It was a sunny Saturday morning. I trailed my friends around a lovely suburban garden center on a sunny Saturday morning. More enthusiastic gardeners than I, they examined odd varieties of ferns and rusty garden sculptures while I daydreamed. Old college friends, we gather every once in a while to talk for hours and tour around spots of interest while our husbands go off to Operational Resilienceregress into their long-ago frat boy selves, to everyone's entertainment, especially theirs.
My cell phone rang and my heart sank when I saw it was a counselor who worked with me in my practice. Sigh. This must be a client crisis bad enough that she had to notify me.
"Maraline," I said, "What's up?"
"Where are you?" she asked.
"Um, Elburn, or St. Charles, not sure. For the weekend," I said.
"You don't know what happened to the office then," she said.
"There was a fire. Last night," she said.
"Oh," I said, relieved that we weren't dealing with a suicidal client or a child abuse report.
"No one was in the building. They think it started around 11 o'clock," she told me.
"Well, that's good. I'll be back Sunday night. I can deal with it Monday."
"You don't understand. It burned down. To the ground. There is no office anymore," she said.
Unimaginable. I loved that office. In a shared suite building, our two counseling rooms, small administration space, and a large group room we reserved a couple of nights a week, it provided just what we needed and nothing more. And we had a private storeroom in the basement where twenty years worth of counseling files were secured. I had downsized into that building and it fit perfectly.
I had friends and friendly acquaintances in that building, other counselors and massage therapists, an investment guy, an outplacement consultant, a dentist, an accountant, a couple of lawyers, all held together by the personable front desk secretary who always said yes and never made a face when you asked something of her.
"You need to come now. To see if you can salvage anything," she said.
"Thanks, Maraline, for calling," I said, "I guess," attempting humor.
"I just left there," she said, about to deliver the line I needed to hear to get me into action. "Some of our stuff is strewn in the parking lot. I picked up what I could." she asked.
Yikes. Client files in the parking lot? Nooooo.
"Okay, I'm on my way."
"Can I meet you there?" she offered.
"Um, no. I'll call you if I need to." I had no idea what I was saying.
I rallied my friends, who also offered to help, and got them to take me back to Operational Resilience pick up my car at the house where we were staying. No, thanks, I'd go myself; I could handle this. Why ruin their much-anticipated day? I arranged to meet them later for dinner at a restaurant in a nearby town.
I had accomplished step one of my usual crisis management protocol: Refuse help.
In the car I was strangely calm, yet disoriented. Where was the map? Which expressway am I looking for? How could this have happened? That's when I had my first good idea of the day. I called my daughter, recently returned from college for the summer.
"Kate, I'm coming to pick you up. My office burned down. "
"Whoa, okay," she said.
"Get out the crow bars and some bags. And a hammer. I'll be there in 30 minutes. And those file boxes in the basement. And wear crummy clothes." I was starting to function, moving into my second step: Do something, anything, because everything is fixable.
I picked up Katy and took my usual 40 minute route to the office. As we rounded the final corner, I saw a pile of debris, unrecognizable as the two-story office building of a certain age, well beyond its peak but still quite serviceable. It had been light brick with tan and brown trim. The pile looked gray, with boards jutting toward the sky, and occasional accent colors - a green filing cabinet, a red table top, a yellow sign.
"Whoa," Katy said again, capturing it perfectly. Wisps of smoke arose from the middle of the pile. One fire truck remained, and a firefighter trained water on the smoking debris.
We started walking the perimeter, trying to get our bearings. Our office must have been about there in the middle. The top floor had collapsed into the basement, but why couldn't I spot a thing that was ours? Everything seemed displaced, upside down.
Several of my co-tenants climbed around the edges, gathering stray bits of their professional lives. Everyone looked as dazed as I felt, and as our eyes met, we shook our heads.
"Are you finding anything?" I asked.
"Not much," they said.
I saw the accountant from across the hall. "I think I saw some of your paperwork over there," she said, pointing toward the back corner of the lot.
How did it get all the way over there, thirty feet beyond the outer walls?
"Thanks," I said, "Did you find yours?" She must have had years' worth of client financial information in her computer.
"I came over as soon as I heard about it last night, and one of the firefighters retrieved my computer for me."
Uh oh. I was seriously behind. We chased down the paperwork she had spotted, and spent the next seven hours gathering up any evidence of Healy & Associates that had escaped the inferno. Katy and her crowbar broke into bent file cabinets that had been hauled up from the storage room and dumped at the far corner of the parking lot by heavy machinery. The files that were water-logged we placed in boxes to take to the shredding company. The rest reeked of smoke, and we placed them in bags to go home with me, until we ran out.
My in-laws showed up, eager to find out what they could do to help, and we sent them to Dominick's for plastic bags. They returned with so many that we could bag everything we came up with over the next days, and then use the remainder at home for the next five years.
When we got too hot, we walked across the street to Arby's to get lemonade and snacks. When we got too tired, we would stop and talk with co-tenants. We repeated this for the next four days, until the equipment came to haul the pile away. With every day, we grew bolder, venturing into the debris further and further, trying to decode the logic of the pile. We walked tightrope style on wobbly boards, searching for our relics.
We finally located the epicenter of our operation and found the roll of "20 years of excellence" stickers I had ordered in a fit of self-congratulation, the seal embosser we used on official documents, and the Mickey Mouse mouse pad, also a melted calculator, and the CONFIDENTIAL stamp we put on all records. I even found a section of our plaid couch and cut some fabric from it just because I'd never see it again.
We eventually found the computer under two feet of someone else's stuff. Even though the case was bashed in and the components melted, I later took it to an expert to insure that the data was gone.
Once I had it, and took the recovered files home to air out on my garage floor, I started to relax. At least no one could wander into the site and invade my clients' privacy. By then, I had begun step three of my crisis process: Compare this mess with how much worse it could have been, and be glad.
With the building gone, I embarked on my next step: Trudge ahead. I talked turkey with the counselor who was my mainstay, and she agreed to continue with me despite the upheaval. A dear old friend offered me the use of his counseling space until we could relocate. I dealt with the intricacies of insurance documentation. And I spent hours of my life which I will never get back on the phone with the phone company, hearing, believing, and then no longer believing strings of unkept promises about when our phone number would be functioning again. While I never cried about the fire, Ameritech had me in tears more than once.
By the time I went out to shop for new office space, I was getting my spirit back. It was fun to imagine a new look, in a new space, closer to the Interstate, closer to my house, in a newer building with an elevator. I furnished it quickly but with enthusiasm. I picked out some art work, and the building put down new carpet. Within a month, we opened. It looked great.