire never happened? Do I wish things could have been different? Do I wish I could go back in time, save the day, and change my future?
But, as strange as it sounds, I’m grateful for what happened. It changed me. I learned new views, gained different perspectives, met incredible people, and acquired invaluable life lessons that I didn’t have previously. I know I gained so much more than I lost in that fire.
I came to realize what really matters in life versus what can be left behind, figuratively and physically. Pictures of my Dad, who passed away in 2010, were of most importance and were fortunately saved. My dogs’ lives, too. You don’t really think clearly about these things until after they’ve happened. You kind of just go into survival mode.
Another beautiful thing to come of this experience were the new and genuine friendships I had made with people who were willing to help when they knew I had nothing to offer in return. I am forever grateful to my family and friends who showed their support from near and far, even if they couldn’t afford to. They never did say if they could or not.
Since then, I have always been charitable with others in similar circumstances because of knowing, from first-hand experience, the pain of losing almost everything.
However, perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was about myself.
I realized that I was left with a choice: I was going to rebuild in Seattle or somewhere else. Rebuilding was my only option.
That fire may have destroyed my belongings, but I was not going to let it destroy my life.
It tested my limits. It made me into a stronger, more capable human being. Anytime I question if I can get through a tough battle, like this kidney infection, I always think back to that time in my life. I remind myself that it was merely a small milestone in my long, exciting, adventurous, unpredictable journey through this game we call life.
And you know what? Despite all of the pain, all of the fear, all of the sadness, and all of the uncertainty that experience gave me, I feel like can finally say it:
I got there.
I did it.
Here I am.
I made it.
Katie Rose is a certified correctional officer in the state of Florida. She’s a fur baby mom to her chow mix Maya, girlfriend to her boyfriend Josh, and in her spare time, an avid traveler. She loves to wood work, hopes to one day visit Europe, and is obsessed with wine, especially Cheteau St. Jean Cabernet Sauvignon.
Connect with her at her Facebook: www.facebook.com/katierose1285