I always questioned if my faith would waiver in a time of tragedy. I wondered if I would cry out, “Why God?” I wondered if I’d feel abandoned or angry. I wondered if my relationship with God would falter. I wondered if I’d question what I’d poured my heart and soul into since my teenage years.
February 7, 2018 at 5:30 am, I got my answer. I woke up to the familiar ding of a text message from my Mom. I talk to my Mom, who is an hour behind us in Texas, every single day at 8am EST after I drop my kids off at school, so a message this early surely meant something was wrong. As I rolled over to read the message, I smelled the very faint smell of smoke. I looked around my bed, checked all the power strips close to me and then wrote it off as a lingering pit outside or a pair of my husband’s smoky overalls in the bathroom. We own a barbecue business, so I wasn’t immediately alarmed.
Since I was awake, I went ahead and started my morning like I do any other. I got up before the rest of my house. I love being a mom and a wife, but those few minutes without anyone needing anything from me are invaluable to my day. It was cold and raining outside, so I flipped on the heat to get the chill out of the air before the kids’ feet hit those cold wooden floors. I poured myself a cup of coffee that I’d set to brew the night before. I sat down at our island that was the absolute heart of our home to finish up my grocery list and respond to emails. Around 6:45, I poured myself a second cup of coffee and set off down the hallway to start waking kids up.
My boys got up, took showers and were dressed surprisingly early. As they ate breakfast, they perused the book fair pamphlet. Most mornings, I carry my girls to their carseats sleeping, but this morning they both came walking sleepy-headed down the hallway. It was 7:11 when I put my cup of coffee in the microwave to reheat (probably for the 3rd time) and started rummaging through my wallet to scrounge up enough money to send with my boys for the book fair.
That’s when the first smoke detector went off. My parents had visited at Thanksgiving and my Dad had changed every single battery in every single smoke detector, so I knew it wasn’t a low battery. But nothing was cooking and I saw no smoke, so I assumed it was a bug or dust clogging the sensor. I calmy walked through the house….still no smoke. I walked across the living room to the glass French doors that connected to our garage, peered around the corner and saw a wall of flames. Not a flame. Not a smiggen of smoke….a 20 foot tall, 30 foot wide, wall of flames reaching towards the front of the garage where I stood at the doors.
I ran to the back of the house and hollered at my husband, who was in the shower, that the garage was on fire. I grabbed my phone and the kids and gathered them at the front door. I dialed 911. At this point, there was still no smoke in the house. Jay came running out, naked, mind you, to those same glass doors. I got all the kids out of the house and told them to get in my suburban. Thank God, that in that moment, those little boogers actually listened. My boys grabbed my girls and 2 of the dogs and climbed in. I ran around the outside of the garage where our barn was attached to the house. My chicken coop was gone. But somehow all 11 of my chickens were out and huddled as far from the fire as their run would allow. I opened the gate, but they wouldn’t move. The flames were so big and outreaching, I didn’t think I could get to them without getting burned, so I had to leave them.
Around the corner, those same flames were reaching over the heads of my stalled horses. I ran around and opened their gates and shooed them out to the pasture. They ran, hell bent for election, away from the house.
I ran back around to the front of the house, still on the phone with 911. Jay was outside trying to put on a pair of overalls. The kids were in the car. My 5 year old daughter was screaming for her house pig. When I ran out of the house less than 2 minutes before, there was no visible smoke in the house. I ran back in to get her pig. I ran straight to her bed in the laundry room, but couldn’t see my hand in front of me for all the smoke. I patted her bed, felt she wasn’t there and started to run back out. My corgi dog, Ranger, was trying to come in but wouldn’t come to me, so I slammed the back door and ran out the front, closing the door behind me to keep him out.
Jay backed up the suburban as far back in the pasture as he could. Because of all the pits, we knew we had at least 4 propane tanks in danger of exploding. Ranger and our last dog, Cue both came running around the front and we piled them in my car too. Our house pig, the chickens and my son’s barn cat were unaccounted for.
There Jay and I stood, our whole lives in my Suburban, shoeless in the cold rain watching our house burn. Even in that moment, when I had no idea what was to come, I knew it my heart it was going to be ok.
