Sometime in the wee hours of the morning on December 1, 1982, my mom shook me awake. Our apartment building was on fire.
Thanks to a kind neighbor who had knocked loudly on our door to wake us, we (Mom, me, and my stuffed bunny Ha Ha) made it out just as firetrucks were arriving and smoke began filling the building. My dad was a medical resident at the time and was working an overnight shift at the hospital.
We stood outside on the sidewalk with our neighbors for what seemed like hours and hours, watching the team of people working to save our home.
We watched as trucks arrived and dozens of firefighters rushed around with big hats and powerful hoses. I was particularly mesmerized to watch as the firefighters climbed tall ladders with hatchets to break the windows on the upper floors.
I remember the sound of the sirens as more trucks arrived. I remember commotion as I remember that it was very cold outside. Most of all, I remember the smell of smoke, the same smell that has inundated the Bay Area this week.
I was 4 years old, and that night remains one of my earliest and most vivid memories.
That night was a night that shaped my family history and my young self.
While most of the contents of my family’s apartment were salvageable, we were not able to move back into the building. We moved between friends’ homes for a couple weeks while my parents tried to find a new place to live (that had working smoke detectors).
The fire had started in the basement and burned through everyone’s storage units. For years to come, I would hear my parents refer to items that had been lost in the fire: books, memorabilia, the Christmas stockings my great-grandmother had knit for us.
As Christmas rapidly approached that year, I had one item on my wish list for Santa. I wanted the Lego firefighter set, which I had spied in a department store just days after the fire.
When the Legos appeared under the tree, the first thing I checked was the firefighters’ accessories. I wanted to make sure they had come with tiny hatchets that could clip into their tiny yellow cupped hands. I needed to verify that they were legit and equipped for the job.
I spent a lot of hours in the following months re-enacting the night of the fire with my Legos.
My play was much more than play: it was an important way of re-living that night, gradually processing a frightening and important experience in a safe space, and learning to navigate the changes that had occurred so rapidly in our lives.
In a way I was providing my own “play therapy,” a method child psychologists use to help children heal from traumatic events and express their feelings, without having to rely on language they might not yet possess.
This week, as I have been reflecting on my own experience with fire and the ways I recovered, I am grateful that the fire my family experienced was not more traumatic and tragic. Our neighbors in Sonoma and Napa, including the family of one of our Braid mentors, are suffering far greater losses.
And as I remember all those hours I spent with my Lego firefighters, I am grateful for the hour each week our youth have with their mentors just to play. This time can be so much more important than it may appear. Our youth may or may not be directly processing the traumatic experiences they have gone through, but they are learning to look at the world as children again.
That’s why recreation (literally re-creation) is one of the guiding principles of Braid.
Spending time on a playground, flying a kite, or blowing bubbles can be opportunities for all of us – youth and mentors alike – to heal and to begin anew.