Special Needs Elf & A Fire Disaster Averted: 12-6-12

An Ashy Pall: My daughter allocated Monday as her Christmas shopping with mom day. I showed up at the apartment almost on time and saw that the staff mini-van had not returned from dropping the apartment-mate at the DSO. Since I am on the lease and have the key, I entered the apartment. Just as I noticed the fire extinguisher on the dining area table I received a text from my daughter: “We are late, the lamp went on fire.” Okay. While waiting I scanned the rooms, seeing no evidence of a singe or a burn. Though there was a scent of something in the air, somehow my normally acute olfactory apparatus did not register alarm. But when the daytime staffer and my daughter arrived and showed me the burned remains of a table lamp that lay outside on the brick pavement of the patio, covered in fire extinguisher goop, I realized this was an electrical fire and potential disaster. As the staffer tells the story, quite energetically: she watched as the lamp exploded in flames 3 inches from the living room curtains, grabbed the lamp, pulled it out of the wall without touching the outlet and threw it outside on the patio. The quick-witted staffer then grabbed the extinguisher and saturated the lamp with streams of that white grey weird stuff that casts such an ashy pall over its targets.

Smart Staff, Prepped Clients: So many variables were in my daughter’s favor here. It was morning, the girls were up and dressed, the night staff was still there and the daytime staff had just arrived. The daytime staffer removed the lamp before the curtains could flame up and the nighttime staffer led the well-trained apartment-mates out the door. Apparently the ladies, who had a reputation of sleeping through fire alarm drills, performed beautifully. So, you may ask, what state was my daughter in? She said she was anxious but she appeared fairly calm, not shaken. The day time staffer was more overtly impacted and was still in amazement at the sheer speed of all that went down; the lamp bursting into flames (wiring was defective and the bulb ignited), her quick response and the sheer gravity of the situation. A disaster averted. She had entered that sphere of human experience where one’s own courage and good decision-making skill seem to birth forth without conscious choice and save the day. Wow. I could tell she was both proud of herself and awed by the process that led to her heroic behavior. She thought nothing of the possible injury to herself when she grabbed the lamp, only that she had to prevent the curtains from being ignited. I loved watching her take pride in herself – in her early twenties and already saving lives.

Curtains: I have a thing about curtains. I don’t like them and avoid them as much as possible. I like light. I dislike dust and cat hairs clinging to fabric surfaces and I know that curtains catch fire all the time, though perhaps most fabrics have been treated with some flame retardant. I also don’t like cheap lamps. Years ago my sister’s apartment caught on fire because of the interaction of a halogen bulb and some cartons getting too close in a closet. The apartment was uninhabitable, precious memorabilia was destroyed and my sister and her family were uprooted. But no one died. When it was suggested that curtains be hung in the girls’ apartment living room, to pull together the look, though there were blinds for privacy and light, I agreed. But when we talked about the possibility of adding them to my daughter’s bedroom (blinds are there, too) I said no. The lamp was one of a pair that apparently was bought at Lowe’s. Ability Beyond Disability did all the right things after the potential fire. The town fire department came and inspected the entire apartment that afternoon, checked all lamps and outlets and reassured staff that no other lamp or outlet represented a threat. But ABD took the twin lamp out, filed a complaint with Lowe’s and brought in replacements. Once burned, don’t touch that flame again. I haven’t seen the new purchases yet.

Omens? Sh-t. There is a backstory to this tale. In 2003, the first summer our daughter, then thirteen, attended sleep away camp, my husband and I purchased a studio apartment in a condominium complex in a neighboring town as a possible locale where she could live and walk to most services and entertainment. This was something I felt compelled to do with my extra time and super high anxiety now that we had asked her to take a giant leap toward her adult independence by sleeping somewhere eight hours away for five weeks with strangers. Interest rates were low (Ha, in retrospect) and I needed to bind my anxiety which had been stirred to super high levels by this first big separation (and guilt too) while simultaneously investing in our daughter’s future. My idea was that we could sell the place at a profit someday and use the funds to purchase a permanent home for our daughter. Needless to say, in this economy, no big profits are in sight but the apartment has been continuously rented, with only a three-month lull, since purchase. In the winter of 2009, my tenant of six years went to live with his daughter. Our apartment stood empty so I arranged for a paint job and general facelift with a hopeful eye toward selling it, bad timing, 2009!

