Eleven years ago today my family watched a fire destroy our home. I wrote this piece a few years later and today I share it in honor of the lessons God began to teach me as I watched the flames wreck a house so full of memories.
Mom and I are sitting in the den when the alarm sounds. We are tense, tired. It’s been quite a year for our family.
Stunned silence passes between us. Surely there is a mistake. But the crackling, the popping, the blackened sheets of wood and plaster that cascade past the window and into the pool can’t be denied.
My brother strides down the stairs, phone held to his ear. “Yes. Our house is on fire.”
He repeats our address and we calmly fall into line, one after the other. I grab the dog. I have forgotten to put on my shoes.
Once outside, Mom turns and runs. Back inside the house.
My brother and I stand on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, waiting. I am barefoot on the concrete, which would be hot this time of year if it wasn’t for the strange windstorm sweeping across Texas. My toes are cold.
My eyes are fixed on the orange tongue that is lapping at our roof. I always thought fire was red, but it’s not – it’s taking on the color of whatever it touches, like a chameleon, or a dragon. Sulfur, smoke, and freshly mowed grass mingle in the air.
Mom reappears, my handbag clutched to her chest. Breathing heavily, she hands me my bag.
“Thank God, Mom.” I reach out, touch her shoulder.
“You needed your keys. Go move the car.”
My CR-V is a few yards from the house, but the fire is only on the roof. Surely the wind will die, the fire will stop. I shiver.
“The fire won’t reach the car, Mom,” I say. “Can’t we leave it?”
Mom blinks. “Give me the keys.” As she runs to the car I feel something like shame.
When she returns, the car safely moved to the end of the street, she hands me the keys.
As their weight hits my palm, I consider bolting to the Honda, my own coffee-scented, bumper-sticker-slapped haven. I could roll the windows down, blast country radio, high-tail it out of there in five-minutes flat.
Instead, I follow Mom to the house next door. The fire truck pulls up about the same time I realize that after five years of sharing a curb, this is the first time I have officially met these neighbors. It feels absurd to knock on their door and ask for shelter, but no more absurd than the windstorm and the flames.
I use their phone to call my father.
“Dad? You need to come home.”
When I hang up I return to the couch where my mom and brother hover with hollow eyes. Our neighbor has gone to the kitchen to fetch some iced tea. Mom coughs and covers her mouth. She has been in bed for the last week with the flu.
As she removes her hand from her face, her eyes rest on her left hand. “My rings,” she whispers.
Her fingers are naked. She tells me that when she crawled into bed last week she removed all of her jewelry, including her diamond-studded wedding ring and sapphire-rimmed anniversary ring, neither of which I have ever seen her without.
She coughs again – wait, no. She is sobbing. “My rings!”
I reach out, touch her, see the touch of gray under her warm chocolate eyes. I think of the naïve, youthful face beaming from sepia-tone photos, the memories of a girl from the Mojave Desert, dressed in lace as she stood beside my side-burned father.
“Oh, Mom,” I gasp. “Your wedding photos.”
She looks up. “All of our photos.”
I need to escape. Out on my neighbors’ lawn the wind blows ash and heat upon my face. The flame has continued to grow, despite the firefighters’ efforts. The spray from the fire hoses, like the sword of a heroic yet all-too-human prince, seems no match for the dragon, who is devouring our treasures.
Photographic memories and memories of photos intertwine in my mind. Do I remember the kindness in my great grandpa’s eyes, his hands encircling my waist as I perched upon the back of that great dappled horse? Or just the faded photo of his sun-wrinkled, winking smile, cowboy hat and dirty overalls? Without the photos, will I forget?
I think, well, at least I have my journals – oh no. My throat constricts as I imagine the upstairs closet, my trove of childhood treasures, now consumed. My scrapbooks of photos, carefully organized and pasted with stickers and bits of ribbon; my dog-eared, underlined, well-loved books; these riches are all secondary to the boxes of journals, the diaries and notebooks and steno pads that hold in their bindings the story of my life.
Prickling heat rises up my back to my neck and my face as the question why resounds around and within me. Before me, the flame that rises is quiet and slow-moving. I stare into the core of it, pensive and still. The flame seems to change as my vision blurs and flickers, my eyes unblinking, my feet firmly planted in the soil.
It is then I see a vision of a mighty hand, holding the flame, controlling the flame, and beckoning my soul to quiet itself in its presence. The fire, in this moment, seems central not only to my life story, but to the universe.
Love. There is love. A whisper through my mind. Stuff. It’s just stuff. My shoulders, as high as my earlobes, begin to slowly descend, neck relaxing, knots loosening. At what point did the object become the treasure? Could this great flame be like the forest fire that scours the remains of life along its decaying floor? Like the soil in such forests, replenished with nutrients after a necessary evil, could our hearts and our souls be renewed?
I turn from the flame. Dad should be here soon. My family is safe. I should go to them.
A few days later, the phone rings at my apartment. It’s Mom.
“You are never going to believe this.”
She tells me that when the first firefighter emerged from the damp, sooty ruins, he approached her with outstretched hands. “We tried to grab anything that seemed might be important,” he said.
“Erin,” Mom barely whispers, “Do you know what he saw, and saved from the wreckage? My wedding rings. The wedding album. And a box of your journals.”
Goosebumps prickle my arms. Having let go, having given in, we are rewarded by the very treasures which we most feared to lose. I wonder: is this what a miracle looks like? Could this be grace? The air seems charged with magic.
I am still in awe a few days later when Dad takes me back to the site to walk through the house. For closure, he says.
After further investigation, my father and the firefighters have discovered more buried treasure: salvaged photo albums, letters, china. My legs are shaking as I climb the crumbling stairs. How was this foundation not destroyed? Up in my room, my guitar lies blackened in the corner, grinning toothlessly. Rubble blocks the path to my closet of childhood treasures, and the wind whistles through the cracks in the brick walls, fingering remnants of paper and ribbon and twine. Yet there is something more. Dad comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Dad, do you see?”
Shards of glass by the thousands, a myriad of colors, dust the fallen ceiling fan, the throw pillows, the floor. Christmas ornaments, shattered, have fallen through the attic and fill the space with an ethereal light. Rainbows dance on the soot-charred walls, pinpricks of hope in a desolate space. It is magic. It is grace.
Among the wreckage and the ruins of my family’s memories and mistakes, I feel like I am standing on sacred ground.