Fear is a strange beast. And irrational fear is the worst. A freak accident happens that will probably never happen again yet somehow fear convinces us it will. We worry and “what if” ourselves to the point of obscurity where apprehension replaces logic. Eventually we are left with no choice but to surrender or fight. Sometimes surrender is easier. Fear wears us down, exhausts our resources, and strains our souls. Survivor guilt prevents us from feeling joy. During surrender, fear is so overwhelmingly present it grows familiar and I think we unconsciously embrace it, perhaps even feed off of it. But at some point enough is enough.
I’ll never forget how my Drivers Ed teacher told me that road rage is relinquishing control to strangers who don’t deserve to be in charge. He would ask us questions like, “Why, when people upset you in traffic, do they get to go on about their day like nothing happened yet you lose hours of your life stressed about something you can’t change?”
We know that victims are encouraged to stop hiding, stop giving perceived power to abusers who are not actually still abusing them because that merely enlarges the extent of the abuse. Instead, victims learn to identify as survivors. Surrendering control to something in the past keeps it alive and in command – especially something irrational.
Our pet store is no longer on fire. It’s over. The flames were extinguished that very afternoon. The aftermath is a mess and we have learned valuable lessons in fire safety but the fire is not actually burning anywhere except inside our minds. We might need daily reminders that it’s over – maybe hourly – but the fire, in fact, is out. Accepting that fact does not lessen the grief but it certainly releases its death grip.
At Pet World, we begin and end our summers with our staff trail run. Memorial Day and Labor Day are two holidays we are closed while most of the staff is in town so they are perfect days for staff events. The tortoise farm at our private nature preserve is sacred ground to most of us since few are granted access. On those two holidays, our staff, family, and friends all get together to enjoy a fun event with no pressure or distraction from the outside world. This past Memorial Day, our happy occasion ended prematurely and unexpectedly because of a tragic fire, calling us back to the smoke filled nightmare that replaced what had been a vibrant, compassionate, family place full of life just hours before. All summer we mourned and grieved, struggling to find our way while trying to help the community deal with this devastating loss. Then, just when we were starting to feel normal again, Labor Day approached and it all came rushing back.
Now what? Could we do the event again? Is it appropriate? Would it bring back too many memories? Would running past the burial sites be too upsetting? Is three months long enough to mourn before celebrating life again? As always, when I don’t know what to do, I asked the people closest to us.
A few staff members asked, “Why wouldn’t we have it?” They reminded me it’s a voluntary event that people can skip if they’re not ready. But if we don’t have it, then those of us who need it will miss an opportunity to heal. Tim reminded me how much I love this event and what it means to a lot of folks.
So the staff memo read as follows:
Staff: We WILL be doing the staff 5K trail run on Labor Day while PWX is closed. You’re all invited. We cannot let one, freak accident prevent us from moving forward and embracing life. Facing irrational fears takes away their power.
We will celebrate the chance to be together on this holiday and dedicate the event to the animals we lost. Hope to see you there.
Many employees signed up for the event but I wondered who would actually show up. How could they be ready for this? Stormy weather that morning added unwanted tension as the rain threatened to make it muddy. On Memorial Day, some exits were delayed while drivers struggled with the mud, adding to the helpless feeling, so Labor Day’s rain was a cruel reminder. I spent days full of mixed emotion preparing the course with mostly love and reverence for the opportunity coupled with a small feeling of anxiety. For Tim, it’s Halloween, but my obsession of choice is the trail run. (Even if no one showed up, I enjoy every minute of preparation as much as the event itself. No regrets. I truly love everything about those trails.)
Here is a glimpse of the day unfolding:
We arrive early and set up in the rain, soaked to the skin in mere minutes. I had forgotten to set out one of the rewards so I run them out to the Yellow segment on Mile Two of the course and then, as I return, I hear the voice of Tim’s brother. He was so helpful during the fire. He stayed close to us and when we couldn’t speak for ourselves he took charge while his wife immediately handled the perimeter crowd. You really see people’s true colors during a crisis.
Next, a friend arrives and as he puts his phone in the back of my SUV I vividly remember when everyone’s phones started ringing that dreadful day. Pure joy replaced by sheer terror.
“Honey, it’s mom. I’m sorry to tell you, but the pet store is on fire.”
My God. So tragic. How will we ever get past this? My eyes well up with tears.
Next, another dear friend arrives with her daughter, a hard core PW kid who goes to all the camps and knows and loves that property and all things Pet World, and the creator of the Betta Birthday Party. This friend is there as a volunteer medic, just in case, as always. I smile when I see her but all I really think about is her voice that day saying, “Go! Just go! I’ll take care of everything here, I promise.” My kids were nowhere in sight at that moment, there were people still on the course, completely out of reach, and I was scared to death, at a total loss. She stayed until everyone returned safely, gathering volunteers and handling everything. What an angel.
And then I see our first employee walking up and my tears start flowing but not for long. Another walks up, then another, and another, and then a group of them. Here comes a former employee followed by my son and his friends. My heart begins to swell and I am as proud as I can be. This loss has been so hard on their young lives yet there they were, needing to push through the pain to “reclaim their event without fear,” as one would later say. As they cross the finish line – wet, tired, and dirty – each person is all smiles, glowing with accomplishment and relief. Ian, who has been with us the longest, even sets a new course record, beating Tim by one minute.
After the race, several of us eat lunch together at Jefferson’s, who just recently reopened after their January fire. We all had dollar bills on those walls before their fire and, for reasons I can’t explain, it seemed perfectly fitting to gather there.
We have a great time but it isn’t until the next morning that the text messages begin. Employees tell me how odd it felt to leave the race with no sense of urgency, no panic, and experience a basically uneventful day. Many are pleased with their progress and one says she really needed the reality check that life goes on and so must she. We all learned that disaster robs us and surrendering to irrational fear only extends its reach.
Tragedy strikes fear in all of us and moving on is easier said than done. There’s no such thing as just “getting over it” with the flip of a mental switch. But each time we can reclaim a part of our lives that irrational fear tries to steal, we lessen that fear’s power. On Labor Day, I had the privilege to witness courage in a way we rarely get to see. Determined young adults, striving, pushing past fear, traversing treacherous new territory, reclaiming what was rightfully theirs, and – most importantly – healing. Fear and joy cannot occupy the same space. At some point we must choose to do whatever it takes to replace fear with the joy that comes from rising above the ashes and moving on.