One day I drove over to see how the new paint job was proceeding and saw that the entrance of the adjoining building was surrounded by yellow police tape. And that the windows were burned out and debris was littered on the small lawn outside the entrance. Fire had engulfed the duplex apartment of a special needs couple and killed them both. I still feel like crying as I type these words. This was a couple in their fifties, newly engaged and living on their own, who had met through their program and were beloved in the community. An investigation revealed the probability that there was a malfunction of a microwave (it was an electrical fire). At that point I was so scared that I wanted to sell our apartment, which I tried to do, and somehow make sure that never ever would our daughter suffer such a fate. The fire and their deaths had nothing to do with special needs. It was one of those “freak accidents.” Yet, I will never forget this tragedy and its emotional proximity to the vulnerability that I already felt about our daughter’s future. Fires kill and though ABD has intensive fire safety protocols, fire alarms and all one could wish for, this was all too close to home.

Special Needs Elf: Whatever my associations to that fire incident, my daughter seemed to have none of her own, though she did know the story of that unfortunate couple. I didn’t mention it. Not relevant. So off we go to the mall, this little 4’8” Santa elf strutting along with her shopping list in hand, white lined paper with orange marker indicating the names and planned purchases for family members. She had done her research online and knew just which stores and what possible items to check out for each party. LL Bean was the venue targeted for Dad, J.Crew for her brother, Hallmark for her apartment-mate and American Eagle for her cousin. She was superbly organized and focused. Unbelievable. At one point I left her alone in J.Crew, where she was searching through the displays, to run out to the car and unload some of the packages from the day’s haul. Upon my return I found her being waited on by a young man and woman, whom she had sent on a mission to find a blue shirt that she had seen online. We never found it but she was undaunted and not only found a shirt she liked for her brother, but a sweater as well. Her taste and shopping acumen are on a very high level and her uncanny sense of what people might like pretty close to perfect. As all parents of our special offspring know, the talents and skills of their community of difference range all over the place. Here our daughter, who still can’t accurately articulate the price of any of these items, could be a personal shopper for someone. Outrageous!

Lunch and Goodbye: We did it all and ended the morning at The Cheesecake Factory ordering from the Skinnylicious menu, meeting all deadlines and targeted gifting goals. After we ordered, I said that I was heading to the ladies room. My daughter decided she had to go, too. I took my purse but felt okay leaving the couple packages at the table. This may sound strange but life in our area is sort of like this. At any rate, when we returned to the table, I saw that our daughter had left her purse there as well. So I told her that it was best to bring it with her at all times. Then something happened. Her facial expression changed, the tone of her voice shifted from upbeat to downbeat, and a look of suffering passed across her eyes: “I don’t know where my head is. I have had a hard day with the fire…” and in a snap, the reality of her excellent focus and accomplishments, our mutual delight in meeting our deadlines vanished from awareness and my Santa Elf, who only a moment ago appeared satisfied and buoyant, presented herself as someone disorganized and confused because of the morning’s events. I have seen this shift before. I am not saying that the flaming lamp incident wasn’t scary or didn’t impact her. But frankly, since she saw immediately that staff was in control, I don’t think it impacted her that much. What did impact her was my pointing out that she left her purse at the table, which triggered something else. Something she had to explain, that she perceived as something that she didn’t do right. I felt terrible and reminded her of all she had accomplished, how focused and successful she was, but she continued on her track of explanation. I backed off and just reflected back to her, yes this was such a tough morning…no wonder you are a bit distracted. But she wasn’t distracted at all. Leaving her purse wasn’t due to distraction, not really. It was just a discipline that she needs to be reminded of, never leave your purse anywhere. That’s what every mother says to every daughter. Or maybe I am wrong, and at that moment she was distracted. But not the whole morning. I guess that I just felt bad that something I did added some shadow to a truly perfect morning and a job well done. Oh Motherhood, thy other name is guilt.

P.S. That mood fleeted fairly shortly after it arrived and the young lady I delivered to her program one half hour later, was a pretty happy camper.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2012


5 Responses to “Special Needs Elf & A Fire Disaster Averted: 12-6-12”

  1. kim

    This one has all the emotions.
    Phew, so sad and tragic, terrific and outrageous, awww and good job Mom ): and Good Job Mom :)!

    And kudos to the couragous staffer – she will probably never forget her action and the fire department for taking the time to make sure all else was safe.

    • Jill Edelman

      Grateful to the quick witted staffer and for your comments. Always nice to hear that the post is well received.

  2. Lillian

    So glad to hear that disaster was averted and the elf got her shopping done. Thanks for a compelling narrative!

    • Jill Edelman

      Terrific to hear from you Lillian. And thank you for taking a moment to comment. I so hope we can all be together in the Spring.

  3. Elise

    All very interesting. We need to be so vigilant re. possible accidents or tempting wrong-doers. The amount of vigilance can, at times, be overwhelming for any of us. I understood your feeling that you needed to back off on the purse and felt bad mentioning it. All was well. She just needs to be reminded again – right before going to the bathroom (or similar). So glad that the good feelings of the day and your smart perception of the situation lead to a happy ending!!!!


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