What the Fire Gave Us Part 2

Today I will take on Part 2 of What the Fire Gave Us. If you missed part 1, you can click here to read what you missed.

the light of day

It took a few days after the fire to finally get an insurance adjuster out to our house. The ice storm had overwhelmed the system. Everything was a mystery until they could see it and tell us what to do. Only nine months before the fire, our agent came to the house to update our information. He told us that because we now had eight people living there, double what we had moved in with, we should double our coverage. My husband agreed and that decision made all the difference. Our previous coverage would not have been enough.  I was so relieved to finally walk with our adjuster through the house and hear him talk about how they were going to take care of things. He told me to find a place to rent and they would take care of that too. A crash course in insurance is not fun but it was comforting to see it kick in. The relief I felt after that meeting was a lot like joy.

But before our insurance company could get to us,  the love of our friends came pouring in. Money, gift cards, and a crib for our youngest to sleep in. Oh and the food! Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten came for us during this time. The employees of a trucking company that learned of our situation, gathered a truck load of clothes, toys, furniture and appliances for us. All these donations meant that the insurance money would go that much further. One friend set up a call for me with a couple who had a fire few years earlier. Their advice was invaluable.  I wrote page after page of names and donations for thank you cards. It was staggering to see it all written in one place. The love we experienced was more comforting that I could ever explain.

Only one week later and just in time for Christmas, we found the place that would be our home for the next eleven months. It was a beautiful rental that had just been restored. It had a great yard and the perfect driveway for bikes and scooters. The neighbors had farm animals that we got to enjoy with out the work of caring for them. The memories my kids have of that house are some of the best from their childhoods. God placed us where we could be happy, even amid terrible circumstances.

When you have a house fire, you have to write down everything you lost. And when you got it. And how much you paid for it. And how much it will cost to replace it. I don’t know how people did this before the internet but thank God for it! We had a 6-inch stack of papers, with 17 items on each one, when we were finally through with that project. It was all-consuming work that lasted until February. Between doing this and shopping for every single thing people need to live, it was full-time. My husband was self-employed at the time and I have always stayed at home. Inventory is all we did, all day every day. I don’t know how people who have to go to work would get all this done. Hopefully, there is an app for this now.

Okay, that’s not all we did. We also fought hard to make sure no one messed up our house while they were restoring it. Three powers are at work in this process; the insurance company that wants to hold on to every penny possible, the restoration company who wants to hire the lowest bidder and make a great profit, and the family who wants to live in a house that is as good or better than it was. After the inventory, the daily job was making sure our house was okay and our choices were installed. We spent a lot of times at Lowe’s writing down tiny item numbers off sinks, appliances, switch plates, stain colors and so much more. The struggle between all the interested parties got so intense that I started kneeling down in my bathroom by the toilet to pray before meetings with the adjuster I had been so happy to see only months before.

I tell all that in an attempt to convey that all this was not fun. It was the hardest year of my life. At the same time, it was the best thing that ever happened to us. I would not want to complain, only to be honest about what the experience was like. God clearly used this time for our good. We had an old house that needed lots of improvements, not just cosmetic ones. Because of the fire, the house was brought up to code with new electrical, plumbing, heating system and insulation – all things we could not have afforded to upgrade. For the first time, I was able to pick colors and styles by what I liked! Within reason, I could choose new fixtures and details I had only considered by price before.

breaking in that new sectional

This was also true of our new belongings. After years of hand-me-down and cast off furniture, I got to go to a furniture store and pick what I liked! I found out I didn’t even know what I liked. My sister gave me great advice that I still use – “buy what you like and it will all go together.” I didn’t believe it, but it worked. Shopping was fun at first but for the first time in my life, I got tired of buying new things. I took off so many tags and stickers….all those things we bought one thing at a time over the span of years, I bought nearly all at once. We found out our bank was looking out for us too. Turns out you can’t suddenly start spending hundreds of dollars a day without the bank shutting down your card, even at Christmas time. Good to know.

The Red Cross, great people and so helpful, gave us $111 for each family member. That means we got a voucher for $888, with one odd condition. Only Kmart accepted the vouchers and we had to spend it all at one time on only clothes and shoes. Have you seen the old episodes of  sitcoms where you win the contest to keep all you can gather in one minute? That is about what it was like. It was a lot of fun and a lot of work. That about sums up the whole year.

When we were finally able to move back home, we felt like strangers there. It was our house, but it wasn’t. Another blessing from the fire was getting to turn the garage into a 4th bedroom, something we had dreamed of for one day had happened. All the projects we had dreamed of doing were all done and we were stunned. I am still stunned when I think of God’s works and His ways through it all. I doubted Him and questioned Him and He still used me and my family to show off, to show how all things can work together for good. How it is all confusing but all true.

One of my favorite memories from right after the fire really sums up what I was feeling and how I feel about the fire now. When we were still at my mother’s house, I was trying to put my cranky, sleepy, 3-year-old boy down for a nap in a bed that wasn’t his and he didn’t like it. He was crying and saying, “I can’t like it, I can’t like it.” I can so clearly remember his sweaty little face and his curling hair as I started to rub his forehead and sing him his sleeping song. He was still saying, “I can’t like it” only he was losing his passion and relaxing. Suddenly the words changed to “I like it, I like it, I like it.” He could no longer deny that what I did for him was for the best, in spite of his initial protest. I wish I could say I surrendered that easily.

Now our family dates everything by asking, “was that before the fire or after?” For almost a year, I would go to look for things where I kept them before the fire or I would look for things I no longer owned. It was disorienting to be in the same house but with so many changes. Not only had the house changed, but we had too. We had been warned about the high rate of divorce after house fires, but we had become closer by the grace of God. Our children had to grow up fast that year and take on  a lot of responsibilities. Our family had the great privilege to feel the love of so many friends and even strangers. Even all our old pictures were miraculously unharmed by the fire. With everyone safe and our memories still tidy in their boxes, what more could we ask for? I am still stunned when I look around me and see all that the fire gave us.

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What the Fire Gave Us – Part 1

                      fire and ice

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

so cute and so capable – my daughter at 12

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?”

           a lot like this but louder

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.

not our house but very close to what it looked like

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

      everywhere, on everything

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.