Today marks 4 years since one of the most surreal days of my life. It was a day when I learned a lot about not only myself but my husband and daughter.
It started out like any other workday. We got up, I got Ava (who was about 18 months old then) ready for Jeff to take her to his mom’s where she would go while we were at work. I then went through my regular routine of rushing around to get myself ready, thinking I have nothing to wear, packing my lunch and rushing out the door.
I don’t remember exactly why that morning was crazier than usual, but as I went to leave I could not find my car key. I searched everywhere, and made quite a mess in the process I’m sure. Finally I gave up and called Jeff to let him know he would need to come get me. We called work and let them know we would be a little late since it was about a 15 minute drive for him to come back. Since I had to wait, I started the dishwasher did a few other odds and ends, and then stood by the door watching for him to pull up.
I had gotten Jeff a kitten for his birthday 2 years before, whom we named Dodger. He was a good cat, but became very needy after Ava came around. While I was waiting for Jeff he was scratching at my leg, meowing and I was kind of blowing him off. He even tried to leave with me when he got back to pick me up. I scooted him back in and rushed to the car. We got to school and went about our day.
After my first classes, I saw I had a missed call from a number I did not know on my cell phone. No voicemail, but service wasn’t great at school so figured it would come up eventually.On my prep period I went to use a computer in the library when one of my friends I was running a marathon relay with that weekend came in to discuss our plan for the day of the race. While we were chatting, I saw over my shoulder Jeff and the school police officer walking toward us.
Jeff is one of the happiest people I know. Super easy going, and definitely always smiling. But there was a look on his face that I had never seen before and I knew right away something was wrong. I immediately thought something happened to Ava and my head started spinning. They both looked at me and then he said, “We have to go. our house is on fire.” The officer offered to drive us but we took his car home to what would be the beginning of something you can never prepare for.
The car ride was strange, it’s hard to explain what it feels like to be driving to your home, not knowing what to expect, who will be there and having no idea where you go from here. I remember telling Jeff that I didn’t use a curling iron or straightener but I had started the dishwasher but couldn’t think of what would have started a fire. I remember saying that I really hoped no one at school would know and that they wouldn’t waste a jeans day on us. I was also praying that none of our neighbors were affected. I was just in a fog but needed to keep talking.
As we pulled onto our street I could see the fire trucks and lots of people standing around. I felt embarrassed and could feel everyone staring at us as we parked and walked up to the scene. There were no flames, and everyone seemed really calm so I started to think it was just a small fire and everything was fine. An officer came up to us and explained what they thought happened…the dishwasher. It started in the kitchen but was mostly smoldering and had been put out. I remember thinking thank goodness, we can just clean up the mess and get a new dishwasher, completely naive!
Another man came over and said he was from the animal control center and let us know that Dodger did not make it. My heart sank. It was at that moment I realized this was a much bigger situation than I realized. Then they said they would take us in, but to be prepared for heavy smoke.
Still in my mind I was picturing just some damage in the kitchen. As soon as we walked through the front door I wanted to lay down. Every inch of our home was black. Nothing was recognizable. I had no idea the extent of damage smoke could do. The windows were all black, you could not see out of them. The windows in the back of the house were smashed and pretty much the entire contents of our kitchen were thrown around the backyard. I just kept following the firemen but my head was spinning. I do however remember seeing a pair of my running shoes that had been right by the front door and kicked them outside thinking they weren’t too damaged.
The absolute worst part was walking into Ava’s room. Everything was so new and precious to me and it was all destroyed. Because my car was there, the firemen thought there may be someone home, and when they saw the baby’s room they really searched so things were strewn about. It hit me at that moment that our lives were going to change, but how lucky we were that we were not home when this happened. That my baby had no idea what was going on and did not have to live through something so scary…and that things could have been so much worse.
So basically every single thing we owned was destroyed, and the house would need to be gutted. The hard part was, it was all right in front of us. I don’t know if this made it worse, but I think for me it did. If everything had burned, I wouldn’t have necessarily remembered all of the little things like Ava’s pretty Easter dress she had worn the weekend before or her baptism gown that was still hanging in her closet.
The next few hours were a complete blur. After we left the house, we went to get Ava from my sister in laws house. I remember pulling up and seeing her standing in the door way looking at us through the glass, smiling with her cousin. I needed to see that smile as a reminder that what we still had was all we needed. My sister in law handed me two pairs of my nieces shoes for Ava to have, and I just thought this is all this little girl has in the world right now and she has no idea! I just wanted to hug her forever. She was my reason to stay strong and positive and my constant reminder of what was really important. Everything can be replaced.
So we took Ava to my parents so we could go out and buy some things we would need. We pulled into the Target parking lot and decided to each take a cart and split up. I headed to the women’s clothing department and Jeff went toward toothpaste and toiletry items. I walked around, and it’s hard to explain my thinking process. I would think, I can get this shirt to go with my black pants. Then I would remember I didn’t have those pants, or any pants for that matter! I thought about the irony of how that very morning I was tossing through my full closet thinking I had nothing to wear! I remember realizing I needed to get something to run the race in that weekend. That I would need shoes. Underwear. Socks. EVERYTHING.
