A Borrowed Life

One morning last week I woke to a rainy day. As I prepared for the day, I thought about grabbing my raincoat out of our meager closet. It was 10 minutes later that I remembered I don’t have a raincoat. I haven’t had one for almost 4 years. A raincoat hasn’t been on the list of pertinent replacement items because I’ve been able to get by with so much less, materially speaking. (Not that we are wanting for anything.) I’ve thought about getting a new raincoat on several occasions, and perhaps boots to match, but haven’t gotten around to it, and it’s honestly been fine. It’s one of those needs that’s really just a want. I’ve gotten really good at deciphering the difference over the past 4 years. {Although Brian would argue that I still need to work on that particular skill.}

But the question that resonated in my head throughout that day was: Why did I even think I still had a raincoat? I haven’t had a raincoat for 4 YEARS…

Yes, it has been almost 4 years since that horrific morning when our house and lives literally went up in flames. When I ran like hell, carrying Lady J and Bud in my arms and K-Mad in my belly.

The past 4 years have kept us in a holding pattern, unable to move forward, yet life has somehow gone on…

We spent the first 13 weeks at my in-law’s in Pennsylvania waiting to be placed in a “comparable” rental unit as my belly grew full with K-Mad. We replaced next to nothing in our wardrobes, using mainly donations, which were ample in generosity yet not quite the right fit. But we made it work, with sincere gratitude and honest appreciation.

Brian and I shared his childhood bedroom with Lady J. We slept on the full-sized bed while she used an aero mattress. Bud had the third bedroom and a crib all to himself. We kept most of our clothes in donated bins, shared my in-laws bathroom, and ate baked ziti that had been generously donated by friends of friends at least 4 times each week for dinner.

I don’t think I changed a single diaper of Bud’s or bathed the kids for an entire week as mother-in-law took care of my duties as a mother that first week because I was in shock.

My husband and my father-in-law drove back to our home several times in the first few weeks, searching for anything salvageable. There was next to nothing, but they did manage to save our important documents, pictures and yearbooks that were stored in our garage, our wedding album, and my jewelry box, which housed the pearls my grandparents gave to me when I became a Bat Mitzvah. Pictures and memories really are worth more than a thousand words…

I only went back to our home once, to meet with insurance about one week or so after the fire. I was talking on my phone with my sister when we pulled up in the driveway and immediately had to hang up, tears streaming down my cheeks like a river at the mere sight of our forever home:

Our office furniture was strewn on the front lawn. Bud’s bedroom toys and monitor lay on the ground and in the tree outside his window, pushed out, I’m guessing, by the water force of the fire hoses.  Our swing set was undamaged, but encircled with yellow “caution” tape.

Inside, a plastic toy teacup and saucer sat on our kitchen table, surprisingly uncharred. It was a rare sight to behold, like the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List, the cup and saucer struck me as off yet still a welcomed brightness amongst the darkness.

Our dining room table balanced half in the dining room and half in the basement where the floor had given out. The living room was a mound of wet and ashen furniture, memorabilia, coats, shoes, and our DVD collection. The plasma television lay facing down and the skylights in our vaulted cathedral ceilings were opened up to the sky and all of her elements.

In the basement our laundry was still wet in the washing machine and the center wall that divided the basement was gone, as though it never existed. From where the exterior basement door used to stand, you could see straight up to the where the guest room, cleaning closet, and hallway once were, and up even further into our bathroom on the second floor.

The second floor, which included our bedrooms as well as the playroom in the back of the first floor were not accessible. It’s probably best that I didn’t see them.

After that day, just about the only other times I went back to New Jersey that summer were for monthly doctor appointments for my pregnancy and for an occasional play date with friends.

