My house burned down, I contracted Covid, and I moved to the country—all in the past six months
In late 2015, I bought a house at Yonge and Summerhill, just down the street from my partner, Michael. I fell in love with the village pocket of small streets and independent shops. At the end of my street are graffiti-strewn stone steps that descend into the Vale of Avoca ravine—a glorious urban forest with paths winding around Yellow Creek that fill with families and dog owners every Sunday.
My house, like most in the neighbourhood, is tall and thin—three floors with a roof deck. Shortly after moving in, I hired an architect to build a home office. It proved to be an oasis during the pandemic. I run Diaspora Dialogues, an organization supporting emerging Canadian writers, and I was also working on my first novel, Pull Focus. In the very early mornings, I’d write, staring out over the treetops and listening to bird chatter. It was a refuge of calm and serenity in a city too congested for its aging infrastructure.
In December, Michael’s grown son came home for a month from Los Angeles and needed to quarantine, so we went to the Millcroft Inn in Alton while he stayed at the house. We took long walks in the snow around the forested parks of Caledon. During lockdown, we’d become big fans of the BBC hit Escape to the Country, about couples relocating to tranquil settings across the U.K. It was pure bucolic splendour—sheep dotting rolling green hills, village shops filled with cream cakes, and Caledon had the same idyllic quality. On a lark, we called a real estate agent and set up two days of showings.
Two days later, eight houses in, we walked into a 2,800-square-foot L-shaped log cabin on 5.5 acres of forested glory in Mono. The owners had named it Maple Cliffs. We were welcomed by a big roaring fireplace in the open-concept main space. They might as well have had turkey gravy atomizer misting in the rafters. We looked at each other and both knew instantly that this was a house of big Thanksgiving family dinners, summer garden parties and cross-country skiing on snowbound days.
We put in an offer the next morning at a fraction below asking, conditional on a home inspection. We were the sole bidders, and the inspections were arranged for the following day, with the offer expiring at 10 p.m. that night. Everything passed except for the 1,000-square-foot, multi-tiered front deck. The inspectors warned us to replace the entire thing and its moorings as soon as possible. We asked the sellers for a 24-hour extension to absorb the 80-page report. They refused, and the offer died.
Hugely disappointed, we took a long walk around Ramsden Park the next day. I chalked the whole thing up to fate. It might just be for the best. Maybe we’d just become carried away in frustration during lockdown. A second home might stop us from travelling when the world opened back up. And besides, did we really have time to manage a whole other property? But Michael had his heart set on the place. So, our real estate agent presented the same offer with the conditions lifted, and the sellers bit. Maple Cliffs would be ours in mid-May.
We spent the winter in Toronto, making plans for our new country home. One Saturday afternoon in March of 2021, Michael and I drove out to St. Jacobs to buy furniture. That night, back home in Summerhill, we fell asleep at his house after the 10 p.m. news. I awoke at midnight and felt my phone buzzing. I saw my next-door neighbour had left a voicemail minutes earlier. “Your house is on fire,” he said. “Get here fast.”
We rushed into the night, cold winter air whipping our lungs as we ran up the street. What I saw was a scene out of Law and Order—the flashing of police, fire and ambulance lights against against a dark sky. Four fire tracks trucks were lined up on one side of the narrow street, their big metal sides pulled up and large hoses crisscrossing the pavement. On the other side were an ambulance and two police cars. There was a swarm of paramedics and police officers, and through the crowd, I saw someone propped on a stretcher, covered in blankets. It was my basement tenant, Kait, comforting her pet guinea pig under the blanket. She was physically fine, although shell-shocked.
The team determined the location of the fire—the sauna in the basement apartment—but not the cause. I stopped dead in my tracks as my house came into view. It was a hollow shell. The French doors that led to the lower suite had blown out from the force of the fire; they were hanging from a tree. The brick front was blackened with soot all the way up. The lovely cream moulding around the bay windows were burnt toast, and the first-floor windows were completely gone.
I was numb, with few answers to the first responders’ questions. At 1:30 a.m., the police suggested I leave, call insurance and get as much sleep as I could. The fire department would stay to keep the property secure, but I’d need to return at 9 a.m. and take possession of the house. After a sleepless night, Michael and I were back at the house early. The firefighters waved off my teary thanks for their help. “Fighting fires is what we do, ma’am,” one of them said. He was right out of central casting, with rugged good looks and cropped salt-and-pepper hair. A less pretty-boy Rob Lowe. “It’s why you pay your taxes.”
