Last week the building where J and I first lived as a couple, our first apartment, suffered a fire. We lived there for two years, from right before our marriage to right after the birth of our daughter. We moved in almost twenty years ago in April. It was a one bedroom in a beautiful, old, quaintly rundown building: scuffed and uneven hardwood floors, an obnoxiously loud radiator that had two settings—off or sweltering—under a double window where the afternoon light illuminated swirling clouds of dust. A dignified old dame of a clawfoot bathtub. A tiny box of a bedroom.
I was very happy in this apartment. I finished my B.A., got married to a man I adored, spent most of my time writing and reading and thinking about art and life within an intense arts collective, all of whom are still dear friends to this day.
Our oldest daughter was born there, on a futon on the living room floor at just before 7 on a cold, February morning. After she was born I didn’t leave the apartment for about three weeks. There was no need. I spent hours nursing my child, reading and staring at the dust illuminated particles in the cold winter light. It is where I finished Ulysses at 3 in the morning while breastfeeding. It seemed to be the only time that book made any sort of sense.
Ironically given the recent incident, it is also where I learned to face my fear of fire. Every time I would light our tiny, apartment-sized gas stove, a relic from the 50s, I would flinch, afraid of the moment the flame touched the gas. Every time I lit it, I thought I was going to cause a huge explosion.
In short, it was my first real home with my new, burgeoning family.
On Friday, I was walking home from downtown and found myself on the corner near the building. I could see our old window. It didn’t look too fire-damaged. I decided to go have a look, just to see. I crossed the street and made my way to the front door, where looming up were the steep steps I had to haul the stroller with a baby up daily.
The door was open. I poked my head inside. Old construction boots appeared at the top and a voice called down, “Can I help you?”
We got to chatting. I told him I used to live in the building, that my daughter was born here. That we had left a photo of her in the wall when we left to commemorate her birth and I was just wondering if it was still there, if the wall was still there.
He invited me in, asked me if I wanted to have a look. I nodded, amazed at my luck. I never thought I would ever see the inside of that apartment again.
He drilled out the screws of the board blocking the door. And there it was, exactly how I remembered it. The long living/dining room, which in my memory seemed larger. The small kitchen with the small, scary gas stove and the window that looked out into a dark shaft that ran the height of the building.
Our tiny bedroom with the narrow, adjacent bathroom. The claw foot tub. The wall where we had put the photo.
The fire had not touched it.
It even smelled the same.
Time accordioned in on itself; in an instant I traveled 20 years back. J and I had just married. He was gone to his studio and I was working at my large oak desk, the one I inherited from my father. Making my way through H.G. Wells, The Outline of History. Writing esoteric and probably bad poetry. In the corner our gold love seat we found in the dumpster, and on it my friends A and J drinking beer with their newborns on their laps.
Me sitting in the rocking chair I got at my baby shower with S in my arms. D coming every day for the first two months to take her photo before he moved to Toronto and became fancy rock and roll photographer guy.
For an instant, I was able to live my past again, live it like it was still happening.
Like it hadn’t been amputated by time, memory and circumstance.
The memory was so vivid, so real, it took me a moment to realize it wasn’t my life anymore. That I was now 20 years older. The daughter who I would not let go of then was 18 and in another part of the country, visiting her father who is no longer that body in the bed, the man at the kitchen table reading the paper. He is someone else, 6000 km away, leading a life that has nothing to do with me.
It hurt. I put my hand to my chest, covered my heart in a fruitless attempt to protect it. The construction worker kept talking, oblivious. All the tenants had been evicted—3 days at a hotel paid for by the Red Cross then they were on their own, left to find another place to stay. Structural damage. Only one person in the building had insurance. A cigarette butt down one of the old shafts caused the fire.
I barely heard him. Grief, with its clawed fist, had grabbed hold of my heart and it was squeezing hard.
If I were to diagnose it, I would call it a phantom limb pain.
Here are the symptoms, according to WebMD:
“In addition to pain in the phantom limb, some people experience other sensations such as tingling, cramping, heat, and cold in the portion of the limb that was removed. Any sensation that the limb could have experienced prior to the amputation may be experienced in the amputated phantom limb.”
I think maybe our memories are like limbs. Maybe all those smells and tactile experiences leave an imprint on us and when they are gone we feel their absence just as we would if somebody cut off our hand. To feel them again, to be reminded of how that limb used to work, how it flexed its muscles and wrapped itself around a certain person’s torso, sat and rocked and breathed in the newborn smell, hurts. And through the remembering, consequently being reminded of their absence hurts even more.
Grief is a physical thing. It is the muscle memory, the phantom pain of an amputated limb, a whole body response to the absence of a love that used to be. And that is why we feel its grip like a monster with a huge claw at our throats. Why we can’t breathe when it has us in its clutches.
Grief is a phantom limb pain.
After all, it was just an apartment. Only two years of my life, and 20 years ago. Those moments were long gone, replaced by a whole lifetime of other joys and sorrows. This apartment was a chapter in a book I read a long time ago, where the details have faded and only a vague sensation of having enjoyed it remains.
What is that Marlow quote from the Jew of Malta?
“But that was in another country and besides the wench is dead.”
Because that wench is indeed dead. I don’t know who that girl is sitting at the desk and so earnestly reading about the ancient Romans. Who is that new mother that will not let go of her baby, that is so timid, so scared of everything? Who thinks her life will be sitting at the desk and quietly catching meaning with her pen in the light-infused dust the way a frog catches a fly?
It is not that life I miss so much as the idea of who I thought I was, of knowing my place, and where I was going, even if it was just an illusion.
I miss my illusion.
I do not want that life back. I am growing new, stronger limbs. I am not only moving on but forward. I am building a good life on a wiser, more resilient foundation. I am finding peace with myself.
But in these moments when the past collides so violently with the present, there is nothing else to do but probe the absence, to go in search of that phantom girl and tell her to stop haunting me. To gently inform her, once and for all, that she belongs to another country and besides, she is dead.