Monday, November 19, 2012

How I lost Everything, and Why I'm Grateful

Love is a lot like fire. A small flame will be extinguished with the slightest puff of air, but put wind to wildfire, and watch what happens. In my experience, tragedy was the wind- the small wind that killed every small flame, the Santa Anas that caused love to erupt in furious glory. This is a story about fire, and passion, and total devastation, and love.

On the morning of November 18th, 1994, mine was the happy family who seemingly had it all; a strong marriage, two kids (one girl, one boy), a gaggle of adopted rescue pets. My husband Troy and I each had our own businesses that we ran from the large home we were renting. We volunteered at our kids’ schools and in our communities, threw fabulous parties, took business trips, had lots of friends and a busy social life.

But that night, we went to bed in a burning house. A freak electrical short would begin smoldering in the walls as we slept, erupting into hellfire in the middle of the night. The fire pressed us up against the windows, gasping for air, our skin burning. We were forced to jump from second story ledges with our four-year old son, onto the cement below. (Our daughter, thankfully, was at a sleepover). The inferno raged, windows blowing out, our animals trapped inside, as we stood at the side of the road, helpless, sobbing, unable to get past the walls of flames to save them. Troy put his arm around me, wiped the tears from my face and said, “God’s got them now…and we will come back stronger.” I wanted to believe him, with everything in me I wanted to believe. But just the night before, I’d had a horrible, vivid dream that we would lose everything. Little did I know, fire was only the beginning.

We were released from the hospital the next day, November 19th,  injured, homeless, jobless. We had not a single possession. Our lives were a blank canvas, at once terrifying and liberating.

We thought we had lost it all that night; our five beloved pets, our memories, our accomplishments, both our jobs, and our home- (with no renter’s insurance). But in the coming year, we would suffer much greater loss that no insurance policy could have protected us from: the betrayal by friends, the loss of faith and trust, and perhaps the hardest to endure – the loss of self.

Until that night in November, I was the strong, independent woman who owned a national business, volunteered for my kids’ school, flew to New York every season to sell my clothing line, was the Daisy Scout leader, and singing at gigs on weekends. I was also the woman who had been carrying a secret all her life. Standing toe to toe with Death awakened me. I could no longer hide from the truth of my own life. First I would have to unravel completely to find out who I was, what I was made of. Everything I once felt certain of would be shaken loose like soil from the roots of an upturned tree, leaving me raw, exposed. Eventually I would have to find a new way to take root within myself.

While busying myself with so-called important things, I had managed to outrun my past for a long time. But with all my distractions burned away, all that was left was the real me- the girl whose father was in prison, whose mother worked nights in a bar and had to use food stamps to buy groceries. The truth was that I had been born to two teenaged rebels – that my conception was a terrible mistake my grandfather had tried to end. My real name and birth certificate were hidden. I was told by my mother to never tell anyone who I really was, who my father was, where I came from. I obeyed.

Tragedy weakened my fault lines - allowing my inner demons to come out and dance. The strong image I had once projected evaporated like the mirage it was. Friends who had been attracted by my strength and perfect image were repulsed by my weakness, and began to pull away one by one, leaving me to experience this time of intense loss alone. And then, as one catastrophe after the next hit, I unraveled. I became clinically depressed, struggling with persistent suicidal thoughts. I didn’t know it then, but I was in the grip of post- traumatic stress disorder from both our fire and my childhood. In the coming years, I would have to fight harder than I ever knew I could to pull myself back to center- to be a woman my husband and children could be proud of.

My sweet, kind and generous husband, who was and still is the love of my life, had grown up in a Brady Bunch world. He had never been faced with anything like the catastrophes we endured. The next several years would test his endurance and courage, and his ability to love me.

Together, Troy and I worked hard to come back from the edge of disaster, but experienced such a long run of bad luck we began to wonder if someone had put a hex on us. We were ripped off by shady landlords. We lost three homes in the span of two years. While I was homeless, my business partner embezzled all the profits from our company, destroying me financially. We lost our credit, were forced into bankruptcy, and, because life has a sardonic sense of timing, both our cars blew up (and then one was repossessed) and our son needed surgery. And yet, through all this, we experienced beauty in the wreckage. There were new friends that showed up at just the right time, work opportunities that saved us when we were on the brink. And there were perfect, joyful moments with our children that gave us hope. There were times when we were so destitute, our utilities were cut off. Instead of crumbling in defeat, we chose to pitch a tent in the backyard and camp with the kids, roasting marshmallows and looking at the stars. Some days knocked us flat with depression. But on other days, we got up and played guitars, wrote songs, made art, and had parties- just the four of us. With nothing, we created, and celebrated, and found out that our hearts had the amazing ability to regenerate after being shattered.

