The Present

Thirty-seven people perished in a fire yesterday. Survivor accounts of thick, black, choking smoke suddenly pouring out of vents, of fluorescent bulbs exploding overhead, of a lobby plunged into darkness, of people screaming in fear and panic, all of it was difficult to read about, to digest. It’s easy to forget, with  Christmas looming so near, that horrible things happen to people every day, irrespective of season or timing. It’s easy to forget because this is supposed to be a holiday filled with love, with joy, with goodwill to all men and there’s just this sort of happiness in the air, covering everything that’s awful in a year that’s been particularly trying.

It’s not like me to wax poetic about tragedies. I do feel, and strongly, for people who are victims of devastating fate, but I rarely wear my heart on my sleeve about these things. This tragedy hit particularly close to home because the victims were part of what used to be my world – they were call centre agents, wrapping up work for the holidays, eager to go home and spend Christmas with their families, and I know what that felt like. I know what it was – and is – to look forward to seeing family I haven’t seen for months on end, to get through those interminable hours before the work day ends, to think ahead about which bus to take and how long the travel time will be, and to hope against hope that there won’t be too many people travelling along with me, knowing it’s a wasted hope, but willing to brave it anyway, just to be with the ones I love. To know that for these unfortunate agents, that anticipation, that excitement, that innocent joy, was wiped away in an instant by unimaginable horror, unable to reach out to anyone else in the outside world having no access to their phones (it’s common practice in a call centre for agents to leave their phones in their locker, to avoid disrupting the reception), is heartbreaking. One can only imagine the devastation that their loved ones are going through.

The questions will likely come later – why didn’t the fire alarms go off in time? Why didn’t the sprinkler system work*? For such an enclosed space, shouldn’t they have made sure the two fire escapes wouldn’t be impassable? Did they hold fire drills? Were there no emergency extinguishers?

This is not the happiest of Christmas posts, or the thing to get us all in the jubilant mood. It’s a sobering reminder that what is given can be taken away just as easily. It’s a little nudge to be thankful for being alive, because each day is a gift, which is why it’s called the present. (Corny, trite and overused to death, but it doesn’t make it any less true, does it?). So to you and yours, I wish a very Merry Christmas – with the hope that you get to spend time with the ones who love you with all the fierceness that you have in your soul for them. At the end of the day, all manner of material things bedamned, time is the most precious gift of all.

* Facebook feed post, as yet unsubstantiated by actual reports/interviews

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