Setting My Past On Fire: 1

Closing a Door to the Past to Make a Future Possible

As the one-year anniversary of the tragic killings that had forever changed my life and the lives of so many others approached, a recurring conversation ran in the back of my mind. “What are you going to do?” I asked myself. “You can’t just stay here hiding forever.” While my cramped, one-bedroom apartment in suburban Philadelphia had been a quiet refuge for the past year, a place to hide, to grieve, to cry, to write, and wonder why, I felt like my growth and my healing there had come to a standstill.

Then it hit me. I needed to set my past on fire. That seed had been planted two months before while reading the book The Last Arrow by Erwin McManus. As a boy, after an electrical fire had erupted in the family house, the author’s mother lamented the loss of his brother’s trophies, promising they could be fixed. “If those trophies are the highlights of our life,” his brother told him. “Then our lives were not worth living, going forward. Why waste time reclaiming the past when it would be much better to focus on creating the future?”

“I need a new start,” I declared. “I need a radical change.”

“I’m sorry, Jennair. I have to move on. To start a new life,” I said out loud as I pulled the door shut one last time. “It’s time to set the past on fire.”

As that thought echoed in my mind, I couldn’t help but picture the 10’x10’ storage unit just a mile down the road from my apartment, packed front to back and floor to ceiling with painful memories of my past. Furniture. Appliances. Bikes. Boxes and boxes of keepsakes, and more than 20 years worth of birthday cards inscribed with handwritten notes. I hadn’t been there since the day I put the padlock on the steel roll-up door and walked away, just two weeks after that tragic day. As painful as I knew it would be to open that door and see all those memories again, I knew that keeping it all was keeping me from moving on.

As I slowly walked the dimly lit corridor, tripping one motion sensor after the next, the network of fluorescent lights overhead flickered to life with an audibly electric buzz. Approaching unit #383, I could hear my own breath quicken, and a sick, uneasy sweat washed over me. Fumbling with the key, I finally managed to release the lock and set it on the floor to the side. I reached down, grabbed the handle and pulled the door open. But I couldn’t look.

Bracing myself, eyes closed, I slid down against the steel door of the storage unit behind me, planting myself onto the cold polished concrete. Then I looked up. Staring back at me was a giant Jenga puzzle of stuff, packed precariously into the tight space without an inch to spare.

Finally, I mustered the courage to tackle the Jenga puzzle that was my past. Box by box, piece by piece, I began the painstaking process of going through it all, deciding whether to sell it, donate it or throw it away. While it wasn’t easy to sell the stainless refrigerator Jennair and I had bought together, it was nothing compared to parting with more sentimental pieces. I couldn’t stand the idea of Jennair’s armoire desk, or the entertainment center she had treasured, sitting in the house of a complete stranger. I decided to let friends have them at a fraction of their value or just give them away.

The solid cherry armoire desk that my wife had sat at every morning went to a young couple who are about to start their lives together. The entertainment center to one of my newest and most respected friends. And my bed to a teenage daughter of one of my closest friends.

Letting our things go felt liberating, and yet I was riddled with guilt. In my heart I knew this was something my late wife wouldn’t have wanted, something she could have never done. For years I had begged her to downsize, to part with the many things we had accumulated over our 24 years together. “Who knows when we’ll ever be able to afford these things again,” she had protested. And so it was that I relented, as every purchase we ever made was added to our lives, until every move became a mammoth task, every city we lived in required yet another storage unit, just in case we could never afford these things again—things we had no space for. Things we had no need for.

It took weeks. But finally, as I stood there looking into the empty 10’x10’ space, the once-packed storage unit seemed almost cavernous. Cold. Devoid of life. And I felt the same way. But it was done.

“I’m sorry, Jennair. I have to move on. To start a new life,” I said out loud as I pulled the door shut one last time. “It’s time to set the past on fire.”

I walked to my car, carrying nothing more than my keys. The conversation running in my head had changed, almost imperceptibly. “After the fire, comes new growth,” it said.

“Bring it on,” I answered.

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