Our neighbors and friends showed up before the fire trucks. My phone started ringing and dinging with texts and messages and calls before I even knew what to say. The look on our friends’ faces seemed to mirror the expression we must have been wearing. They hugged us. They put spare boots on our feet. They stood with us when none of us knew quite what to do.
My horses were running circles around us, and too close to the front gate for my comfort. Without a rope, or a halter, I tried to hold on to one of them. They’re a duo, and I knew if one was calm, the other would be too. Our kids and dogs were still in the suburban. My boys, who are normally rambunctious and antsy, were surprisingly calm and working hard to calm down their sisters. My 5 year old was still crying for her pig, Fiona.
The fire trucks arrived. They lined my driveway. They sank in my front yard. They backed my husband’s truck out of the driveway and our side by side out of the barn; both partially melted already. Every time I turned around, someone else was walking past us, many of whom I didn’t even know. As the firefighters began to put out the fire, our neighbors showed up to take my kids. It had been raining for days, so my suburban sank and was stuck in the mud. Thankfully, those same great neighbors are farmers, and were quick to drive a tractor over to pull us out. Even in that chaos, my kids were tickled pink to be hooked up to a machine that big.
About that time, friends came from the back of my house to announce they’d found Fiona! In true pig fashion, she’d taken advantage of the moments we were all preoccupied with the house burning to gorge herself on the dogs’ food on the back porch. Watching my daughter’s face change from fear and terror to relief and joy to see her pig again was indescribable.
Except for a few poignant moments, the rest of the day is a blur. I remember a fireman bringing out Jay’s bible and Smokin’ F hat that were sitting on his dresser. I remember him saying, “The bibles never burn.” I remember calling my mom. I remember my friend Chris saving all my chickens and my wedding and Aggie rings. I remember finally looking behind me and seeing trucks and tractors and trailers lining my road as far as I could see. I remember the smell. I remember everyone trying to take me away from the house but refusing to leave. I remember crying all day….Not because of my house, but because I couldn’t believe how good people were to us. And I remember someone saying, “You are all ok. You all made it out. This is going to be one huge inconvenience, but you’re going to come out better on the other end.” Even in that moment of chaos, I knew in my heart that was true.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
The next few days were a whirlwind of insurance, red cross, donations, emotions, shopping and phone calls and the reason I’m writing this. Your head may be spinning like mine was. You may not have the support and guidance like we did. And you may be wondering what to do first or next. So here’s a practical list of the days and months following the day we lost our home.
The Next 1 0 Minutes: The list of things to do when you’re all of a sudden homeless grows exponentially. Paired with the emotions and the exhaustion, it can seem insurmountable. My husband, who handled so much more of the business side of a fire, kept saying, “I just have to focus on what I’m doing in the next 10 minutes.” And when he finished that, he’d focus on the 10 minutes after that. And as the days went forward, it turned to the next hour. And then the next day, until we got to a place where we could stand back and see the bigger picture. Make a list. Tackle it one thing at a time and eventually you’ll be able to cross off more than you add.
The first list: Practically, think first about replacing prescriptions, toiletries, clean pajamas, comfortable clothes and cell phones. You’ll likely be sifting through the remains of your home in the coming days. The foam from the firetrucks and the burnt belongings becomes toxic and can cause skin irritation. Know ahead of time, everything that goes back into the home will come out black and smell terrible. Work gloves, tough hand soap, and rubber boots are invaluable.
Insurance: Read everything. And then re-read it. And then get an opinion from someone not in the same emotional state. The day after our fire, a very nice, older woman from our insurance agency showed up at the house we were staying at. She was comforting and spoke gently which was appreciated. She came with a stack of legal documents to sign and a big, fat blank check. I’m so thankful my husband had the foresight to question every bit of it, while I was gullible and trusting. He refused to sign one of the forms, even upon her threat of not being able to move forward without it. Long story short: That form would have taken some of the liability off of the insurance company. We would have forfeited some of our benefits. And despite what she threatened, they proceeded with our claim and never asked for it again. If nothing else, it set the precedent right up front that we weren’t going to be pushed around. Unfortunately, even in a homeless state, big business is big business. And no matter how sweet their smile, they have a job to do. Pay close attention, listen more than you speak and be aware that they’re not necessarily on your team.