At the end of the summer we finally gave in to insurance and settled for a very incomparable rental apartment, eager to get back to New Jersey. The apartment complex was about 30 minutes from our old neighborhood and our life: Lady J’s preschool, our playground, our grocery store…But we were desperate…

I was 30 weeks along when I arrived with an SUV loaded with 2 toddlers and heavy boxes. Building management was clearly unimpressed with the presence of my children, whom I had just woken up from napping in the car, and was of no help since they had no record of our rental approval. It turned out that the unit was rented by insurance via a relocation agency in California. {Did I mention we were in New Jersey?}

With nothing but minimal emailed instructions on where to find the lockbox with a unit key, we waddled around the buildings until I found the hidden treasure chest and golden keys on the far side of the pool, behind the secret gate, near the garden. {It was like my own children’s classic from hell that I was living.}

The Kids and I returned to the car and drove around the complex, no less than 3 times, searching for the unlabeled assigned building. The door closest to our unit was the farthest door towards the back corner of the premises and looked more like a service entrance. I gave the keys a try anyway and saw the 2 flights of stairs leading up to our unit’s floor, somehow missing the access door to the garage, a half flight down, to where the elevator was housed. I unloaded the kids and boxes and carried them all in, and up the 2 flights of stairs, one at a time. {Fortunately, I did not go into labor.}

{In full disclosure: Brian would have been there to help, and did tell me to wait, but he had already used most of his days during the last 13 weeks. I needed to get back to our life and get organized, so I chose not to wait for him or for help.}

The first week we were there I experienced my first Earthquake. It was minimal at best, but shook me to my core. It was during nap time and Lady J came screaming from her room, afraid that the big bad wolf was trying to break her new apartment too. I dried her eyes, soothed her fears, put her back in bed, and called Brian in tears.

A few days later, Hurricane Irene was heading our way. Brian had to stay in the city as part of his company’s critical staff, so I packed up the kids and headed to my parent’s for the weekend, not wanting to be alone with the kids during a potential disaster.

After our return, we spent 2 weeks in that apartment. During those 2 weeks we took 3 trips to the pediatrician and I made about a hundred phone calls to the building maintenance, management, and subsequently the relocation company. After several back and forths and filing complaints, mold was discovered in the children’s bedroom and “they” finally agreed to move us to an {even smaller} vacant apartment. This time, maintenance staff and the elevator were there to help me move one more flight upstairs.

Everything in the apartments were rented from the dishes to the sheets. Nothing was our own and it felt that way. You don’t know how important your chef knife is until you try to cut vegetables for a salad with a borrowed one. You don’t realize how often you use a pizza slicer to quickly cut all types of food into toddler sized bites until you reach for it in the drawer and realize you don’t have one.

We lived in that 2 bedroom apartment for 4 months, and had a slew of {not-so} typical maintenance issues ranging from the bathtub handle being installed backwards so the hot was cold and the cold was hot to the front door lip missing so that nails were pointing up making for a tricky first step inside, especially for little legs. {Side note: maintenance was called no less than 3 times for the hot water issue, assuring me that everything was working correctly until they finally realized that they never told me to use the handle backwards. Of course! Why didn’t I think of that as a solution to the problem? #facepalm}

I eventually realized that I could use the elevator, if I could maneuver the double stroller full of 2 toddlers and groceries down a half-flight of stairs instead of up 3 flights. It was a luxury when the garage door was left opened so that I could zip right down the driveway ramp with the stroller instead of using the stairs. {It’s the little things, people.}

Another “favorite” memory of mine was the dog owners that allowed their dogs to use our main {service} entrance way as their bathroom, instead of walking the 20 feet to the fenced in dog park on the premises…and then not clean up afterwards…It made for an interesting {frustrating} obstacle course for the kids and their very pregnant mother. {American Ninja Warrior pales in comparison. #eeewww}

One cold Friday night, a rebellious teenager flipped the building’s fire alarm and we had to evacuate. It was 11pm and I had to wake Brian and the kids, and grab the diaper bag and anything I knew they could not part with for a second time, like pacifiers, sippy cups, and SHOES. I managed to keep it together as we sat in our car, kids buckled, ready to flee to safety and family while Lady J cried, asking why the fire alarm was sounding. Fear practically paralyzed her as her eyes searched for an unseen fire, her memory no doubt producing vivid visions of the only nightmare she’s ever experienced. I lost it after we were given the all clear to go back inside, crumbling to the kitchen floor once we finally got the kids back to sleep, tucked safely in OUR bed. {I kept a “weekend to-go” bag packed in my trunk for months after that night.}

Our “neighbor” downstairs complained about that the kids were too loud too early on the morning I went into labor with K-Mad. I’ll admit it was early, 3am early, and my water had broken.  Lady J, who had been asleep on our bedroom floor, followed me into the bathroom. {Yes, my water broke over the toilet because that’s how I roll…if you know me, then you know.} Lady J was more than excited when I told her to go wake up Daddy because the baby was coming and she bounded like a cheetah across the living room to our bedroom to enthusiastically share the news.

