My mother’s sandbox is beneath the charred rubble from last week’s downtown fire.
She spent months watching from her wheelchair parked in the living room of my 12th-floor apartment as crews tore down the old Greyhound bus terminal on Harrington Street and moved dirt to make way for a new apartment building.
She dubbed the project “Grandma’s Sandbox” and created stories about playing with her grandchildren down there among the front-loaders and diggers.
When workers began pouring concrete and building wooden frames, the project took on new meaning for my mom, Rebekah Nagem. For her, the rise of The Metropolitan symbolized her journey to rebuild strength and walk again.
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“I thought, ‘Every minute that they’re building that up, they’re building me up,’ ” she told me Saturday, two days after the worst fire Raleigh has seen in nearly a century. “We were in a race to see who was going to be built up first, the lot or me.”
Mom hurt her back when she fell at work two summers ago and then developed an auto-immune disorder that left her muscles so weak she couldn’t lift her feet off the floor. She spent a month at WakeMed Rehabilitation Hospital before she came to stay with my husband and me last June.
So much was unknown about her condition and the prospects for recovery. She figured one of three things would happen: She would walk again; she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair or she would die.
As crews began to demolish the bus terminal, Mom took notice.
“I started thinking about how that represented to me somehow the tearing down of my body and my abilities to do what I had always done for 67 years,” she said.
One morning, construction trucks were busy in her sandbox. As one truck would pull off with a load of dirt, another would take its place. She thought then they were carrying away the last of her former self – a child-care specialist who loved other people’s children as her own, a grandmother who happily chased after toddlers.
“I watched them for hours, I remember, that day,” she said. “And it was just like, ‘I’m never going to be the same, that site is never going to be the same. Grandma’s Sandbox is gone.”
Physical therapists came to the apartment a few times a week to help Mom work her muscles. She no longer needed my husband to lift her from the wheelchair onto her bed when she became strong enough to slide from one place to another.
Sitting in front of the living room window, she would do her resistance-band exercises and check out the progress across the street. For a while, Mom said, the site had seemed empty and sad – post-sandbox stage.
But then construction started. Crews poured concrete for a parking garage and elevator shafts before the frame of the building took shape.
“I saw them bringing in materials. I saw hard hats and vests and people just working so hard to bring something out of the nothingness,” she said. “I would do my exercises and think, ‘As that gets built up, I’m being built up – physically, emotionally, mentally.’ ”
After my husband and I got home from work one evening, we heard my mom call for us from the living room.
“I’m standing!” she cried.
There she was, upright, leaning on a walker for support.
Everything changed the day she found the strength to lift herself out of that chair. Mom’s short strolls through our home gradually turned into walks through the grocery store. Her physical therapists urged her to start driving again.
Mom left her wheelchair at my place and moved back to her North Raleigh apartment in December, confident she no longer needed our help. She lost track of The Metropolitan’s progress.
On Friday, the morning after the fire, she texted me and said she couldn’t stop crying.
“As it burned, it hurt my soul,” she told me. “It still hurts, looking at it. We had grown up together.”
Mom hopes the apartments are rebuilt. She won’t see the progress each day as the rubble is hauled away and wooden frames are redone.
But I don’t think she needs the building anymore. She is like the concrete parking garage that survived the fire, standing tall and sturdy above the rubble.