Sitting in a prison cell would make anyone look back and consider what went wrong, but for me it’s obvious. Don’t get me wrong, before that horrible New Year’s day, I had made a few mistakes, but nothing too serious. To the people who knew me, it probably seemed like I had it all under control. Not many of them knew about the undercurrent of sorrow and shame that flowed beneath the surface. Those who did know just assumed that I was strong, and I wish that were true. I had lost sight of my source of strength, though He never left me.
My undoing took place on a cold New Year’s Day in Denison, Texas in 2002. Around 3 AM, I awoke with a start. From somewhere in my two-story apartment, I could hear a faint cry coming from Natalie, my six-year-old. As soon as I sat up, I became extremely disoriented, feeling as though I was upside down, underwater.
There was no air, no oxygen at all, and panic immediately set in. Natalie had been in bed with me that night, but I could not see a thing or feel hurt anywhere. What I didn’t realize was that the fire started downstairs, about an hour before hand, growing into a blazing inferno, making its way up the stairs and packing my small apartment with thick, black smoke. (I found out later, my new smoke alarms never went off because they were defective.)
I frantically search for my little girl, like a blind person, arms outstretched, before I could make it out of my room to the room where my one-year-old son Jonathan was sleeping. I was overcome by the toxic smoke and passed out. Moments later, I either heard or sensed… something. I’m not sure what urged me to “Get up!”
When I picked myself up off the floor I came across the window and opened it, trying to get some much needed oxygen. With that breath of air, I could scream for help and then go renew the search for my kids. Except that as soon as I opened it, all the smoke from the apartment billowed out, engulfing me, surrounding me, and I still could not breathe. This forced me to keep leaning further out, until I fell out of the window altogether, and onto the small roof that was over my front door. Both sides of this tiny overhang were ablaze, which caught my night gown on fire so I had to rip it off.
My neighbors had crowded beneath me by this time, urging me to jump. There was no way I was going to leave Natalie and Jonathan up there all alone and helpless, yet I couldn’t pull myself back up into the window either. A minute later, the first fire truck pulled up on the side where children’s bedroom was. (I lived on the corner.)
They entered through their second story window and shortly after that everyone started yelling, “Jump! They got your kids! They got them! Jump!”
Right before the second fire truck pulled up, I did just that. I jumps, never feeling thing when I get the concrete below, breaking my back and both legs. All that really mattered was that my babies were out, safe and sound. That’s the last thing I remembered until three weeks later.
The next 20 days, I remained in a medically induced coma in the ICU, at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. From what I was told later on, I had nearly died and the doctors had to bring me back more than once. A priest had even been called in to give me my last rights.
My brother’s concerned face was the first thing I saw when I woke up. Anxious to hug and hold my little ones, I looked around the hospital room for them, expecting to hear their playful chatter or see them running up to my bed, all giggles and smiles. Unable to speak due to the trauma my throat and lungs had been through, I looked up to Joseph, my brother, with the question in my eyes. He could only gently shake his head, trying not to cry himself, as he told me that they were gone. I cried and hoarse, mournful sobs filled the hallway outside my room. I’ve always blamed myself for not saving my children, and I probably always will.
The anguish was so excruciating, so intense, that I did anything to soften the blow and alcohol was the crutch I reached for. Thus began my downward spiral.
With the exception of a few mishaps, I was able to hold myself together reasonably well. Perhaps, in retrospect, my self-destruction was inevitable. I missed the funeral because I was in a coma, but it’s doubtful that type of “closure” would’ve made any difference in the end.
To this day, I don’t know what started the fire and I declined when a few attorneys approached me wanting to suit first alert to me that seems like blood money, an abomination to profit from the death of the children’s lives I was supposed to save.
Eleven years later, during the anniversary of the fire, and a month after my divorce was final, I got drunk. That night I did “Ice” (the drug) for the first time. The rest is history.
Natalie and Jonathan would’ve wanted better for me, not to mention the three children I’ve had since then. There’s no excuse for acting like a fool. They needed me and I let them down.
I was so mad at God for so long, but months into my incarceration, He became my rock, my comforter. None of this was His fault and when everyone abandoned me after my arrest, He stayed by my side. He’s given me a new perspective and hope. I’m eager to get out of prison (win my appeal), live life to the fullest, stop dwelling on my past and learn from it instead.
A quote by Dean Koontz, my favorite author, recently spoke to my broken heart, offering encouragement and peace. It touches on several aspects of my struggle and it goes:
“… guilt is deserved only when the effort to resist evil is never made. Yet the human heart is disheartened by the most unreasonable self-judgments, because even when we take on giants, we too often confuse failure with fault, which I know all too well. The only way back from such a bleak despondency is to shape humiliation into humility, to strive always to triumph over the darkness, while never forgetting that the honor and the beauty are more in the striving than in the winning. When triumph at last comes, our efforts alone could not have won the day without that grace which surpasses all understanding.”
Dean Koontz, “Odd Interlude”
Christine White is serving 20 years in Texas for Aggravated Robbery.
Christine White #1884794
1500 State School Road
Gatesville, TX 76598