After we returned from the hospital the next day, I wrote an apology to the nice elderly lady and she responded with a nasty letter about my parenting skills or lack thereof. We also received a formal complaint made by her to the building management. I called our realtor that day to begin the search for a rental house, since insurance refused to was of no help by this point.

After we enlisted our own realtor, we were able to actually find a comparable house to rent 3 weeks after K-Mad was born.

Upon “checkout” we were sent a cable bill for over $300. When I called the cable company to inquire about the charges I was informed that with the exception of a few Disney movies that I knew about, all of the other rentals were for pornographic films. The whole conversation was infuriatingly preposterous and we finally just paid the false charges because we just wanted to be rid of that horrid complex. {(Not) surprisingly, we have not had any pornographic rental issues since then… Doubtful that’s a coincidence…}

We moved into the rental house in mid-December 2011 and life was starting to feel somewhat normal again for the first time in 7 months. We were back in our neck of the woods. We had privacy. We had space. We had company over and play dates, and a yard to play in…

Unfortunately, 2 months later, our claim was denied outright and I moved with the kids to my parent’s near Wilmington, Delaware, while my husband stayed in New Jersey with dear friends during the week for commuting purposes.

While we were trying to decide where to move, my parent’s or back to my in-law’s, someone suggested that I go back to work full time so that we could stay in the rental house instead of burdening our parents and possibly separating the family. But the reality was that we were still paying mortgage on our destroyed home. Paying both a mortgage and rent was not financially feasible. Not to mention that the children were 3, 2, and newborn. As a teacher, it would have cost MORE than my annual salary to have the children in full time child care, let alone help with the cost of living. It simply wasn’t an option, regardless of the well intentioned suggestion. So we decided to move to my parent’s, in hopes that our case would be settled quickly.

My parent’s made space for us and prepared our rooms. Lady J slept in the guest room, Bud in the office, and K-Mad and I shared the basement suite.

During our stay, my mother helped enroll Lady J and Bud to attend preschool in a facility connected to her office. {Seriously, it’s her office. She’s the amazing executive director that has turned a small non-profit into a flourishing and indispensable community service provider. My mom rocks!}

The first day of school I hung around the area, since it was (practically) Bud’s first day of not being with me, ever, and drop off was hard on both of us. I stopped by my mother’s office with K-Mad about an hour into the 2.5 hour morning and she told me to go pick up the kids immediately. It seemed that there was to be a facility wide fire drill in 10 minutes, that she was luckily informed of, due to her position.

My mom called the school director while I hurried over to the school side of the building, wiping the tears and pushing fears aside: What will this do my children? How will they react? Will this ever end? Will the fire have long term effects on them?

Lady J, Bud, and I stood in the parking lot and watched and listened as the building and their new friends safely evacuated. They were both scared and Lady J asked several worried questions. I explained how and why it’s important to practice safely evacuating a building in case of an emergency while I hid more tears behind sunglasses as soon as the sirens began to blare. Lady J bravely returned to her class to finish the morning.

For 18 months we only saw Daddy on the weekends. My parents made it a point to go away on weekends to give us private family time. We hired a babysitter and had date night almost every Saturday night during those months. It was a luxury that we could not afford not to do.

My parents also gifted us family memberships to local museums and horticultural centers so that I had places to take the children, as I had few friends in the area and wasn’t ready to regrow roots. We spent many-a-day exploring the meadow and conservatory at Longwood Gardens, frolicking in The Enchanted Woods at Winterthur, climbing at the Delaware Children’s Museum, and learning at the Delaware Natural History Museum.

When the kids were off of school we visited our friends at “Daddy’s home” and made the most of it, grateful to have such incredible people (and puppies) in our lives.

But a few months after moving to my parents, I was indicted…yes, you read that correctly. It’s been whispered in hushed voices of trusted circles of friends and family for almost 3 years, but I’m saying it out loud now.

I was indicted for 2nd degree aggravated arson, 3 weeks after we filed our lawsuit against insurance and over one year from the date of the event.

