THIS is a story of how you can recover after your worst nightmare. It’s the story of a mother whose three children died. Madonna Badger, 49, was an art director, for people like Calvin Klein, and owned a successful company in New York.
Two Christmases ago, she was still the mother of three girls, Lily, aged 9, and twins Sarah and Grace, aged 7.
Madonna and her ex-husband, Matthew Badger, were on good terms, and Madonna had started a relationship with Mike Borcina, who had renovated her new home in Stamford, Connecticut. Madonna was the daughter of Lomer and Pauline Johnson, who had been happily married forever.
On Christmas Eve, 2011, Madonna’s children and parents were with her and Mike at the house in Connecticut — they were wrapping presents, baking biscuits, reading bedtime stories, preparing for the big day.
Then, they all went to bed.
Madonna Badger, who survived the overnight house fire on Christmas Eve 2011 that killed her three daughters and her parents
In the middle of the night, Madonna awoke, because her room was full of smoke — there was still scaffolding outside her bedroom, from the house renovations, so she climbed out, and went to her children’s bedroom, but she couldn’t access it.
The fire had spread to the third floor, and the smoke and flames were too intense. She remembers being taken to hospital by firemen, and believed that her children and parents were safely in the garden below.
On Christmas Day, a doctor at the local hospital told her that her three girls, and her mother and father, were all dead.
Her immediate family had been killed in the fire — only she and Mike had survived.
Writing in American Vogue about what happened, she says “even today, I wake up most mornings and I’m back there trying to figure out how to save everybody, or thinking about what I could have done differently.
“Why didn’t I climb into bed with my kids? Why didn’t I check on them in the night? Why didn’t I smell the smoke? Why did I choose that house?”
In January, 2012, Madonna Badger buried her children and parents. She did the eulogy for her children at a church on New York’s Fifth Avenue, where Rufus Wainwright sang, and people from her work paid their respects — Calvin Klein, Vera Wang, Lou Reed, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hundreds of mourners. She kept it together for the funeral, focusing on it as an event. The story was so tragic that it received huge media coverage.
Then, she collapsed. Acting out what the psychiatric profession calls a suicide gesture, she attempted to overdose, and was sent to a locked psychiatric ward, where her story made doctors and nurses break down in tears. She ended up at a trauma treatment centre near Nashville, her hair falling out.
She was crawling with grief and survivor guilt, her suicidal intent undiminished.
It was there she met a psychiatrist, who helped her, who had some inkling of what she might be feeling.
Eventually, she called some old friends, a married couple who lived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and they came and collected her. Driving her away from the psychiatric hospital, the husband said “look, you can stay here with us as long as you want, but under one condition: you have to promise that you won’t kill yourself.” I said “OK. I promise I won’t kill myself.” She had no idea if she would be able to honour this promise.
Somehow, Madonna kept her word.
Three hearses for Lily, aged 9, and twins Sarah and Grace, aged 7.
Her ex-husband, the father of her three girls, was bringing a lawsuit against Borcina, who had helped renovate the house; the relationship with Borcina didn’t last, but neither did Madonna show any resentment towards her ex-husband for his actions. Instead, she understood his grief. Meanwhile, he set up a charitable foundation in the name of his three girls.
In the following year, Madonna did everything she could to recover.
Therapy every day, yoga, acupuncture. “I was willing to try anything to feel better,” she says. Every time she smiled or laughed, she was overcome with guilt, and she frequently imagined being visited by her daughters, which she found greatly comforting and reassuring.
With her friend in Little Rock, she began a work project, sifting through warehouses of old silver, glassware and antiques. This required her to remain in the present, and gave her mind and her days structure and focus.
“That job saved my life,” she says, simply. “Little by little, I was getting my brain back online.”
Except Christmas was looming — the first anniversary of the fire and all that unimaginable loss. Even the winter light, the shortening autumn evenings, were traumatising her.
There was no way she could have gone through a traditional Christmas with her loss and grief still so new.
So she went to Thailand — not on a holiday, but to spend time at an orphanage for girls aged 2 to 17, near Chang Mai, in the north. The garage of her old home had not burned down, and had been full of her daughters’ toys — she packaged them up and took them to the orphanage.
At Christmas, 30 young Thai girls, all of whom had experienced appalling loss themselves, and worse, sang a prayer for her. She says it cracked her wide open,
“When I looked into the girls’ faces, I saw my children,” she writes. “It broke me open in a way I still can’t fully explain. But if these little girls were living their lives with joy and happiness, I realised — and if they could give their love to me after all they had been through — how could I possibly feel sorry for myself?”
Instead, she resolved to help others.
And she went back to work. Having tried a new career as an antiques dealer, she realised her talents lay in the company she had set up back in New York, and so she left Little Rock and settled into her working life in Manhattan.
And she is getting married. An old friend of hers turned up, and they began hanging out. Then going out.
Then he asked her to marry him, and she said yes — they hope to marry next September. Photographs of the couple show a nice-looking, middle-aged pair enjoying each other’s company — like normal people.
It’s been two years, but Madonna is intermittently re-experiencing what normal feels like.
Not that this will ever negate the sudden, random violence of her loss: “I’m also still a mom, and I’m still my parents’ daughter,” she says. “Just because they’re all gone, doesn’t mean that any of that stops, and what better way to honour their lives than to not give up?”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved