The 30 Year Fire
Some events in life feel destined. Others seem entirely consequential, predictable, and avoidable. And yet, some feel like both. The following story recounts events in my life that are simultaneously not connected and completely inseparable.
On September 1st of 2018, my Dodge Grand Caravan caught on fire in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Connecticut.
I had finished doing groceries with my four-year-old daughter, and I was feeling great because when you’re buying groceries for the family, every trip to Trader Joe’s is a slam dunk. So I load my mini-van with the groceries, buckle my daughter Ruby into her car seat and get behind the wheel. When I turn the key on the ignition, the car won’t start, but this wasn’t a surprise. Over the last few weeks, I had been driving the minivan with what was essentially a dead battery. I had recharged the battery back home, and I knew it usually took 2 or 3 turns to get the engine going. So I turn the key again, and I hear a “pop” coming from the engine this time. "Hmmm. Now that's new..." was my first thought. But before I could make any sense of it or even try ignition one more time, smoke started coming out from under the hood. Within seconds the smoke turns thick and black, leading to flames.
I am now sitting in my car, and it is on fire.
I took that as a clear indication that it was time to get out of the van. So I unbuckle, open the door, run around the front of the vehicle to the other side, get my daughter out of her car seat, and run to a safe
My Dodge Caravan melting in a Trader Joe's parking lot.
Danbury, Connecticut. Sept. 1, 2018
distance because my car will blow up because, you know -- the movies, right? A car on fire blows up. That’s the rule.But my car didn’t blow up. Instead, it burned intensely for about 5 minutes before the firefighters arrived to put it out. And as I’m mourning the loss of my groceries and watching firefighters do the fantastic selfless work they do, I can’t shake the feeling that, on a metaphysical level, I might have caused this fire. Let me explain.
When I was six years old, I survived an apartment fire.
I was the oldest of three boys. My father was an orchestra conductor and my mother an opera singer – You can probably guess where they met. The afternoon of that first fire, my mother went to a rehearsal and took my younger brother, the middle one, with her. My father didn’t have rehearsal, so he stayed home with my little brother and periodically stepped outside to work on his car. You see, he was a dedicated amateur mechanic and LOVED getting his hands filthy working on his Chevy Nova. So that afternoon, I was sitting on my bed holding a toy, and my father had just gotten back into the apartment from working on the car. My little brother was near the front door, so not in my bedroom. Then I heard a very challenging sound to describe, but I’ve settled on an example that comes close -- imagine the express train or subway that flies past your platform as you wait for the local; very loud and very sudden. Only the train is running down the hallway in your home. This is what combustion sounds like, up close and big. As I made my way towards my bedroom doorway, time began to slow down, and when I got to the hallway and saw what was happening, time froze completely, or at least, I did. My six-year-old mind was faced with a situation so incomprehensible it froze. Then I heard a voice, or maybe I felt a voice. The voice said “go,” and I knew exactly what to do.
Adrian Pages and Agueda Fernandez, my parents. Buenos Aires, circa 1982.
I ran into my parent’s room, which the fire had not yet reached, and I called for help from the balcony. We lived on the second floor. Within minutes, the neighborhood found a latter tall enough to reach the balcony, and they got me out. I learned later that my father had unknowingly brought combustible fumes into our apartment from working on the car. The pilot light ignited the fumes in our gas oven --My Father and my little brother were gone, and it was his fault. How could he let his hobby endanger his family?
How could he be so careless?
My father and my little brother didn’t make it. But I made it! And not only did I “make it,” but I was told that this was a miracle. My lungs hadn’t taken any smoke, and I suffered no
physical burns. I was beyond lucky. I was blessed. But being this “blessed” comes with a price. Because not having
a physical reminder of the accident – like a scar, makes it very easy to forget or avoid the trauma and keep the event compartmentalized. And that’s a problem.
“I don’t need therapy. I’m dealing with this just fine, and this is no one else’s business, anyway.” That’s what I told myself for almost 30 years. Never mind my over-vigilant paranoia with gas stovetops and electric space heaters. I would have emotional breakdowns now and then, but I kept them to myself. I was fine. Then, about ten years ago, something changed. I had a son, and I became a father. And deep down in the sub-basement level of my mind, a new narrative began to form; I was now THE father figure and assumed a role that would lead to a young accidental death. It may seem like a strange idea, but this was the narrative I experienced as a 6-year-old. And at that age, our brains are wired to adopt and accept the behaviors and beliefs of our caregivers. Our parents’ choices and lives become the blueprint of our future selves, and if you throw genes into the mix, forget it. We don’t stand a chance. So now, on top of the occasional emotional breakdown, I had growing anxiety created by an unconscious belief: My time was quickly approaching, and history would repeat itself.
As the years passed, that belief made its way out of the sub-basement. It was now a conscious fear, and now I believed that the weight of that fear would bring about the inevitable. But by now, I was also really good at compartmentalizing my shit, and I kept this to myself. Except that those mental compartments aren’t built to last. They are designed to separate the trauma for the MOMENT so that we may swim to shore after the shark attack, drive to the ER after knife juggling practice, or climb out of the burning building. And one afternoon, the compartment I used to stuff all of this psycho-emotional baggage burst open, and I broke down and told my wife everything. She listened and held me lovingly and told me exactly what I needed to hear – that I was my person. That it was okay to feel this way. And that I would be okay. Expressing my biggest fear to the closest person in my life was incredible. And immediately afterward, I felt lighter, at ease, and empowered. I was in control of this thing. I had the confidence to see my fear for what it was; irrational. Unreal.
And the next day I went to Trader Joe’s, and my car caught on fire.
Unlike "mental compartments" created during traumatic events, this plastic compartment box is built to last.
Once the fire in my Dodge was put out, I got close to have a better look. The hood and many parts of the engine had disintegrated. The windows were blown out, and the entire inner cabin -- the steering wheel, dashboard, car seats, etc. Everything had melted. Like a G.I joe in
the microwave melted. I learned from the fire captain that the fire probably started from the dying car battery and that car-engine fires make up one-third of all reported fires, which is a crazy statistic. Car fires are so common, it is amazing the auto-industry hasn’t turned
it in a feature -- "Drive dangerously with The New E-Class, now with spontaneous combustion"-- To me, this obviously, wasn’t another run-of-the-mill engine fire. This “accident” was my irrational/unreal fear confronting me in a very real way. Almost as if I needed to go through the steps of choosing not to die in a fire, to prove to myself that my destiny was my own. A type of emersion therapy provided by "the universe" because I was too chicken-shit to do therapy on my own. I know that’s a bit of a stretch, and the entirely factual scientific reason this happened is that I kept driving my car with a dead car battery! No metaphysics required. How could I let my avoidance of fixing my van endanger my family?
How could I be so careless?!
I don’t know if the Universe has any stake in my personal development, but the experience taught me three things. First, Trader Joe’s will replace your groceries free of charge if your car melts in their parking lot. Two: Cars are not supposed to spontaneously combust, and there’s no better reason to buy electric vehicles. And Three: If we don’t deal with our trauma directly, in some way, shape, or form, it will deal with us.