I haven’t kept tabs of who knows or if anyone really understands exactly what this truly entails and honestly means. It doesn’t matter. It’s not a secret, and it’s probably a matter of public record. But it’s also not something I discuss openly and especially freely, as anything I say…well, you know the rest, although I have yet to be read my Miranda Rights.

My only reason for mentioning it aloud now is that it is simply a fact of our whole reality. It’s the one piece that keeps us at bay, unable to move forward, as though we are handcuffed in time. This is happening and we are dealing with it, some days better than others, always with an incredible support network.

I will not discuss anything further, for obvious reasons, except to say that I am innocent and disgusted with both our law enforcement and legal system. (Also, your pity is not welcomed but support is always appreciated.)

After the indictment was handed down, our lawsuit against insurance was stayed, pending the outcome of the criminal case. We are still awaiting trial…for both matters…

That fall, Hurricane Sandy pummeled  New Jersey and New York, and I was a wreck. I could not watch the news and see the devastation she had left in her wake. I knew and felt exactly how her victims felt and was angrivated by the stories of insurance companies using loopholes to decrease or avoid payments on claims. I donated as many items as we could, having little to give, and made sure everything donated was in impeccable condition, knowing first hand that “the thought” is not the only thing that counts.

In addition to the indictment and civil law suit, soon after we moved to my parent’s, the town began threatening us in regards to the condition of our house which was barely standing, especially after Sandy. The town’s threats included fines and the possibility of jail for my husband. We reluctantly acquiesced to the town’s demands by demolishing the house first and selling the property after the demolition, as per their instructions. We were actually refused permission to sell before the demolition so we had to acquire permits and pay out of pocket for the teardown. It was finally all settled and we sold the property on April 19, 2013, almost 2 years after the fire. Hopes of ever returning home were destroyed that day…

After 18 months of living with my parents, Lady J was gearing up for kindergarten and a trial date was set for December, 2013.  We decided to move to my in-law’s home at the end of the summer to reconnect our family and prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. We did not want to uproot the children mid school year, in case things went poorly.

We have been living here, in my in-law’s basement for 20 months, and the trial has been postponed at least 3 times.

The reality is that Brian is able to commute from here, although it is 3 hours door to door EACH WAY, but at least we are together. This town is not anywhere I would ever choose to live, but in living here I have made wonderful friends and have experienced a welcoming community that offers a great deal of activities and opportunities for families. Yet, as wonderful as it is and as helpful as they are, let’s be realistic, at the end of the day, I live with my in-laws…in their basement…enough said…

There are so many things to be grateful for, over these last 4 years. We have been able to maintain status quo as far as providing for our children with both needs and experiences, and a bit of wants as well.

Our families have both opened their homes to us and made room where possible. They share their space and time with us, giving our children care and an incredible opportunity to really know their grandparents. It has given me opportunities to get everyday things done that would normally be much more difficult balancing the kids and their schedules. There are no words I can express that could do true justice to such a gift.

Our friends have been more than supportive in their understanding and care. Their patience to stand along side us has made us feel like a forest surrounds us, sheltering us, as we try to find a place for our roots to take hold and grow. I am overwhelmed with gratitude by their steadfast and true hearts.

Yet through it all, we have been unable to move forward. Stagnant in purgatory, unable to plan a possible future nor live in the present as our past is our daily nightmare. We are reliant on everyday items that are not our own. Not able to replace what was ours for both lack of space and lack of knowledge of what’s to come…waiting… Just. Waiting…

But now, almost 4 years after “The Event” we are taking a giant step in moving forward:

Brian is buying a house just in time for Mother’s Day and his birthday. If all goes well, we will painting, carpeting, and assembling furniture for the next week and officially move in around May 20, 2015, exactly 4 years to the day…

It is symbolic and emotional and exciting and will hopefully be a jumping off point for all good things to come for the rest of our lives. It is the only way for us to show and maintain our strength and resolve to keep moving forward.

This move is something to celebrate, although we are not ready to celebrate as it is also laced with more than a hint of bitter-sweetness. Our case continues and the future is still unknown.

We are moving on without anything to move in.

I am overwhelmed thinking about replacing basic needs, as we have no idea what those are yet, other than a few items we’ve made a priority. The few people we have told about the house have been more than generous and ask, “What do you need?” and I can only stare blankly.



