The fire that destroyed my family’s home in September 2018 fortified my bond with my husband and daughter and taught us the value of embracing change.
If only just one of us had picked up our daughter from school instead of both of us. If only we hadn’t stopped to talk to our neighbor after dropping off their son. If only the fire department had shown up faster.
It happened so fast that we didn’t get to think about these “if onlys” until months later. Within 30 seconds of arriving home to fire alarms blaring and seeing the deep orange ball of fire behind our kitchen window, we were on the phone with the fire department, calling our closest loved ones, and holding our daughter close.
The fire consumed the kitchen and caused smoke and water damage to the entire house. A year and a half later, it is still being repaired. While we managed to rescue our dog, we lost our three beloved cats, who had huddled together in a closet and died of asphyxiation.
We lost countless items that held sentimental value – seashells that we had collected on family vacations, art projects we had created, my wedding dress. We also had to throw away a household of fire and smoke-damaged furniture, clothing, sporting equipment, electronics, and toys.
Even though our home insurance will replace the monetary value of our house and its contents, it could not provide us certainty about the future or wisdom about how to move forward with our lives. No insurers offer policies to protect “feelings.”
Our top priority was to have as little interruption as possible to our everyday lives, especially for our daughter, who had just started first grade. It began with eschewing my natural disinclination to ask for help, and being grateful for the generosity of friends, family, and even colleagues at work.
My parents didn’t even question flying home from their trip to Italy (without us even asking them to) to help us with our next steps. My best friend crowd-sourced help for us from her social network and put us up in her home for several days, also without being asked. Our friends in town offered their support in multiple ways. At the school where I was teaching, my mentor and my principal were instrumental in my shift to rebuilding mode with their outpouring of emotional support as well as offers of any items we may have needed. A local synagogue offered us membership free of fees.
The kindness that we received from others allowed us to focus on normalizing life for our daughter, which was challenging for several reasons. First, because our fire-damaged house was in a small town with few rental properties, we had to lease a house that was outside of her school district and therefore did not receive bus service. The fire also took place on her second day of first grade, and because she was in a new class without any of her friends from her previous kindergarten class, she did not have the support of her friends throughout the school day. Fortunately, we worked closely with her very dedicated teacher to monitor her progress, both academically and emotionally.
Our daughter learned, however, that not everyone exudes the same generosity of spirit as our close friends and family.
Several of her thoughtless classmates teased her about her “dead cats.” Her school’s policy forced all students to sit with their own class at lunch, which meant our daughter was not allowed to sit with her friends from her Kindergarten class, depriving her of support from her friends. At that point, we intervened for the sake of her emotional health and demanded that she be permitted some badly-needed interaction with friends at school during lunch.
Some of the folks on the town social media pages posted photos of our burning house without any altruistic purpose, which caused us to feel shame and sadness about our loss.
We experienced our emotions out loud because we felt it was essential to be authentic for our daughter. But we also made it clear that we would always be her support system. We cried together. We talked with her about why it was rude of her classmates to tease her about her cats and why posting pictures and information about a tragedy purely for the purpose of gossip, is a vulgar thing to do.
Life became manageable after taking stock of all that had happened and gaining an understanding of what we could control and what we could not. We moved forward by managing the portions of life that were in our control. We decided straight away that because we had been uprooted already and had lost so much, we weren’t going to change any aspect of our family routine unnecessarily. Our hobbies before the fire included crafting, traveling, and fawning over our cats. So we continued crafting and traveling. And while we will always mourn the cats we lost in the fire, we opened our hearts to two new cats, which we now revere like royalty.
Ultimately, we accepted that one of the positive aspects of losing almost everything is that we seized an opportunity to start over. We decided to move to a different, larger town after our lease on our rental home expired. The new town suits us better, and our daughter is thriving at her new school, which boasts a stronger culture of inclusion and respect than her previous school did. We traded in the large house for a much smaller but more updated property. Most importantly, we reinforced the importance of spending quality time together and supporting each other.
And while I would never, ever want to go through this ordeal again, nor would I wish this or any life-changing loss on anyone, the value the material possessions that burned is trivial compared to the wisdom, strength, and closeness that rose from the ashes.