Last night was a tough one for us in the Smyth house.  Our little Hudson has been fighting a cold for the past ten days or so {as is Daddy} and out of nowhere, yesterday evening, he spiked a fever of 103 degrees and became completely inconsolable.  Within minutes, we were cancelling our plans for the night, dressing our baby up and heading off the emergency room at the Children’s Hospital.  Thankfully, we were in and out within just a couple of hours {a rarity for any ER} with a suspected upper respiratory virus but an otherwise clean bill of health.  It’s a good thing that I was standing there and watching the words come out of the doctor’s mouth because our son proceeded to cry for the rest of the night.  Had we not just been sitting in that very waiting room for two hours, we would have been headed there in the middle of the night patiently waiting to find out what was eating away at the insides of our little boy.  All of this to say that we just went to bed about forty-five minutes ago.

So most of last night’s hours were spent rocking Hudson back and forth…sometimes he slept, sometimes he cried…but the entire time he clearly needed Mommy or Daddy like we were the last life boat on a sinking ship.  At around 3:30 this morning, I was remembering my Lenten commitment regarding gratitude and surprisingly, I felt overwhelmed by it.  Yes, I felt like I could have slept for about a week…yes, it breaks my heart that my son felt so unsettled…and yes, both the novelty of our all-nighter and our level of patience began to dwindle significantly after the second hour of this hysteria but, I still couldn’t help but feel immensely grateful that, at the very least, we were at home.  A home that I absolutely love to pieces.  We were curled up together in a big rocking chair, covered in a quilt blanket and quietly listening to Mozart.  Our house isn’t big or extravagant but we were safe, we were warm and we were in a place that always made everything easier.  It’s filled with wonderful books, cute teddy bears and adorable bath toys.  “Things could be worse” I thought to myself.  And from there, I began to remember a time when – as far as homes go –  it was worse.

As I’ve discussed many times before, the year that I graduated University was a very hard time for me. I was going through a devastating break-up, I was overwhelmed at the thought of not being a student anymore, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life and the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel had most definitely been turned off for an indeterminate amount of time.  During this time, it was very hard to make decisions regarding housing when I didn’t have a full-time job and I didn’t know if I was staying in Ottawa or moving away. The extraordinary problem solver that is my mother, promptly stepped in and took hold of the situation with a sense of perspective that I simply wasn’t capable of at the time. She arranged for me to live with some friends of hers that had just moved to the region and weren’t using their basement. It wasn’t ideal but, it was inexpensive and non-committal. It would give the time and flexibility that I needed to figure things out without many of the external stresses that were already making my life very challenging.

So, late that August, I packed up my stuff {which wasn’t very much} into the back of their pick-up truck and we drove to the outskirts of the original city boundaries of Gatineau, Quebec. I had never lived in Quebec before and I had never even seen suburban Gatineau before, but as we drove further and further away, I began to feel relieved at the distance that I was putting between my self and the memories that were making me feel trapped. About thirty-five minutes later we arrived and sure enough, it was indeed a basement. The floor was concrete, there was insulation along the walls covered in clear plastic, there were wooden beams in all directions and a big, loud furnace in the corner just next to where my bed would be. No doubt, it would be gloomy but then again, so was my life…so it seemed oddly appropriate at the time. Looking back, I think that by this time, I was almost prepared to just roll over and accept the despair that seemed to have taken me over. My soul was tired and beaten, and I no longer had the energy to fight it anymore. That is, until one crisp, sunny morning when planes started to fall from the sky…

I woke up in the basement on September 11th, 2001 and just stared up at the ceiling while I listened to the amplified sound of feet walking up above. For the past couple of weeks, that sound had become the essence of what my life had become…me, hunkered down in a cold, dark cave while the sound of other people’s lives woke me up in the night. I began to despise the very sound of the family living up above…the sound of them sitting down to dinner together…the sound of them getting ready to go out for the night…even the sound of them arguing over the car…it all just seemed like such a cruel reminder of the hollow existence that I was enduring. In fact, the sound came to bother me so much that since then, I’ve never lived beneath anyone ever again.

