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When It All Burns Down

| This is the 562nd story of Our Life Logs® |

I woke up choking on smoke.

My eyes burned from the heat. My room was filled with thick black clouds. I tried to search for my walker, but I couldn’t even see what was a foot in front of my face. I could not scream because I was not able to take a big breath in or out. Then I felt the warmth, and I knew what was happening. I knew the flames would not be kind.

My story began in a small town in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1958. My uncle was a Baptist minister so well-known that they named a street after him. Oprah Winfrey’s mother even attended his church. My family was well-respected in the community because we were the first Black family to integrate the Westside. We were the lucky ones, a family of great faith and hard workers.

My sense of pride continued into my teen years and young adulthood. As an adolescent, I played basketball very well and I placed number one in the nation in the 400-meter relay. My abilities landed me a full-ride academic and athletic scholarship to a private college, Carthage College.

After finishing school, I got a job opportunity working for a nonprofit in one of my favorite places in America: Las Vegas. The nonprofit, The Urban League, helped single mothers and fathers get affordable childcare, and I was proud to be helping people. I moved into an upscale African-American neighborhood on the westside. These days, it doesn’t look like much, but back then, it was the place to be. My apartment read 1111, which I thought to be good luck. I loved my apartment and planned to live there until the day I died.

As the decades passed, I built my career and built a family of my own. I had been briefly married and raised twin boys who are now grown and gone. They were and still are the light of my life. As I got older, I began having issues with arthritis. Eventually, I became confined to a walker. Still, life was blissful. I learned to make do and be my happiest in apartment 1111.

Over the years, I watched the neighbors come and go in the apartments around me. I befriended many of them, some young and some old. Some had children, and some were single. I saw many smile and stop to talk, and I saw many who were keen to give a quick nod and disappear into their place. But all these years, I never had a neighbor like my most recent. Little did I know she would change my life forever. But not in the way you might think.

I remember when I first saw her. She was a sweet woman with high cheekbones and skin kissed by the sun. I realized she wasn’t from here when I heard her accent. She said she came from Africa and that all her family was still there.

As I got to know her, I discovered that she was very quiet and reserved, but also very kind. She lived alone and had no children. She was a very religious woman who always read her Bible. We became good friends over the years, and during one of our deeper talks, she spoke to me about the scriptures she held up in high esteem. I really enjoyed our conversation as she shared her tea cookies with me. I liked having her as a neighbor.

Then, COVID-19 came into our lives.

The year 2020 came like any other, but it did not continue in typical fashion. When stay-at-home measures were introduced, I was visiting many doctors. At the time, I was trying to certify that my limping and physical disability was enough that the doctor could write me the memo that working was difficult for me, and I could finally be put on disability. I was finally given the okay to wait at home while the long process worked itself out.

I was relieved. This was news that I (and my body) had long-awaited. As an added bonus, I would not be exposed to the dangerous virus all while tucked into my familiar home.

But after about a week of staying home, I realized something was terribly wrong with my sweet neighbor. The sounds of her complaints about not being able to leave her home seeped through the walls. She began praying out loud and talking to herself. However, this was not just any ordinary dialogue. It was as if she was in a battle with her own mind. She started cursing God and said that the Devil was alive. This was very strange from the religious talk I always heard from her. It was like she had flipped to the dark side of herself. Suddenly, she was an avid Atheist and that scared me. How could a firm believer suddenly hate God so much? What had happened to her? I wondered if she lost somebody in her family.

Then it hit me. She could not go home with the border closures. She was stuck here in America by herself, worlds away from her entire family. She was struggling with depression. I would hear her pacing the floors and crying every night. It wasn’t much longer before she completely lost it.

Then, one night, I woke up gagging on smoke. I could not see flames, but it felt like somebody had lifted the tops of 10 BBQ grills in the middle of my living room.

I managed to crawl outside a few minutes later despite the fog and the thin air and got out just as the firefighters were arriving. I looked to my right and saw my neighbor’s side of the duplex engulfed in flames. On the lawn in front of it, my neighbor stood, clinging to her heart and sobbing. I realized that she was the one who had set the fire. She had set it alight while we were both inside. But, why?

My neighbor had been trying to kill herself. I hadn’t realized how badly depressed she was that day. Maybe I should have gone over to her in the yard to console her in some way, but I was too focused on the fire. My home. The place I spent decades in. In a flash, it had become rubble. All those memories, all those years, lost to the flames.

After the fire was put out, I was offered a chance to move. But I didn’t want to go. The place might have been burned to a crisp, but it was my home. The memories were made on this ground. Despite the burning, it’s still livable, and I'm still there. My neighbor’s apartment has since been boarded up, but the black smoke tar still seeps through the wooden boards covering the window. Every time I look at it, I think of my neighbor and imagine how much pain she must have been going through.

Outside my neighbor’s apartment.

My neighbor is now in jail. She’s going to be deported soon which actually works out well for her. She’ll be going to her native land. I’m hoping she can be free there and reunite with her family. I truly wish the best for her and hold no resentment. She was going through a much more difficult time than I had realized, and she was not in the right frame of mind when she did it. She needed help. I hope she’s getting that now.

The city may rebuild the unit one day, but with COVID-19, this project is on the back burner. I’m still encouraged to move elsewhere, but I simply don’t want to leave. This is my home. There are people suffering in the isolation brought on by this pandemic, and the rough exterior of my home is a constant reminder for me to care for others during this trying time. I always try to look at the brighter side of things.

My home may be damaged, but I have survived and I intend to keep fighting and keep looking for ways to make a difference until this whole thing is over. I am learning and growing even in my old age, and that is all life is. Continuous learning and growing and becoming. And I’ve learned that when it all burns down, we must find reasons to stand back up.

This is the story of Warren Wonzo

Warren, 62, was born into an established family and was always living a peaceful life. When he moved to Las Vegas, he never imagined he would live next door to a woman who suffered from major depression. Being isolated for so long during the COVID-19 pandemic, she had a mental health crisis. After she burned their duplex down trying to kill herself, Warren had to reevaluate how he lived his life. He now spends his days making sure his mental health is tended to as well as his physical health. He does not worry about being quarantined. He wears his mask and goes out all the time, even to casinos. He is still in the duplex and is waiting for the city to make the repairs needed.

This story first touched our hearts on December 8, 2020

Writer: Melodie Harris | Editor: Kristen Petronio; Colleen Walker

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