Pictures: Take pictures of EVERYTHING! The longest, most grueling part of losing everything is trying to make a list of contents. For months (and I hear, years) you’ll think of things you used to have. Most of it won’t come to mind until you need it. Those post hole diggers, those nail clippers, that pair of winter boots, those fancy earrings you only wore for special occasions. Take pictures of absolutely every cabinet, every shelf, everything that is left to help you start your list. And then tell all of your friends to do the same as a precaution in the event they ever lose their home to a fire, a flood or a storm.
Be Patient: No one is going to move as quickly as you’d like them to. The insurance, the contractors, the investigators, the contents crew….it takes lots of time.
Just Say Thank You: Donations poured in from every direction for us. We were so blessed to be surrounded by people who gave and gave and gave. People were so selfless that my husband and I had a hard time accepting such generosity. We felt like we needed to give back and repay the favors. The evening of our fire, our neighbor, Mrs. Becky, looked us right in the eyes and said, “Just say Thank You. Let them bless you.” I don’t think I said Thank You one time without tears in my eyes, but we learned to accept. We remain, to this day, overwhelmed with gratitude for all everyone has done for us. And we now actively look for ways to bless others in similar situations. Don’t rob someone of their blessing of blessing you. Just say thank you.
Donations: On the other hand, it’s ok to say “No, thank you” sometimes too. So many people have the absolute best of intentions when they rummage through their closets to bring you clothes, but what they fail to realize is you might not have a place to put any of it. We no longer had a garage or a closet or an attic or even a bedroom, so the boxes and bags got overwhelming very quickly. I’m so thankful my parents and friends sorted bag after bag after bag of clothing for us. My husband and I were so busy trying to find a house and a place for my animals and deal with insurance and investigators that we never would have gotten to many of the bags. If someone has offered help however you need it, this is great to delegate out. They can easily weed out sizes and seasons you don’t need and help you get those to a donation center where they will go to someone else in need.
Deciding What To Save: It’s tempting to scoop up every charred belonging you have with the intention of washing. I had 6 weeks to go through my home before we were able to start demolition. Almost every day, I walked through and pulled something out. My Granny’s china, 2 of my favorite tables, my Mom’s cedar chest. Some of it I was able to bring back to some extent and some of it I wasn’t. And some of it, I haven’t even gone through yet. The further we get from the fire, the less I can tolerate the smell of those few boxes. I feel guilty saying it outloud, but I wish I hadn’t saved some of it. Now I feel responsible for trying to clean it or refinish it, but I also feel so ready to put it all behind me. As hard as it is to let go of familiarity, both sentimentally and structurally, the stuff is not what it once was. It’s ok and even freeing to let it go.
Perspective is Everything: A week or so after our fire, I found a picture of my girls from February 6, tucked in their beds, with matching pajamas and dolls. At first, it made me sad because it was the last picture we’d taken in our house. And then, I was overtaken with gratitude because it wasn’t the last picture of my girls. It’s so easy to see what was lost. It’s so tempting to focus on how hard life has been since that day. But it’s so much more rewarding to focus on the good. I look back and see how thankful I am my Dad changed all of our smoke detectors just weeks before our fire. I choose to see that my Mom’s uncharacteristic text message got me up and moving earlier than usual that day. I focus of the reminder that people are still good and still have such big hearts. I look back and see that God’s hand was on us long before that smoke detector went off.
So did my faith waiver like I feared it might? Not one bit. We live in an imperfect world where bad things happen. But now, more than ever, I know God turns some of our biggest tragedies into some of our biggest blessings. Somehow I feel closer and more in alignment with God’s provision than I ever have. I am sure that we are in the right place doing the right thing. We still have ruts outside our gate from the trucks that skid in to help. And I don’t mind seeing them. Because every day that I pass them, I’m reminded how many people came to help us. I’m reminded how good people really are. And I’m reminded that God wasn’t surprised when our smoke alarms went off. He’d prepared us and the people around us long before we had any idea what was fixing to happen. I literally wake up every morning now thinking, “I can’t wait to see what God’s going to do today.”