In 1986, my parent’s purchased and broke land on an isolated cul-de-sac in a small, country town in central New Jersey. We didn’t even have paved roads, actually you could literally sing, over the bridge and through the woods as you drove to our humble abode. There, 4 children and 2 parents enjoyed countless parties, sporting events, some temper-tantrums and all the wonderful things Irish-Catholic families bring. I am blessed and lucky to say the least.
Unfortunately, even the luckiest of family’s enter periods of tragedy. For the Fitzgerald clan, that period showed up in 2006. Two months before I graduated from West Virginia University, at 21 years old, I received a phone call that forever changed this family and its old house.
My 16-year-old brother had been involved in a freak accident while trying to light a fire in the living room fireplace. It exploded and he was trapped. Miraculously, he escaped the fire and was medevac’d to the burn unit at St. Barnabas Hospital. Thankfully, he was the only one severely injured, but the house was gone. Literally, beams and window frames remained of the once popular pool-party destination.
I didn’t make it to graduation. I barely even lived in Morgantown the remainder of the semester. I visited my brother, fighting for his life, as often as possible. The emotional disintegration that occurred for months (years) after that accident compares to nothing in the world, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s hard to function when everything collapses, and for me that meant being lost. Just like my Millennial counterparts I had assumed I’d graduate, move home, look for work, save a few bucks and continue on with adult life.
Instead, I got a job waitressing, threw a mattress on the floor of a broke-down, rotting apartment in Bound Brook, N.J., and continued to do my best. I’m not the only one. My parents, struggling with medical bills, insurance claims, full time jobs, surgery after surgery and sleeplessness somehow harbored the strength to rebuild. But they, and our family had help.
An unbelievable amount of kindness streamed in. Blankets, home-cooked meals, monetary donations from schools, everything one could possibly imagine. Help came in the form of an email with prayers all the way to a check contributed by a company I interned for a year prior. My brother’s classmates even made him a quilt with memories and inside jokes. In tragedy, we found good in the world and within each other.
The house was rebuilt without the living room with the fireplace. My parent’s and my brother moved back in. Recovery had begun. It’s been almost nine years since that dreaded phone call. And today, I write from a table, salvaged from a fire and refinished, that we’ve had 26 years of celebrations, hardcore poker matches, drunken shenanigans and endless ball-busting conversations at, and for the first time in 12 years I am home.