It's four in the morning on a Thursday. I've fallen asleep in Justin's bed with the door wide open, too tired to get up and close it. An insistent sound disturbs my sleep and demands that I awaken. Slowly, I begin to distinguish a frantic, clicking sound. The sound of….what? Fingernails? Groggily I open one eye and realize that Tyson, our pitbull, is clicking his toenails on the wooden floor. I'm pissed. Why is he making so much noise and waking me up? I angrily start to shoo him. Then I open my eyes more fully. I see some weird flickering lights through the doorway. I immediately realize: fire!
I jump out of bed and run out. The altar we'd so loving made for Abe is on fire. The seven-day candle we left burning there has ignited everything and the wall is ablaze. Immediately, I see that this is a serious fire, not one I can handle with baking soda or a fire extinguisher. I run for the phone and scream at Joan, sound asleep with Emily in our bedroom: "JOAN! THERE'S A FIRE. WAKE UP. GRAB THE KIDS."
My first attempt at 911, I misdial. Seconds later, I get through and yell out my address into the phone. "The walls on fire and I've got two little kids!"
"Get them out now!" the woman yells back.
Joan runs out of our bedroom, disoriented. "Grab Emily and get out!" I yell. She's throwing a cup of water on the fire. I repeat, "Get Emily!" She does. I race back to Justin, wake him firmly and say, "Get up. There's a fire." I grab a couple of blankets from his bed and the two of us run out the front door. Emily puts a naked Emily in my arms.
Joan is crying and screaming. I am dead calm, holding both children on the front lawn, wrapped in blankets, waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. Emily is naked. I have half a robe on and no glasses. I can't see a thing. Justin is wearing the tee shirt he fell asleep in-and nothing else. It is four in the morning and the neighbors are coming out. I feel a rush of exhilaration at being together and being alive. It is only "stuff" that is burning now.
I recall all the lists I ever made in my head about what I would try to save if there was a fire. None of them mattered when the real fire came. Only the people in my arms.
I'm not sure where Joan is, but later learn she ran back to wake up our twenty-three year old son, Daniel, who was asleep in my office, behind the house. Daniel later said he opened the door for Tyson to get out and the house was already filled of smoke, and he couldn't possibly have gone in. That couldn't have been more than five minutes after we got out. Then he and a neighbor sprayed a fire extinguisher at the fire from the outside.
The firefighters arrive and tell us to move back away from where their hose is going to be. The street is ablaze with light from their engines.
The firefighters are impeccably kind. I will never forget them. They squat down and talk right to the children about what is happening and what will happen next. I feel safe sitting there, watching them bustle about, my children tucked in my arms.
Emily cuddles and we talk about the fire. Being in my lap is all the home she needs. I tell the kids that being alive is all that matters. I say, "This fire is going to teach us about what really matters in life: family and community."
We talk about how Tyson saved our lives. Daniel puts him in our van so he won't get lost in all the chaos.
Justin is very excited by everything, animated and talking fast, his face lit up by the unearthly glare of fire trucks. Everything reeks of smoke. Our next-door neighbors, whose kids are the same age, bring over some of their children's clothes and invite us over for breakfast.
At five A.M. the kids settle in watching The Little Mermaid in our neighbor's living room. Annette cooks us up a big batch of pancakes and eggs. Bryan retrieves my glasses. It is a tremendous relief to see again.
After an hour or so, the firefighters let us into the house. The dining room, where the fire started, is charred and beyond repair. All those precious photos of my father gone, the one piece of his artwork I had--gone. The CDs on the other side of the room are melted, dripping over the shelves like a weird Salvador Dali painting.
The firefighters sprayed down every room, so there is water and smoke on everything through every room of the house. The house stinks. We stink. There is broken glass and ash all over the floor.
Next door, we eat pancakes and eggs. We dress in other people's clothes. At seven, I call my best friend Karen and tell her what has happened. Slowly, the news spreads. Offers of help begin pouring in.
At some point during that endless day of shock and waiting for the insurance adjuster to arrive, I talked to Janis and ask her how to help the kids. "When you talk to the kids about the fire," Janis advises, "try to talk equally about grief and gratitude."
In the two days since the fire, people have cared for our children, brought us food, clothing and chocolate, visited, offered their couches, floors, beds, showers, bathtubs, and hospitality. Justin's classmates called asking what size of clothing he wore. They sent beautifully illustrated cards expressing their well wishes as only children can. People have been working to find us a new place to live. A steady stream of our children's friends have come through open-mouthed, bearing gifts, staring at our burned-out house while learning lessons in impermanence, generosity and fire safety.
They say that fire cleanses and that definitely is true. We are all changed, yet in the newness of the shock, we don't yet know where this disaster will lead us-materially, emotionally, spiritually-only that we will never be the same.
Laura Davis is a nationally syndicated columnist and the co-author, with Janis Keyser, of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (Broadway Books, 1997). Laura and Janis are currently writing a book for the parents of elementary school children. Laura is the mother of seven-year-old Justin, three-year-old Emily and stepmom to twenty-two year-old Daniel. Out of respect for the privacy of her family members, they are being identified by pseudonyms in this story.