We often take some of the most important things in life for granted. We sometimes forget that our security, our health, and the things we build over a lifetime can all disappear in a single moment.
For one couple, an apartment fire took away nearly everything they had. But rather than breaking them, their terrible ordeal served as a reminder for what truly mattered…
On a typical Friday afternoon in November, Hemsley Johnson was relaxing at home in his 6th floor Harlem apartment. He had the apartment all to himself, his wife Lola being at work at the time and none of their children were visiting as they often did.
The mood rapidly changed when Hemsley noticed that the air was a little bit smokey. Moments later, when the fire alarm began going off, the 66-year-old man knew that he was in a dire situation. He was forced to run out of the apartment as a fire ripped through the building…
Hemsley’s heart was pounding as he raced down the fire escape. Even though he barely had time to get a jacket, he barely noticed the biting winter winds as he watched the 5-alarm fire quickly engulf the entire building. Not a single apartment was spared, including Hemsley and Lola’s.
Ashes to Ashes
After firefighters managed to finally kill the fire, the Johnson’s apartment had been devastated. Aside from the now-charred family Bible, everything in the apartment had been reduced to ashes. “Everything is gone, but we are alive, praise God,” said Lola. But things were even worse than they seemed…
So Many Memories
That Harlem apartment had been the Johnson’s home since they immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1981. They’d raised each of their 5 adult children in that apartment and it was especially difficult to see the core of their family and all their memories go up in smoke.
As one daughter, Octavia put it “that’s home… that’s life, that’s family, that’s friends, that’s love.” But to make matters worse, the Johnsons had lost more than just their home and elements of their past. They’d lost a dream for the future that had been delayed for so long…
Though Hemsley and Lola had been married for 38 years, they’d never had a wedding ceremony. They’d taken their vows at a City Hall in Jamaica and then Hemsley went right to work while Lola headed home to care for their young kids.
Young Bride and Groom
“That’s all we could afford,” Lola said. “We were a young bride and groom. Very young.” But ever since that day, she said “I’ve always wanted a wedding.” Their kids, themselves all grown and married, had had plans to fulfil Hemsley and Lola’s dream of finally having a proper ceremony…
But the fire had destroyed Lola’s dress, Hemsley’s suit, and both of their wedding rings. They’d even lost their wedding venue, which was located right next door to their apartment and had sustained some damage. It seemed their dream had been destroyed.
Keep the Faith
But Lola had never been the give-up type. “Just keep on trusting in the Lord,” said the 62-year-old. “Life goes on — something good will come out of something bad.” The wedding, which was a month away, had taken a year to plan. Now, the Johnson’s 5 children sprang into action to make new plans in time…
More Than She Hoped For
When Octavia called the company, Azazie, that made Lola’s dress about ordering another and fast-tracking it, she was just hoping they could get the dress in time. But when she explained the situation to the saleswoman, she got even more than she had hoped for.
Humility, Compassion, Resilience
“I just felt really compelled to do something,” said the saleswoman of the California-based wedding dress maker Azazie. “She was just so full of humility and compassion and resilience.” The saleswoman pulled some strings and get Lola’s dress donated to her for free…
When they contacted the Men’s Warehouse about getting a new suit for Hemsley, the conversation went largely the same way. When they heard the Johnson’s story, they decided to donate a suit for the wedding as well.
Not Used to Charity
The Johnson’s were of course extremely grateful. But they hadn’t expected that kind of generosity and had some trouble dealing with it. “It’s overwhelming because I usually give. I never receive,” said Lola. “It’s odd for me to receive.”
A Reason For Urgency
But there was still the matter of finding a new venue. They still wanted to keep the same timeline for the wedding because Lola’s mother was getting on in years and they wanted her to be able to see her daughter finally walk down the aisle.
The Johnson kids kept calling around to try and find a suitable wedding venue but on such short notice, it was unlikely that they would find something unless something opened up due to a cancellation. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened…
Sympathy from Strangers
On just a couple of weeks notice, they were able to secure a beautiful venue in nearby Yonkers that gave them a reduced price. Even the DJ cut his normal fee for the loving couple. All that was left was the ceremony.
This Is What They Felt
On the morning of the wedding, Lola was thinking ”Oh my God, this is what my children went through when they got married — all excited and nervous.” Now, she was “feeling what they felt.” “I’m excited to see everyone and walk down the aisle in this beautiful dress,” Lola she added…
Down the Aisle
Finally, 38 years after they’d married, Lola and Hemsley walked to the altar together. In front of their children, Lola’s mother, and the rest of their 140 guests, they had the ceremony they’d waited for for so long. Their dream had finally come true…
It’s still not clear what caused the fire that destroyed the Johnson’s apartment. After the wedding, they went back to living in a temporary shelter as they plan out the next steps of their lives. One thing is certain: Hemsley and Lola will face the future together as husband and wife.