On July 23, 2018, in the seaside town of Mati in Greece, Zoe Holohan and her husband of four days, Brian Westropp O’Callaghan, were enjoying the beginning of their honeymoon. Then disaster struck. Unprecedented wildfires swept across the area, killing 102 people. Zoe and Brian fled their villa, chased by the flames, running for their lives. Ultimately Zoe was one of the few survivors from the area, having been miraculously rescued from the boot of a burning car just seconds from death. She suffered severe burns all over her face and body, and her beloved husband Brian lost his life before her eyes. In her remarkable book, Zoe reveals the emotional journey of grappling with the loss of her true love and partner, learning how to walk, talk and use her limbs again, and a future facing PTSD and a heavily scarred body. As the Smoke Clears is a deeply personal journey through a life-altering year.
The Kindness of Strangers
A stone’s throw from home, my local SuperValu store is where I’ve always done most of my grocery shopping.
It was always a friendly store, I knew maybe one or two of the staff by name, but even so I was supremely stressed about my first visit back there after leaving hospital. This was to be my first real venture out of the apartment. Initially, I relied purely on grocery deliveries, being reluctant to step outside my front door.
That was all fine and dandy, the service proved really useful, but it just wasn’t quite the same as doing my own shop. I like to feel the fruit and veg, to give them a quick sniff when nobody was looking, to squeeze the bread gently, and I’m a total sucker for browsing the special-offers aisle – if it’s a bargain, it’s going in the basket.
It has been said to me on more than one occasion that I’m a control freak, so perhaps the real impetus to break my agoraphobia was that I hated the idea of a total stranger choosing my groceries. If I wanted to take back charge, I’d have to do it myself.
While I wasn’t quite reclusive yet, I certainly wasn’t embracing any elements of my previous life.
Outside visits by family or close pals, I led an isolated existence, avoiding places or situations that could trigger uncontrollable emotions. I was extremely cautious about where I went, what I saw and with whom I spoke.
As Sonya, my psychiatrist, had explained during our session, this avoidance tactic was my way of controlling ever-increasing anxiety and was a common symptom of PTSD.
Seemingly normal, everyday activities became huge challenges, so I just bypassed them entirely. However, I couldn’t avoid my supermarket forever, even though I was terrified of everything from people staring at my strange appearance to songs playing on the tannoy that could remind me of Brian or Dad. I was even worried about how I’d react if I spotted certain items on the shelves (like the damn digestive biscuits Brian inexplicably loved).
Sonya decided that this was to be my first big challenge and recommended that I enter the lion’s den with a friend in tow. Once again, Caroline stepped up to the plate and after a ludicrous amount of time prepping – I wore so much make-up, my cheek could have been used for fingerprinting – I was eventually coerced out the door. With my crutch and my shopping list firmly gripped in my right hand, off we went.
Initially, the shopping trip was much like any other: we grabbed a trolley and hobbled slowly into the fresh food section. So far, so good! With Caroline in the driving seat, so to speak, we navigated the aisles, while I loaded up with enough groceries to feed an army. There were ‘gulp’ moments for sure, when I saw Brian’s biscuits my stomach did a turn and I closed my eyes entirely. When we reached the pet food section, I couldn’t bear the sight of Meow’s favourite tins. So we dodged a few molehills for sure, but hadn’t yet encountered the mountain, the biggest challenge: the dreaded tills.
Once I had completed my shop and moved towards the tills with my overflowing trolley, I realised that I could no longer avoid eye contact with the staff. I had cunningly spent the entire time staring intently at my shopping list, but when we came to pay I could no longer pretend to be the invisible woman. My heartrate sped up with anxiety. Then came the crucial moment that made all the difference.
