A hot dry summer stretched into September my second year at OC (2000). Lush green lawns turned light brown and flower gardens withered, including mine—except for the drought tolerant weeds and evergreen cedars reaching up to the eaves of my house. On Tuesday afternoon, I left the office a little early so I could get home to prepare for a party that night. I drove through the neighborhood, around the corner, and into the garage, not noticing anything out of the ordinary. It was just another Oklahoma day where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain. I missed the sign.
I went into the house, tossed my briefcase on the kitchen counter beside the computer that I still used for translation work to earn a little extra cash. I took a quick look at the mail, tossed the junk mail, and went back to change into more comfortable clothes.
There is no delicate way to describe what I was doing when my daughter’s friend, Heather, opened the front door and screamed, “Fire!” I was wearing a tee shirt while sitting on the throne. Or if you please, I was taking care of personal business that I abruptly ended. I put on underwear, a pair of shorts, and ran for the front door. By the time I got outside it was too late. Half of the lawn had already burned or was still burning. And just as I stepped outside, the fire reached the cedar bushes, igniting small explosions that licked the underside of the eave, set the attic on fire, and left charred skeletons behind.
Driving home, I hadn’t noticed the wisp of smoke rising from the small wooded canyon south of our house. And thanks to the famous Oklahoma wind, during the short time I was inside minding my own business, what began with a few kids fooling around with fire on the other side of the canyon roared to life, took flight, and jumped over a row of houses and a city street to land in my front yard—and only my yard.
Time took on bizarre dimensions, both speeding into fast-forward and slowing to a frame-by-frame montage, fresh images that still smell like smoke, snapshots of action happening all around me. Someone dials 911, hands me their cell phone, and for a moment I can’t remember my address. Cars stop in the street and drivers rush to help. A neighbor takes my daughter, T’auna and Heather into the safety of her house. The cedar fence is on fire. The backyard is on fire. The woodpile is on fire. My Basset Hounds!A friend joins me as we run through a smoky house to the back door where Buford and Bailey are huddled, terrified, and shaking. We each grab a dog and run back through the house. I hear the buzz of smoke alarms. I hear sirens in the distance. How long until they get here? An unknown driver sprays water into the eave of my house. I see one fire truck, then another. Two firefighters run into the house. Others push out my car out of the garage. Another firefighter goes up the ladder into the attic. Water lines are in the street. I fall into the arms of a neighbor, weeping. A third fire engine now sits in the street and shoots water over my house onto the roof of the house next door: a rainbow in the sky. Gwen, a close friend across the street, gives me an oversized pair of tennis shoes to wear. More sirens. A fourth truck arrives. Heavy dark smoke engulfs the house, hiding it from my sight and billowing into the sky. Distant sirens, less smoke. Two firefighters on the roof use a chainsaw to cut a hole into the attic. I begin to see the damage. Windows are broken. Firefighters haul living room furniture into the front yard. I still smell smoke. Two firefighters take off their gear and rest on the front lawn. My wife and son arrive, walking down the middle of the street. David asks about the used baseball equipment that we bought last weekend. Tears. I’m holding my son. We stand in the front yard surrounded by friends. We have the clothes we are wearing, nothing more. And I still smell smoke. (The theme picture and the photo below are both of my house.)
The insurance adjustor declared the house a total loss. It was still standing, with the fire primarily contained to the attic; only one area of the roof was within a minute, maybe two of collapsing. Everything in the attic was destroyed by fire or intense heat. Inside, my study had partially burnt and the ceiling directly over David’s bed collapsed (though I had to look twice to notice). More significant was the stunning destruction of the heat, smoke, and water. Anything made of porous material was ruined: mattresses, couches, chairs, carpets, plastic toys, hair dryers, toilets, and cabinet tops. Even a sewing machine tucked inside its box and covered up in a closet far away from the fire was ruined. When we took it out of the box, it was permanently stained a deep smoky yellow. Electronic devices were stained on the outside and corroded by smoke on the inside, including my home computer and its back-up disk of my translation work (sitting faithfully beside the computer).
At midnight, our insurance representative called in a company to pack out anything they might be able to clean and salvage: silverware, tools, metal gadgets, and some toys. They took all our bedding, towels, and clothing to wash and run through a special process that uses ozone to eradicate the smell of smoke. Two days later, my friend and co-teacher, Joe McCormack drove my wife and me to a large warehouse across town where everything we owned was laid out on tables for our inspection. When our clothing and linens came back to us in trash bags a week later, we sat on the porch of our apartment and went through each bag, examining and smelling everything; almost all of it was stained and smelled awful, a sweet combination of ozone and smoke.
In a matter of minutes, we lost almost everything to the fire: instantaneous losses that took us days, weeks, and even months to recognize. In October, we had no decorations for my annual Halloween party. In November, we had no décor for Thanksgiving. In December, we had no Christmas tree, lights, or stockings with our names; and we lost all of the ornaments and artwork our children made at school. Our first new ornament came from a family who had lost their house to a fire several years earlier: a small red fire truck. In January, we had no boxes for all the new Christmas decorations. In April, we had no Easter baskets or plastic eggs.
At first, every day we would turn to retrieve a pair of scissors, a roll of tape, or a pen, only to realize they were lost in the fire. And even months later, we could still be caught off-guard by something that was not in its place. At first, our photos looked fine—a great relief. Only later did the smoky chemicals finish their work, gluing one photo to another like stacks of bricks. Today, I have only a handful of pictures of my son and daughter before the fire. All the toys they had outgrown, that we packed into boxes for long-term storage in the attic, waiting for grandchildren—they are all gone: no Legos, no building blocks, no trucks or dolls to remind me of their childhood. The first twelve to fourteen years of their lives vanished in the smoke.
After a fire, unless there has been a serious injury or loss of life, most everyone dismisses the significance of the event: “Everything we lost can be replaced. It’s all just stuff.” And often, we also add words of thanksgiving: “We’re just grateful that no one was hurt.” I spoke all these words for a television reporter, for the student body at O.C., and many other times in conversation, each time winning praise for my faith and for my life values.
I spoke the truth; it’s how I felt at the moment. But as time passed, my feelings changed and I began to wonder where my initial words came from: were they the result of thoughtful reflection or a script I had memorized, words to speak when I was too numb to think—a message provided by my faith community? For years before our fire, I heard believers articulate these same ideas after tragic events. And along with others, I marveled at their faith and heard the church applaud (literally or through compliments and third-party conversations). So, I learned that this is the way Christians respond to tragedy, with words that reassure other believers that losing it all isn’t such a bit deal, that they too could survive a fire unscathed. It’s all just stuff, stuff that can be replaced, and stuff that we can’t take with us anyway. As I look back, I suspect that my words came as much or more from this previously memorized script than thoughtful reflection in the moment. Standing in my front yard, I was too shocked andnumb to speak with reflection. And most of all, I was far too ignorant of how the fire would affect my life and my family, what it really meant to lose it all.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).