Terry, a major loss adjuster from Economical Insurance, showed up almost immediately. He told me he’d overseen hurricane recovery in the Caribbean, wildfires in western Canada, tsunamis in Asia. Now he was in charge of my house. He gently suggested I should consider everything in the house lost. But I couldn’t accept it—how could that be, if the fire was contained to the basement apartment and up the front of the house?
That first day, I latched onto practical details. Confirm Kait has a place to stay—check. Board up windows and doors to secure the property—check. Call Enbridge Gas to disconnect the meter, which was so burned in the fire it looks like a Salvador Dali painting—check. As the day wore on, the emergency responders and the contractors left one by one, until only Michael and I were left, standing across the street, staring at the scarred remains of a house.
The next day, the vortex descended. Terry handed the case over to another major loss adjuster, who handed it over to a third. Fire investigators sent by insurance companies—mine, the tenant’s and the next-door neighbour’s, whose house had suffered smoke damage—pored through the debris. Engineers studied the structural damage. Biohazard professionals evaluated air safety. Sub-trades provided quotes. The art was sent off to a restorer. Jewellery to a jeweller.
Each day a new hope was dashed. First it was my library of books, collected over 20 years of working in publishing—unrecoverable. Then my furniture—unrecoverable. I sent my personal memorabilia, including photos, to a document room to see if the worst of the smoke could be removed. Step by step, I reduced my expectations. By the end of the week, I sat outside my house for six hours while the contents adjusters brought out my clothes and shoes, one by one, enquiring when, where and for how much had I bought them, while cars and passersby stopped to gawk. It all had to be thrown away.
When we finished, the lead adjuster lent me her hazmat mask and I finally went in the house. Room by room, furniture upturned, items strewn across the floor with footprints on them, walls black with soot, the smell of smoke so thick it made me gag. The house would have to be rebuilt. At this point, it was a property, not a home.
I moved in with Michael while the wreckage of my house smouldered down the street; they never did nail down the cause of the fire. The following week, Michael was laid low with intense body aches and what felt like razors in his throat. He’d just had his first vaccine shot, and he was sure his symptoms were just side effects. Then, two days later, I awoke, unable to lift my head from the pillow. It felt like the worst migraine I’d ever had: nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, every cell in the body throbbing. Not good, I thought, as Michael headed off, double-masked, to Women’s College Hospital for a Covid-19 test. It was just to rule things out, his doctor said. It was likely just a bug.
Twenty hours later, we were stunned later when his test came back positive. The following day, I got tested, with the same variant result. Now part of the official statistics, we geared up for recovery with recommendations from Michael’s doctor brother. A baby aspirin a day to fight inflammation. A thousand milligrams of high-grade Vitamin C. Four thousand of Vitamin D. Lots of fluids and fresh air. I added in some herbs from my acupuncturist. They cured my nausea and headaches within four hours.
We were fortunate enough not to have breathing problems or fever. I lost my sense of smell, only to have it return 48 hours later. By day seven, the body aches had receded. The scariest part was that sense of unpredictability, of a novel disease whose pathways were largely uncharted. Suddenly, the loss of my house and possessions were framed in a larger context. My hopes were no longer fixated on the successful restoration of my art or childhood photos, but on Michael and me being spared long Covid.
The night of the fire, I was gutted by the loss of my home and belongings I’d collected over a lifetime. A short time later that was eclipsed by fear for my life. Hope for me was restored by Toronto neighbours rallying around, providing solace, despite the fact that the months-long rebuild will inconvenience them too. Hope was family and friends sending food and love when we were quarantined. And hope was Maple Cliffs—the house in Mono that was soon to be ours. We dreamed of wandering tree-canopied country roads without a mask. Of building raised garden beds for my tomato and eggplant seeds. Of meals at long tables outside, gathered with friends.
After months of turmoil, we finally found calm and serenity when we took possession of Maple Cliffs in May. We now spend half the week in Mono, a community of green rolling hills and lavender farm. The landscape is studded with horse farms and riding stables, farmers and specialty growers, organic cheese makers, French restaurants and country pubs. The hummingbirds and roses outside my new Mono writing room are a lovely by-product of the last year’s challenges.
For me, this year was one of reinvention. After two decades spent supporting Canadian writers and publishing, it was my turn to write a novel. I didn’t quite anticipate reinvention by fire and pestilence and relocation. But I’m riding it. My novel, Pull Focus, is out this fall, and I kick off my book tour with launches in Mono and Toronto, followed by events in the U.K. and U.S.
I’ve survived a house fire, Covid and the publication of my first novel. And it’s only September. In the words of Dorothy Parker, “This wasn’t plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.”