Tragedy brings out the best and worst in people. It brings out the do-gooders and opportunistic scavengers alike. It shows you who your true friends are, and who they aren’t. And it widens every crack in the foundation of a marriage, until you wake one morning to find the Grand Canyon running straight through your living room.

Troy and I had a deep, soul-mate kind of love. We were optimistic people, believing in the golden rule, that all people were basically good at heart. We believed that living honest lives and being good people would insure us against tragedy. But life taught us  otherwise. Bad things do happen to good people. People are not always good at heart- in fact, some are just plain rotten. In addition to the stresses upon us, our faith was shaken, our belief systems shattered. We had each brought our fair share of baggage into the marriage, and it was all dumped out on the floor now.  Weakened and depressed, we were no longer able to be a light for each other. We couldn’t keep each other afloat when both of us were drowning.

After three years of taking life’s punches, we were pushed to the point of separating. Troy packed the car with his belongings and we tearfully broke the news to our children. But when it came time for him to drive away, neither of us could move. It was too painful to stay together, and too painful to part. On that day, we had to make a choice between love and fear. After days of crying and soul searching, we chose love. We found ours was a big flame, the winds of tragedy only making it more fierce.

Fire has a way of purifying and reforming. During a forest fire, the intense heat causes seedpods to burst open. After years of lying dormant, only catastrophe could make them take root. The scorched earth then becomes fertile soil, making the forest lush with new and different life. So it was with our lives. In the aftermath of all that loss, new seeds were planted that blossomed in ways we never could have foreseen.

Faith is not something that can be manufactured, or gleaned from books. Faith is hard earned, and, like courage, like a beating heart, is a muscle that must be worked. I had to try with everything in me to believe, when there was nothing to believe in. If I didn’t, my children would grow up in a hopeless world, and that was unthinkable. For their sake, I had to find my faith. I had to believe that there was a reason for everything we had lost. I had to open my eyes to see that there was hope in the midst of every crisis. There was the kindness of others who came to lift us back on our feet, like stars that shone brightly in the darkness. There was the discovery that, although we had lost everything, we still had our ability to dream, to love, to create, to hope, to remember. No fire could take that from us.

Tiny sprigs of hope began to spring up through the cracks, when we made the choice to risk our hearts and believe in goodness again. And gradually, because of that faith, things began to shift.

After the bankruptcy we worked diligently rebuilding our credit, and four and a half years after the fire, on the day of our tenth wedding anniversary, we bought our dream home- a cabin nestled in the side of a mountain- it’s foundation bolted on rock. We renewed our marriage vows, and were given the keys to our home.

Eighteen years have passed since the fire. Cristen and Taylor have grown up, and we have since been unexpectedly blessed with another son, Evan, as well as a grandson, Ayumu. My house is once again alive with rescued pets, cluttered with sentimental treasures, my photo albums full with new memories. There is a comfortable distance separating us from that time, and yet it will always be a part of who we are. We are stronger now, and dare I say, although I would never want to re-live those years, we are better for having lived through it. I found faith and courage in the ashes. I found my true self. Our marriage, our family, and most importantly, our optimism and spirit survived. There is not much that can shake us anymore. We shrug off challenges others might view as catastrophic. We know what catastrophe is. We can still see it in our rear view mirror.

What I learned is that every tragedy holds a gift, an opportunity for us to learn and grow. I believed this the day after the house burned down, in a Pollyanna sort of way. I didn’t know then how hard I would have to mine for it, how deep I would have to dig, how much I’d have to lose to find myself. Writing my book (What Doesn’t Kill You- How I lost everything and found myself) has helped me to see clearly the beautiful moments- the tiny miracles in the middle of mayhem that bloomed like lilies in the muck.

I’ve learned that life offers no guarantees, and no insurance policy will truly protect us from unexpected tragedies. Our possessions, job titles, our stations in life are fleeting, and even our relationships with those we most love can change. All we really have is what we carry inside us; our spirit, our courage, faith, and our ability to love.

Here is what I now know for sure: Every day that we are alive is a new beginning. And just like that forest after a wildfire, there is a seed of greatness in every one of us, waiting to break open. It is never, ever too late to bloom.

We still live in our mountain home, cemented in rock.
It is one block from the fire station. 



  1. Hollye,

    I had no idea. Thanks for sharing this beautiful, inspiring story. As you have blessed are very blessed.

