In a few days it will be the anniversary of a life-changing event for our family. I know I have used the words “life-changing” for things like kitchen tips and parenting ideas, but this was serious drama in the life of a family that avoids serious drama.
It was December 15, 2005, two weeks before Christmas and deep into an ice storm. Our town was coated in thick ice and a branch of our beautiful crabapple tree had fallen on the power line to our house. My husband had to cut it away for us to get out the front door. When it was all clear, we decided to spend our evening at Wal-Mart, where there was power and light, stocking up on what we would need to get through a power outage with only a wood stove for heat and cooking. We left Lydia, our capable twelve-year-old behind because she hadn’t been feeling well and didn’t want to go. I considered leaving my two- year-old there to get some sleep, but we decided we shouldn’t since her caretaker wasn’t feeling great. I also unknowingly left my cell phone on the kitchen counter. All important decisions that would change everything for all of us.
We stopped by our favorite hibachi place for several trays of food that were all riding in my lap when we turned carefully onto our street. The first thing I noticed was streetlights, on! Figures, I thought, after hours of loading up on supplies, the power was on in record time. Then I noticed the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, ambulances and fire trucks, right near our house. I thought our elderly neighbors must have taken a fall on the ice. Then, a moment later, it was clear. The emergency vehicles are at our house and smoke is coming out of the attic vents of our house. Our house!
We slow to the edge of the road, I shove big trays of hibachi somewhere and run
awkwardly across the ice to our house. At this point, my husband utters the word my brain has not allowed me to think – the name of our 12-year-old daughter. It isn’t long before we see her with her grandmother, crying by the side of the road. It’s amazing how everything else falls away, even when your house is on fire.
We were then accosted by firemen who were yelling over all the noise, asking us if anyone else was in that house. Our poor neighbors were bothering them to check again and again because there are so many of us. It didn’t seem right to them that only one child was outside of a house that seemed to be overflowing with children. I was yelling back at them, “Will someone just tell me what happened?”
At this point my main concern was Lydia and whether or not we would be in trouble for leaving her in a house with a wood stove that was still smouldering when we left. We went to my mother’s house nearby for Lydia to tell us and the fire chief what happened. Lydia, slightly distracted by the fact that the fire chief looked like George Clooney, told us how the power had come back on but it all was too bright. The lights were blinding and bluish. Smoke came out of the VCR. She called my phone, only to hear it ring on the counter. She then called her grandmother, who lives just a block away. Grandma came to check things out right away. While she was here, they heard popping noises we later realized were spray paint cans exploding in the garage. After that – yes after!- the smoke alarms started going off. My daughter grabbed the phone and they ran outside.
At this point in the story, the fire chief gets up, very suddenly, and goes into the other room to make a phone call. In my fear, I was sure he had gone to call social services. After all this poor child had been through, it was time to give her away to a nice foster family. I was sure that was what he was doing. That was the closest I came to freaking out the whole time. I was so upset that my mother asked what the phone call was for. He said he had called the guy to tell them it sounded like an electrical fire. We would later find out that the crab apple tree had taken out only part of the line to our house, leaving one line to shoot 220 volts through our house instead of the normal 110. This had caused the fire.
Two hours later, they let us go in our house. Everything was black and wet.. I only made it a few feet without having to turn around and leave because the fumes were still so bad, even two hours after the fire was out. As badly as I wanted to see my house, I couldn’t take the fumes. I saw enough to know that even though the fire was from only one room of the house, the garage, everything in our house was ruined. A black and brown glaze was on everything like it had all been baked in a kiln. Water dripped from everywhere and the plaster had been pulled away, down to the bricks, in a vigilant search for hidden fire. The room over the garage was where the two-year-old would have been sleeping.
It is amazing the crazy things that go through your mind in a crisis. Earlier in the day, I
discovered that someone had spilled orange juice and it had run under the frig and made a gooey mess that I was dreading. As I looked into our kitchen I thought, I won’ t have to clean that up now.
So, we go back to my mother’s house and we stay. I try to put all my children to bed on a strange night, in their clothes, in this familiar place. All the hotels are full of people who are without power so we are grateful to have family nearby. The option mentioned to us by the fire chief was our local high school set up as a shelter. Why would I want to add going back to high school to an already terrible night? So grateful to God for family and safety and even for that fact that I didn’t get that call. As bad as coming home to my house surrounded by fire trucks was, no little girl should have to make that call and no one wants to get that call either. When I think of the danger and anxiety of that drive across town, I know God was in the details.
As I lay there that night, I wished I was more familiar with how insurance works. I thought through a million things that would have to be replaced just to get through the week. I wondered where the money would come from. I had a knot in my stomach that would not relax and I couldn’t seem to get warm. My husband had to leave right away to secure the house against people who might try to take advantage of the van-sized hole in the back. We were processing everything apart and alone and it felt so wrong. I’m not sure I ever slept that night.
The morning brought so many wonderful blessings and shows of support that I will need to stop here and leave you wondering, like I was that night. The story of what God did through our trial is too big to add to the story of the trial itself. Look for Part 2 on Friday. I hope it is as uplifting for you as it is for me when I think back on what the fire gave us.