Driving the road to our house, you crest a small hill right before you reach the intersection. It had always been a good feeling — to reach the hill and first see the trees at the top of the hill behind our house and then, there ahead, our house nestled below.
Coming up over the hill now, I was filled with nervous anticipation, but I didn’t know what to expect. We crested the hill, and the house came into view. My brain and my eyes tripped over each other for a few seconds until I could register what I was seeing.
Paul and I both gasped.
The garage and most of the second story had disappeared — a charred absence. My eye was drawn to the half-burned stairs that now led to nowhere. The part of the attic where Paul had searched for Christopher a couple hours before was gone — all of it, including the landing where I stood and waited, thinking there was no way our house could be on fire while standing right above it.
I could just see into the mudroom where Paul had tried, again and again, to turn off the alarm. How annoyed we had been. We thought our only worry was frightening the kids. We just wanted to shut it off, even as the fire was burning and growing mere feet behind our backs.
All of us made it out of that house safely — untouched by even a hint of ash. In this moment, I realized how easily it could have been another story. Paul or I or one of the girls could have opened the door to the garage — but I couldn’t think about that.
Unbidden, an overpowering feeling arose, and for a moment, I became the embodiment of prayer. Thank you.
The site was a mess. How quickly it shifted — no longer home, not even a house. Our cars were burned-out shells. This was especially shocking. Beirut was my first thought. Pictures on the news from my childhood. War-torn places far, far away. But this was my house, our home. It was.
This was our new After. We had crossed a line we could never turn back from.
Earlier, at Dawn and Thom’s, Paul had told us how he had noticed the driver’s side door on his car was cocked open, and the corresponding garage door was rolled all the way up, and what he thought that indicated. So many things about that day are seared into my memory, but I only have the haziest recollection of him telling me this. My brain was struggling to process the basic fact of the fire, and that someone may have set it was so much more than too much information. In a way, I took it in stride; that it could be arson was just another layer of something I couldn’t believe. Thank God for shock. I stood there calmly while Paul told the fire chief, who had met us there to survey the damage. Immediately he let out a heavy sigh. Just like that, it became a criminal investigation.
People stopped by, mostly neighbors, some I had never met. Everyone wanted to know about the children. One older woman rushed out of her car and ran across the driveway, her arms outstretched.
“Is everyone safe?” she cried out.
I felt her emotion and thought of the children. I couldn’t speak and dumbly nodded.
“Thank God! Thank God!” she said and pulled me close. I was so sure we were OK, that we’d get through this, but something about this kindness from a stranger broke me. I fell into her arms sobbing, even though I had no idea who she was. She clutched me close, and I held on just as tightly. Then, as quickly as she had come, she let go and dashed back to her car. After she left, I remembered she was a distant neighbor whom Christopher and I had met once while walking Jack. Later she will return and hand me an envelope with a big, fat check in it. That’s a “Fire Do” of the best variety.
Another woman pulled up along the side of the road and walked up to me and introduced herself. She was a distant neighbor who also knew my sister. She said she was so sorry.
“I wanted to do something for you, but I didn’t know what.” She thrust a bank envelope toward my hand. “It’s only money,” she said. “I’m sorry it’s not more.”
“Oh no,” I said and snatched away my hand as if from fire. “That’s not necessary. We’re fine. We have savings and insurance. We’ll be fine.” The illogic of this didn’t occur to me. I was wearing a ridiculous outfit, and my personal wardrobe — what I actually owned — was limited to a pair of pajamas and one pair of underpants. I no longer had shoes that fit, or even a bra — which is pretty much the opposite of “fine.”
“Please,” she said, “I want to help.” She clearly felt awkward and uncomfortable. Emily Post doesn’t cover the proper way to hand cash to the displaced — and certainly not what to do when she’s refusing it. I could feel her tension but had too much of my own; there’s no guide for the proud and addled refugee either. She shoved the envelope into my hand.
“Thank you,” I managed to choke out before she ran off, which was what I should have said from the start.
A childhood friend stopped by with her husband. They saw the house on the way to church and immediately headed home. She stuffed a bag with clothes for me and then left her husband with the baby and drove back to our place.
“You’re going to need to keep notes.” She handed me a pen and a small journal. Again, I resisted. I’m the Imelda Marcos of paper, I thought. I was. I remembered all my notebooks were reduced to ash and accepted hers.
“Thank you.” Good girl. I was learning.
“You should call the Red Cross,” she said.
I was appalled. The Red Cross was for people after a disaster — like floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Standing in front of my burned-out house in the getup I had on, I can’t really tell you how I managed to think I didn’t belong in the disaster category, but I did.