The shop assistant, who was busy scanning the items, suddenly looked up at me and stopped serving mid-stream. I had known her previously, we’d always passed the time of day, yet in that moment she seemed stunned. Looking at me, unable to speak, she stood up, walked around the till area and hugged me tightly, but very gently, and with tears in her eyes welcomed me back. She used my name. I wondered how she knew it, forgetting about the newspaper coverage. As quickly as she had stood up, she turned on her heel and sat back down to complete her task. Soon another staff member emerged from nowhere, the ever-smiling store manager who always had a joke to hand. He too very cautiously, yet clearly emotionally, welcomed me back. With his voice cracking, he told me they’d been awaiting my return and that if I needed anything at all, they’d be there for me.
I looked around and a few more people had gathered, some offering their respects for Brian, others saying nothing but giving me the nod or tapping me on my back: a show of support and a demonstration of true humanity at its best. They’ll probably never know how important that day was, how much their reaction meant. They broke that terrifying spell that hung over my head like a guillotine. Yes, I was still scared, but at least my first escapade out of home had been a successful one. I held my breath and smiled, determined not to cry. As we left the shop, even Caroline exhaled a sigh. I guess she was relieved there were no emotional meltdowns.
After that, my journey back into local life became much easier. I registered with my local pharmacy – goodness knows I’d be spending a lot of time there in the future – and again that visit was filled with hugs and warm wishes. It was comforting to know people were looking out for me. I felt safe in my little village again. These were my neighbours, in every sense. They didn’t stare at my wig or bandages and spoke to me as they would anybody else. The only thing that took a bit of getting used to was that everyone seemed to know my name. I heard ‘Zoe’ everywhere I went. That was okay – ultimately, it reminded me I was still alive.
Something else to get used to was receiving random hugs. I was admiring a woman’s dog one afternoon on the street outside my block. I didn’t know her personally, though she looked vaguely familiar (the woman that is, not the dog). Anyway, just as I was telling her what an adorable pooch she had, out of the blue she hugged me. She told me that I was very brave and that everyone was behind me and then jogged off at a rapid pace. Perhaps she was embarrassed. I hope she wasn’t, it was terribly sweet.
Something similar happened when friends and I went to eat in our local pub. The waitress, who would eventually become a true friend, and who was also touched by great tragedy as she lost her son around the same time as Brian died, offered her condolences and very gently took me by my hand, promising that I would be alright. To some, these experiences may seem intrusive, but to me they were moments of genuine kindness and love. They gave me the strength to keep going.
Then there was the practical help that came from unknown and unexpected sources. A GoFundMe page was set up by a total stranger, a man called Derek Malone. Derek had been in college with Brian when he was studying for an MBA in business. While I was still in Greece, Derek set up this page and the funds, which I only became aware of many months later, were financially a bit of a life-saver. Having been cleaned out after the wedding and honeymoon, I was overwhelmed with bills. Top of the heap were the funeral expenses and related costs. As if by some miracle, just as those debts were getting to an angst-inducing level, Derek got in touch and presented me with the GoFundMe donation. There was enough to cover all of Brian’s funeral and transportation costs and a little left over to erase some of the other debts that had been piling up while I was in hospital.
I cried with relief as the very patient funeral director was finally paid in full and I wondered if Derek, and all those who donated, would ever know how grateful I am and how their generosity saved the day.
That was my little village, my fortress of safety and kindness. There couldn’t be a better locality and I dearly love all those who showed me such tender care. Sadly, I couldn’t stay there all the time and there were occasions when I would have to wander out into the big bad world, where I’d have to get used to less pleasant encounters. Out there, strangers did stop and stare at me in the street, as though I were a freak of nature. It could have been the scars on my face that caught their eye, the bandages or, more than likely, the wig that had gone temporarily astray.
They can be cantankerous little creatures, these wigs. Whatever caused them to goggle, initially it made me terribly upset. In time, though, I worked out that unwelcome glances were just par for the course.
I knew that when it all became too much, I could always retreat to my village, where I was safe and accepted. The kindnesses I had been shown there made it just that little bit easier to face the rest of the world – scars, wigs and all!