It was probably a half hour later when Jeff met back up with me. Our carts should have been filled. But we both had maybe 3 things in them. It was too much. Too overwhelming. You just don’t know where to start. Texts and face book messages were starting to come in. Do you need anything? Are you ok? What can I do? And everything in between. I just kept saying we are fine! But I was starting to wonder if we were. How do you replace everything? It literally makes me dizzy even thinking about it now. We grabbed just a few things including diapers and baby stuff and decided to try again the next day.
Over the next few days we were overwhelmed with the generosity of our friends, coworkers, families, and even complete strangers. People sent cards, checks, gift cards, baby toys, books, clothes, etc. to our school. I had frequented a consignment shop in town and the owner reached out to me to let me know she had a toddler bed for Ava and a customer had bought her beautiful bedding for it. It really was incredible. My parents took us in and my sister transformed a room that had become kind of a storage closet into a room for Ava. Anything we needed seemed to be done and I feel like we can never repay all of the great things people did for us at this time. We were also very lucky that my uncle had a flood and fire business and led us through the process of insurance and other paperwork. I never would have known where to begin.
Ava took it all in stride. She never once questioned why we had moved into my mom’s house or why we never went home. She never asked for her old toys or books or any of it. I was really impressed with her to just go with the flow at such a young age. She also never asked for Dodger, which I was surprised by, but kind of relieved in a way not to have to explain it to her. We made a huge effort to keep life as “normal” as possible for her, making sure her schedule didn’t change much. She still went to dancing school and swim lessons and life went on.
So I ended up still running the marathon relay a few days later. Running has always been something I have used to de-stress, cope and even find it helps clear my head. I was looking forward to having a day to get away from all the paperwork and to-do lists and be around people who had no idea what I had been through, and have some normalcy. I had not run in a few days but it felt great. I got lost in my thoughts and instead of thinking of all the things we still had to do I just thought about how blessed we were. When I got done, I realized that those sneakers I thought escaped the smoke had not, my legs were black from the soot coming up as I ran. In a way it made me feel even stronger and more determined to stay positive. Hard to explain, but it did.
Over the past 4 years a lot has happened. About 6 months after the fire we moved into a rental by the beach. We absolutely loved living there and thought maybe this was where we would end up. It only lasted a month before Hurricane Sandy hit and that house was also damaged. So back to my parents we went, and decided just to stay there for the remainder of the rebuild. We also came to the conclusion that this was a sign that Ava was meant to be an only child. Too much was going on to even think about having another baby, and we were getting to an age where we wouldn’t be able to have any more kids. Glad Nolan had other ideas about that, what a blessing he is!
Fast forward Christmas 2013…I was about 8 months pregnant and our home was just about ready for us to move back. We took Ava to the house on Christmas morning and surprised her with a brand new big girl room. It was strange to go back with her, she had no memory of what it was like before when her room was still a nursery (we had just transformed her crib into a toddler bed). We moved back in January 2014…about a week before Nolan was born, 3 weeks early. The day he was born we were still buying diapers and necessities and assembling baby furniture. It was a great way to start our lives in our “new” home.
Last month, while away in North Carolina for a baseball trip, the kids and I went to a kid fest that was next door to our hotel. The Greenville Fire Department was there and had some fun activities for the kids, like letting them “drive” the fire truck. Inside, they had a booth and Ava participated in some activities. One thing she got to do was use a phone to make a mock 911 call to the fire department. The girl pretended to be a dispatcher and took her through the questions they would ask if there was a fire emergency. It was strange for me to stand there and watch my now 5 year old try and answer, and realize ironically we had never really discussed what to do if there was an emergency at home like a fire. Here are some of the questions she asked her…
How do you call 911?
What is your address?
Where is the safe place your family meets outside if there is a fire?
How do you get out of your house if there’s a fire?
You would think having gone through this we would have a plan. The 911 call was a great reminder to go over all of this with our kids. Truth is, I don’t think we even had a fire extinguisher in the house before (guess what we got for Christmas the year we moved back). We now are better about changing the smoke detector batteries. As a wedding gift we had received a fire proof safe from a coworker. Seemed unimportant at the time but all of our documents were protected and I would highly recommend going out and getting one if you don’t.
If you take nothing else from this post, I hope it encourages you to talk to your kids about emergencies. I was almost embarrassed that my kid could not answer any of the questions the dispatcher asked, especially after what we had been through. You just never know. I also hope you realize that life really is about the moments and not “stuff”. Live in the moment. Writing this post and looking through pictures I was reminded of all the smiles and adventures we had despite what was going on with our home and what we had lost. We had everything we needed. I am beyond grateful for everyone who helped us rebuild and supported us through those years. We truly are blessed.
Collect moments. Not things.