I’m not sure how long I stayed in my trance while I listened to their morning routine above me but eventually, the furnace kicked in and I was startled back to reality. I rolled over in my bed, tried to catch of glimmer of the outside world through the tiny window in the corner and turned on my stereo that was next to my bed. Just as the song finished, the DJ from the morning show came on and said “for those of you just tuning in, we’ve just received news that a plane has just crashed into the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. There is still no word of casualties however it is suspected that this was indeed, an act of terrorism. We will report back with any further details as we receive them. I repeat…we are receiving reports that the United States of America has just been attacked by terrorist.”

Given that I was already running late for work, I quickly got dressed, ate two bites of toast and ran out of the house. As I turned to close the door behind me, I noticed that the others had forgotten to turn the television off when they left for work. As I approached to hit the power button on the remote control, I quickly glanced up and realized, to my horror, that I was watching a second plane approach the towers. I stood stunned as the impact occurred…not just to the World Trade Center but also to my terrified eyes.

The rest of my day was spent in a fog of confusion. I had managed to catch the bus to work in downtown Ottawa only to find out that businesses everywhere were shutting down for the day. Police and RCMP could be found in every corner of the nation’s capital as we had suddenly turned to survival mode. With the American Embassy, the Prime Minister’s Residence and Parliament Hill all within four blocks of each other, downtown Ottawa had become chaotic with panic. Shortly after the attacks occurred, the RCMP had closed down all of the inter-provincial bridges between Ontario and Quebec and I could no longer get home. I felt stuck in a war zone with no way out and no safe place to go. As every minute passed, businesses were closing their doors and the roads were congested with commuters making their way back to their families. But I had nowhere to go. I had no friends in town or family that I could go to. All of my colleagues had returned to their own homes and I felt all alone and desperately afraid.

Eventually, while standing in a line at a corner store, I overheard a cab driver say that one of the bridges had just been re-opened about twenty minutes earlier. I desperately pleaded for him to take me home…to take me to my basement. While the entire world had changed, the basement had not. It was still cold, dark and damp, but it was all that I had at the time and it would have to be good enough.

I hunkered down in my bed for the next couple of days and never took my eyes off the television. I ate gummy bears and drank chocolate milk and never received a single phone call from anymore…nor did I make one. In the depths of the night, as the family upstairs was curled up on the couch together, quiet as ever, I had no one; no friends, no family, not even any neighbors to go through this hard time with. I only had this basement. Then, and only then, did I realize just how far I had really fallen. I had drifted beyond sadness and into apathy…a dangerous little hole that knows nothing but hopelessness.

That was my darkest day.  But it was also the day when I discovered that I wanted things to change. For the first time in a long time, I cared again. Or at least came to recognize that perhaps I had still really cared all along.

I would continue to live in the basement for four more months after that and while it would prove to be one of the saddest times for me, it was also a time that helps me to appreciate every moment after that so much more. It sounds ridiculous in a way, but I needed that basement. I needed to know that even the dampest and darkest of places couldn’t break my spirit. I needed to know that enduring one of the scariest days in my life without anyone else to share it with also couldn’t break my spirit. Mostly, I needed to know that although it may have seemed that way for a while…I hadn’t actually given up on myself.

In the months that followed, I found my first career, made new friends, learned what it was like to be in my own company and eventually, moved back to the city that I loved and into my own {and first} apartment. I moved into the top floor of that apartment building actually and for all the stairs that it took me to get there…I was always elated to be on the top floor…in a room with a view. Many challenging and sad times still followed as I tried to figure myself out again but none as hard as that moment, on that day, in that place. I pray daily that I never have to be there again but if there is one token of wisdom that I took away from such an experience it’s that whether it be the cold, dark corner of a house or the cold, dark corner of your life…if you ever find yourself in the basement, it means that there’s no where left to go but up! And as I sat with Hudson during the dark hours of the morning, on the top floor of our house, surrounded by beautiful furniture that his grandfather had made him, I smiled at the joyful simplicity that this night had brought me.  The time to further appreciate our painted walls, the furry friend asleep at our feet, the cheerios all over our kitchen floor and the toy trucks that we trip over on a daily basis.  This is our home.  And even through the giant crocodile tears and the middle of the night misery…there is no where else that I would rather be.