“This is exactly why they exist.” She handed me the bag of clothes and hugged me good-bye.
By then, two detectives had arrived, straight out of central casting. They both had no-nonsense haircuts and wore Dockers-ish khakis with sports coats but no ties. Dark sunglasses and tough, emotionless expressions completed their look.
We were the first suspects, I learned. “Persons of interest” is the technical term for the early stage of the investigation, but I felt like a suspect. “I’m sorry for these intrusive questions,” one said apologetically. Paul and I stood together facing them.
“Are you having financial difficulties?”
“No,” we both said, shaking our heads.
“Have either of you lost your job?”
“Any marital troubles? Are you considering divorce?” “No and no.”
“Do you have any enemies? Anyone you know have a grievance against you?”
“No, not that we can think of.”
This was total bad manners. I knew they were just doing their jobs, and that when they checked our bank accounts and Paul’s employment, everything would support what we’d said. I knew we were innocent, but it was terrible merely being under suspicion.
Eventually the detectives released us, and we extricated ourselves from all the well-wishers and returned to Dawn’s.
As we drove away, I touched Paul’s hand. “I never want to get past gratitude,” I said. “No matter what the future holds” — I was thinking vaguely of insurance and rebuilding — “I never want to stop being thankful.”
At Dawn’s house, Torey met us with bags and bags from Target. The kids were happy to try on their new clothes, and I was beyond grateful to wear something that fit. More people began to arrive. Soon it was a blur of family and friends. A friend of Dawn and Thom’s brought platters of food. It almost felt like a party.
Dawn told me two representatives from the Red Cross were on their way. My friend called on our behalf, knowing I wouldn’t, which bugged me. We were fine. We did not need the Red Cross. That they were willing to come, of course, should have been a sign that we did. And that we no longer had a home for them to come to should have been a clue to me that we needed all the help we could get. But I was riding high on shock and adrenaline and maybe more than a little pride.
The Red Cross women were both kind and low-key. I don’t know what I expected. One of the first questions they carefully asked was whether or not we were insured. When we said we were, they visibly relaxed; their job had just gotten a lot easier. Since family had taken us in and our immediate needs were being met, they decided the best way they could help was with money for clothes. They gave us a credit/gift card and an informational pamphlet titled “After a Fire.”
If there was any doubt before, there was none now. Life “Before” was gone. Life “After” had begun.
As the evening turned into night, everyone headed home, and eventually it was just our family and Thom and Dawn. We made up beds for the children. There was room for all of us downstairs in the beautiful walkout basement overlooking the lake. Christopher slept on a sofa in the living room and was thrilled that his bedroom had a widescreen TV. The girls were on the futon in Thom’s study, happy to be together. Paul and I prayed with all three and tucked them in.
I got online to email a few people I wanted to make sure heard the news. My inbox was packed. One email was from the mother of one of Eden’s classmates. The subject line read, “Ready and waiting to assist.” When I read that, a part of my chest I didn’t even know was constricted began to relax. I would later find out this same woman left a note in our mailbox, called my cell phone, and messaged me on Facebook, but it was the email that reached me first.
Hi, guys. I don’t even know what to say other than we are grateful the fire didn’t claim your family. I know you’re still processing and mourning right now, so let me be your thinking brain beyond, “What do we do today?” I already have a small group coming over here tomorrow a.m. to strategize immediate, mid-term, and long-term help/donations.
It was so strange to think that a group of people was meeting solely for the purpose of figuring out how to help my family. And this was only the beginning of what would become an extraordinary outpouring of kindness and generosity.
Between email and Facebook, there were so many messages of concern, expressions of gratitude for our safety, promises of prayer, and offers of support. It was wonderfully overwhelming. I wanted to reply to each one, but a wave of exhaustion swept over me. I posted an update on Facebook:
deliverance: 1. an act or instance of delivering; 2. salvation; 3. liberation
Today our home was destroyed by fire. The children are grieving and shaken, but Paul and I are so grateful for family, friends, and strangers who have come to our aid. We have lost “everything” but feel rich and free.
I climbed into bed next to Paul, who was already asleep. I looked up into the darkness. Everything had changed. Who could believe it? I thought of the children — safe and so close — of Jack at the foot of our bed, and Paul there beside me. Everything had changed, and anything that mattered remained.
Excerpted with permission from The Pug List: A Ridiculous Little Dog, a Family Who Lost Everything, and How They All Found Their Way Home by Alison Hodgson, copyright Alison Hodgson.
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“We have lost “everything” but feel rich and free.” Have you ever experienced a great tragedy or loss only to find freedom and peace on the other side? Join the conversation on our blog! We’d love to hear from you!