    1. Thank you Judy. It took me a long time to be able to talk about it, but now I'm glad to be able to share it. I do feel very blessed.

  2. I feel rocked to the core. You two are incredible.

    It's so painful to hear about "friends" and family members who turn away in times of trouble... and so heartening when the right people then step forward.

    Such a beautifully written piece. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to read it.

    You are really an inspiration.

    1. Thank you Liz. One of those friends who turned away has come back, and we've had a beautiful, tearful reunion. She is one of the miracles in all of this. She taught me about redemption, and that forgiveness is always possible.

  3. this piece was my first introduction to the incredible gift that is Hollye Dexter. I re-read this this morning with goosebumps that had nothing to do with the cold air coming in through the open window. your writing is breathtaking--your interior even more so. this is a stunningly honest and relate-able piece. We may not all have had this particular experience, but we have all been burned, and we are all called to walk through the metaphorical fire. this is beauty and so are you

  4. Lori,

    We've all lived this in one way or another. If you live long enough, life will strip you down, one ego-layer at a time. And that can actually be a beautiful thing.

    love you.

  5. I can't imagine anyone would ever turn their backs on either you or Troy. You are both such loving, sweet and talented people and have so much to offer to society. There are far more people who cherish your existance than those who don't, so forget the others who ever tried to shatter your spirit. Continue to write and do all the things you love, because so many are watching from afar. All the best to you and Troy.

  6. What sweet words, Mindy. Thank you, and we are wishing you all the very best that life has to offer, too!

  7. Hi, I am a young philosophy student doing a report on animal rights. I discovered your blog via researching all that you and your family have done fighting for your dog's rights. I just wanted to let you know that your Stitch story has resonated with me and many other dog owners, and we created a petition in your honor:

    Once again, thank you for all of your courage :)

    1. Thank you so much! Stitch is still safe with us, and we will fight till the very end to keep it that way. Thank you so much for your support- it really keeps us going. xo

  8. Holly:
    After such tragedies, obstacles and challenges - there aren't many people who would write these words: "We still had our ability to dream, to love, to create, to hope, to remember. No fire could take that from us." These are beautiful words and an encouraging message of hope to anyone facing life's challenges and uncertainties.

    I find it more than coincidental that at the Eighteenth Anniversary of your life changing event you share this powerful message. 1994 was not a good year for me either. Little did I know what happened in April & November of that year would be what changed my life forever. It took me 15 years to learn what you learned. These are the words I shared in my book after learning - we create our lives by the way we Think and how we respond to everything that happens in our lives.

    "Having peace in our lives is only possible when we are able to understand that bad things happen. Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it in a way that it doesn’t rob us of our happiness."

    I was so happy to have my book release party on April 20, 2012 (the 18th anniversary of my brother's murder.) I couldn't find your book on Amazon. I would love to buy a copy, where might I do that?

    God Bless you for choosing to be a student of Life, rather than a victim.
    Connie Williams

    1. Wow Connie, you've got me curious about the significance of this 18th anniversary. It must be a powerful year. And of course, now I'm curious about your book...

  9. Beautiful, heartbreaking, uplifting. I had no idea how much tragedy you had endured. You are an inspiration. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Oh thank you Maureen! I was hoping people would read it as inspiring and not depressing- because I am richer for having lived it.

  10. How can I purchase your book?

    1. Dear friend,

      Thank you for asking. I'm trying to get Wind to Wildfire published right now. It is quite a long and frustrating process. But I do have another book out called Dancing at the Shame Prom, if you'd like to check that one out. : ) Here is the link to the amazon page:

  11. Hey. I'm actually a fan of your son's music but somehow I stubled upon your blog and really love your writing. I will be sure to look into your books sometime. I just wanted to say that this testimony is beautiful and very inspiring and thank you so much for sharing. :)

  12. Hi I would like to know what type of surgery or treatment yall received or needed for my fire saftey project

    1. Hi Cora,

      We were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning, which almost killed us. The treatment is oxygen and IV fluids until the poison is flushed from your system.
      I was treated for second degree burns (ointment and bandages), and my husband Troy had an ankle injury from jumping out the window. His ankle was wrapped and he was on crutches for a while.

  13. I'm 70 years old. After reading your story I found out that losing my home because I can't pay the taxes is not the worst thing in the world. I was devastated when I found out I had to leave my home and move into an apartment. After reading your story I'm much more calm. Thank you thank you for your inspirational story, I would love yo read your book buy unfortunately my eyesight is not good. I wish it was an audiobook. Again thank you for getting me out of my depression. I will still be sad to leave my home but know there is life after the move.


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