I walked into Bed Bath and Beyond followed by IKEA a few days after our offer was accepted, just to look around, and both were too much. My take away was that we needed the whole store, but I settled for a pizza-slicer and dust-pan & broom combination knowing that we’d be eating pizza at least a few nights this week and someone will probably break something during the move… It was daunting and exhausting. It’s quite the opposite of the excited wedding registry feelings I had 8 years ago.

I get nauseous when people ask, “Will you register? Will you have a shower or house-warming party?”


Truth be told, this house is what we need, but not what we want. This is not our forever home. These are not our forever neighbors. This is not our forever town. This is not our forever life. This is our “for now” until we can celebrate our “happily ever after.”

We simply don’t know when or where that will be…

Like most people, we are making lists and planning for priorities. But so far, every thing is a priority because we’re not replacing…there’s nothing to replace…nothing to build from…nothing…no thing…Not. One. Single. Thing… And I’m having a hard time asking for and accepting anything. I think it’s tacky to ask for help. We should be able to afford this on our own. And we can…just maybe not all at once…

The reality is that I want to get only what we need and just send the receipt to insurance with a note that reads, “Here’s to being the responsible company. Time to help us on our own come back trail…assholes. Also, please remove us from your mass mailings and emails. Are you certain you want MY feed back? Have you no fucking shame?” But cursing isn’t really my writing style and we’re SO VERY far beyond that anyway.





I think it’s horrible that for the most part, I don’t want hand-me-downs. It’s a truly deep and internal struggle for me, that sounds so unbelievably superficial. How can I refuse any help being offered, especially in light of recent global events? I thought I was better than that.

There are a few people who have been saving items for us, that we will gladly accept, but I’m not looking for left-overs. You can judge and label me with words like greedy, materialistic, or ungrateful, but I do have my reasons:

Right after the fire there was an outpouring of support and donations. I remember going through bags and boxes of clothes and toys. It was beyond generous, so much so, that I had to donate most of what was received. Not that we didn’t appreciate it, but Bud didn’t need 20 pairs of size 2t khaki shorts…so we graciously accepted what we needed, and donated or returned the rest.

We were offered furniture and mattresses. But we had no where to put them. No space of our own. So we politely declined the thoughtfulness with reluctance, having no idea what was in store nor how long it would take.

We also received a few items that should NEVER have been donated. Torn and stained clothing, broken toys…I cannot tell you how heartbreaking it is to tell your kids that the toy they just received (as a gift) was given to them broken or incomplete. They already had a whole house of unsalvagable toys. They cried… And then we cried…

So, no, I’m not looking for handouts, left-overs or hand-me-downs. I don’t need 25 pizza slicers, mismatched couches, or wobbly chairs. I only want what we need, I want to like it, and I want it to work. I want it to fit US and to be OURS. I don’t want to borrow anything, regardless of return policies.

We have already ordered appliances, couches, and minimal furniture needs. Paint colors have been selected and the bedroom carpets will be replaced next week. It’s exciting.  But that’s about as far as we’ve gotten as I’m still struggling with daily needs and isles and isles of all things “house and home.”

The  other truth is that we also have no idea what we need. We won’t honestly know until we move in, get settled, and start living. I’m guessing I’ll be going to Bed Bath and Beyond almost daily for the first month, just filling in items I didn’t know I needed, items I didn’t realize were missing.  {So please send any of your 20% off coupons you’ve been hoarding saving that you can spare. 😉}

It sounds like such a “first world problem.” And it is…But it’s SO MUCH MORE…

I wrote the following “chapter” 6 months ago and never shared it because it all just sounds so repetitive. So redundant. So whiny and almost snobby when you don’t know the reality of the situation, in its entirety. “You still don’t have a place?” People innocently inquire, “You’re still waiting? What’s the hold up?” Well, now you know:

“November 18, 2014:

It was just the two of us sitting at lunch. Brian had taken the day off so he could attend Breakfast with Dad at Lady J’s school. We dropped Bud and K-Mad off at school and I ditched my class at the gym so we could run some errands together. We were sitting at the restaurant’s bar, enjoying a beautifully presented lunch with a mediocre taste. There were mere minutes left of our solitude before we needed to pick the kids up from school when he posed a question that squelched my appetite into oblivion and rushed me from my seat before the tears overtly began streaming down.

