When my mom's house burned down, I expected the man I was dating to leave me. Instead, the tragedy fast-tracked our relationship.

When my mom's house burned down, I expected the man I was dating to leave me. Instead, the tragedy fast-tracked our relationship.
  • It was the morning after my boyfriend's birthday when my mom's aide call me.

  • Her house had burned down and everything was gone.

  • We spent the next weeks living out of hotels helping piece her life together again.

I got the call the morning after my boyfriend's birthday. I had booked a luxe Boston hotel for a mini staycation, and as we lay in bed blissfully contemplating where to have brunch, I answered the phone to hear my mother's care aide in a frantic, breathless tone.

"Everything is gone," she told me. I lurched upright, like a cartoon character waking from a terrible nightmare. "What do you mean?" It's funny how much things can change in an instant. A minute ago, our only dilemma was where to get pancakes. Now, we had to figure out how to navigate a devastating fire that engulfed my mother's house and everything in it. We'd only been dating for three months.

At the time, I didn't know that Bryan and I would spend the next two weeks in Connecticut, living out of hotels, trying to help my mom piece her life back together and find a place to live. While I fully expected him to bail on the relationship after experiencing all the challenges firsthand that will come with my complicated family, the opposite happened. It brought us closer. In a way, the fire functioned like a fast-forward button for our relationship.

I worried about what he'd think of my mother

While I dated a small handful of guys in my 20s, almost none met my mom — partly because I was afraid that if they did, they'd run.

My mother has many positive qualities, but she also struggles with a number of mental health conditions as well as physical disabilities and a traumatic brain injury from a car accident, so her behavior is entirely unpredictable. After I started falling in love with Bryan, I was extra careful about keeping him at arm's length from my complicated family for as long as possible. I didn't want anything to compromise the happy and healthy relationship we were building.

Man and woman embracing
Bryan and the author's mother embrace in the hotel room just a few days after the fire.Courtesy of the author

But after this tragedy struck, I no longer had a choice. Just as I began mentally preparing myself to face the fallout alone, Bryan began packing his things. "Good thing I took off work today," he said. "We should hit the road."

Upon arriving at the hospital, staff informed us that my mother had been taken to the behavioral health unit. Although he didn't ask questions, I could see the wheels turning inside Bryan's mind. Wasn't she just being treated for possible smoke inhalation? Why was she admitted into psychiatric care? After speaking privately with a social worker about my mother's history of opioid and alcohol misuse, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder, I think he started to get the picture.

When the nurse finally ushered us into her tiny white room with no windows, my mother began weeping. She had put on her johnny gown backward, so part of her breast was visible, and since she hadn't put her dentures in, she was toothless. I held her for several minutes and wondered what Bryan must be thinking. "It's not too late," I told him with my eyes. "This is your chance to get out."

After my mother learned she was required to stay the night to be monitored, she began screaming and swearing at the nurse, who asked to speak to me in the other room. When I came back, I found Bryan gently stroking her bare back with one hand while she rested her head on his shoulder.

I was used to handling crises by myself

Over the course of my upbringing, my mother had to be hospitalized many times for various physical and mental issues. As her only child with a mainly absent father, the responsibility always fell on me to figure out how to handle things.

I got used to this role — to the point where reaching out for help was not even an option that crossed my mind.

One night, after my mom threw a tantrum in her hotel room, I told Bryan, "You can go back to Boston any time, you know." To my surprise, he seemed offended by this remark.

Allowing someone else to share the burdens felt uncomfortable at first. But very quickly, I began to embrace the idea that maybe I didn't have to cope with these challenges by myself anymore.

We got to see how we worked as a team under pressure

Over the course of those few weeks in Connecticut, we faced numerous setbacks. All of my mother's medications for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and various other ailments had been incinerated in the fire, so we had to arrange for refills. Neither my mother nor I could emotionally handle seeing the remains of the condo, so Bryan met with the adjuster to assess the damage. We also set up a new bank account for the insurance advance and found a social worker to secure her new housing.

Meanwhile, we dealt with my unraveling mother, in withdrawal from her meds and overwhelmed with grief. I became accustomed to calls from the hotel manager regarding complaints of her frequent smoking, screaming, and sobbing in the middle of the night. When she threatened to kick us out of the hotel, Bryan said, "I'll take care of it," and marched down to her office. I never got one of those calls again.

Ultimately, the experience made our relationship stronger

Not even two years into our relationship, Bryan and I began looking at houses together. After buying a condo in 2020, we got married on June 2, 2023 — five years after the fire. Although we've only been together for almost six years at this point, we often joke that it feels like decades, given all we've had to overcome.

Couple on wedding day
The couple's teamwork in the wake of the house fire showed them they were ready for marriage.Courtesy of Riany Haffey

Navigating that experience together ended up serving as the ultimate test for our relationship.

In my vows, I told him that seeing how we worked so well together as a team — and under extremely stressful circumstances — gave me confidence for our future. If we can manage to clothe, feed, and care for my distraught, disabled, emotionally volatile, and homeless mother, and find her a safe and happy living situation, then I'm pretty sure we can get through anything.

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