“When this is all over, what would you want to replace first?”

Brian is a planner. He lists out our needs and wants, prioritizes them, and saves accordingly. His question was not emotional. It was just his way of planning. Bud had needed a new snow suit so we took care of that today. Next on the list is a bed for K-Mad as she has nearly outgrown her toddler bed. After that will be the holidays…the list goes on, and he plans, saves, and repeats. It’s quite efficient, really.

But this question. This planning. This notion of picking just one thing to replace…

For the last 3 and a half years we have gotten only the bare essentials, with very few “replacement” items. Our wardrobes are minimalistic at best and just about everything we use in the house is not ours, including the house itself.

We have a few donated items in storage that we have no use for at this time, as we live in a house with a fully furnished kitchen. Yet the dishes, pots and pans in storage are not OURS. We did not go to the store and choose them ourselves. In fact, going to home stores is still quite emotional for me.

We live a borrowed life, even if we never have to return what was given.

So what would I replace first?

Maybe the dining room table that I inherited from my grandparents where I spent every Shabbat of my youth with family. The Shabbat table that we were making new memories around with my own family now. How do you replace a family heirloom with so much history and future?


Perhaps the fine china we received for our marriage that I used to set the table just once. I remember spending hours carefully choosing the pattern, flatware and stemware to match.  I could not wait to host family and friends for holidays, dinner parties, and game nights, filling bellies with home cooked deliciousness and building our own history, traditions and memories upon mere plates. I believe that the pattern has been retired. How can you replace something from nothing?

What about Lady J’s bedroom furniture, that was once mine when I was a child. A one of a kind set with a hand painted rainbow of style that grew up with me. She was just as excited to see her “new-again” big girl room when we finished the upstairs of our house to make way for Bud, as I had been the day I came home from sleep over camp when I was nine. Plus, there was the hand stitched blanket that matched perfectly and hung as a tapestry above her bed, made with love by my aunt to celebrate her birth… How do you replace that excitement and love?


Perhaps my wedding gown, preserved and stored so that one day I may be able to let my girls wear it, or use a piece as their something borrowed…


Or the shadow boxes that housed our uniquely poetic wedding invitation. One shadow box was made by my sister and the otheIMG_8990r by a former student’s mother who included her own poem on the back, mimicking the Friday Folder Poems I sent home each week to keep parents informed…


My baby album that my mother wrote in so that I could read about my own childhood anecdotes, or the pre-digital baby photo album filled with memories of my childhood…

The personalized burp clothes and receiving blankets given as gifts for Lady J & Bud…

Or my silken personalized Talit, given to me by my parents when I became a Bat Mitzvah…

My teaching portfolio, resume, and accumulation of materials, resources, lesson plans, Friday-Folder poems, projects, and books that took hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to build up…

The picture that hung in our bedroom I had painted for Brian’s 27th birthday, just before we moved from Northern Virginia to North Jersey. It was a symbolic gesture that this move wasn’t just in location, but in where we were heading together… “Can I just have just one more moon dance with you, my love?”

My replacement list could probably go on forever…

How about the last THREE and a HALF YEARS? How do you replace that?  I’m not talking about the new memories we’ve made, the laughter, the help, and family and friends. We’re doing alright there, in fact, better than alright. We’re down right fortunate and not a day goes by that I am not eternally and honestly grateful for all that we do not need to replace.

But I’m talking about the doubt, the unknowing, the loneliness, the dependency…the borrowed life…how do you replace that?

So what would I replace first?

How bout we start with just a house, so we can rebuild our home…”

And so we are…


I feel excited. I feel bitter. I am elated. I am pissed. I am damn good at finding the funny and putting my best foot forward. I am a wreck on the inside. I am as strong as a great oak. I am scared out of my mind. I am a fighter. I am aware that these very words can somehow be twisted and mangled and and taken out of context to be used against me in our completely unjust legal system. I refuse to back down. I am asking for your support. I don’t need a thing. I am a Phoenix rising from the ashes…

But most of all, I am honestly looking forward to not living in someone else’s basement for the first time in almost 4 years and no longer living a borrowed life…

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