BEAUTY FROM ASHES
It was a bitterly cold January night. The thermometer registered 18 degrees below zero. Normally, my husband and I ride together to church, but on this particular Sunday night, we drove separately. That explains why he found himself home alone when tragedy struck. Taking pity on our pets, who stayed in the garage, my husband had attempted to start a fire in the small wood burning stove we used to warm the garage. Who would have imagined that the fire would explode into the cold, dry air igniting him along with all the surroundings?
Lingering longer to visit, my daughter-in-law and I were the only ones left in the church auditorium. We were jolted into a panic when my son (her husband) suddenly burst through the side door calling out “Get your coats on! We have to get home! The house is on fire!” Instantly, I began to hyper ventilate and feel as though I would faint.
Despite being in a state of shock and disbelief, the four of us somehow managed to hurriedly pull our coats on and pile into two vehicles, to begin the 15 minute drive (aka ”race,” watching the speed limit as best we could under the circumstances) toward home! Driving responsibilities were rearranged to allow me to be a passenger. In my condition, I knew I could not drive! Visibly struggling, I will never forget the calming effect the Scriptures had on my mental and physical state, when, before we had exited the parking lot, my then-teenage daughter opened her Bible and began reading aloud from the Psalms. Barely stopping for a breath, she continued non-stop until we reached home. Nearing the normally quiet country road that runs past our house, we began to see a steady stream of traffic, as if we were approaching a busy freeway! No one had to tell me why all those cars were out driving on that dreadfully cold winter night! My heart sank as the realization hit me, “THIS is no small fire.”
All there was to do was stop on the road in front of our house and watch the surreal scene unfold. The long, winding- and by now ice-packed- driveway, due to the large amount of water being sprayed on the house, was blocked. The house literally looked like a gigantic, roaring bonfire! Besides the blazing inferno, there was a huge, portable receptacle/pool of water (constructed by the Fire Department) in the front yard. Fire trucks, police cars and emergency vehicles with lights flashing, created a scene that lighted the cold night sky for miles around! I sat in the car watching as flames lept high above the third level of our previously restored 1912 farmhouse! I tried my best to quell the frantic thoughts racing through my mind. “Where is my husband? What has happened to him?” As car after car of curiousity-seekers kept driving by, I sat in shocked silence, immersed in thought. “Lord, I don’t understand why this is happening. Somehow I have to believe you have a reason.”
Time seemed to stand still. After a while (how long I have no clue), someone found me and escorted me to the ambulance where my husband was being treated for second degree burns. We soon left for the hospital, not knowing whether our house would totally burn down or not. Honestly, at that point, I was so relieved to see my husband, that nothing else really mattered much.
The rest of that night continued to be surreal for me. It was hard to watch my husband suffer in pain from his burns. As the news spread, concerned church members began arriving at the ER in the wee hours. What could I say to everyone? What was the meaning of this? In those moments, I felt the Lord tenderly remind me of the sermon on total surrender my husband had preached, just a few hours earlier. Was I willing to allow God to have His Way in our lives? Looking into the faces of our dear people, I could think of nothing more to say than, “Evidently, it must have been God’s Plan to use us as a real life example of the message your pastor just preached!”
It was almost a week, before my dear husband and I ventured back into the charred remains of what was, a very short time before, our beautiful home! I won’t lie. It was an emotional overload for me to see the filthy, trashed ruins of the home we loved. We saw unrecognizable charred piles, of what…we could not tell, gaping holes in burned walls, places where firemen had used chain saws, looking for fire pockets. Walls and ceilings were completely gone in some places leaving the rest of our house wide open to the elements of that frigid winter. Whatever was not burned was smoke and/or water damaged, and literally everything remaining was covered in a black, greasy film. Toxic fumes permeated the house. We stayed only a few short minutes. I remember seeing the effect on my husband and telling myself, “This is too hard for him to see. I don’t want him to come back in here until he is well and has totally recovered from his burns.”
The weeks that followed were a blur. We had no clothes except for what we were wearing the night of the fire. We no longer had a home, and we were living in a local motel. Suddenly, our lives consisted of dealing with painful burns, doctor visits, daily dressings that needed to be cared for, the reorganizing of schedules, duties, and priorities. Because of my husband’s injuries, I became the “designated driver.” The below zero temps continued, further emphasizing the other extreme changes that had now become our life.
Those first few days, we were both in a state of shock, suffering flashbacks from the trauma, and finding it difficult to sleep at night. My husband was exhausted from the ongoing pain of his burns. Not wanting to scare the children by his bandaged, swollen appearance, he decided to wait several weeks before he went back to church. In every way it seemed the basic structure of our lives had been turned upside down! Looking back now, the weirdest things from those painful days stick in my mind! Like the one day, I remember needing a clothes brush, arriving at the store, upon seeing all the other things I also needed, I just turned around and left without anything! Normal, simple things became too overwhelming and impossibly monumental!
Within days, after the fire occurred, we began meeting with our insurance adjustor, who explained what we needed to do to file a claim. When he stated “most people with this much devastation just walk away,” the realization hit me! There was only one way to get my home back, and the majority of the task would fall to me. We were so thankful to have a wonderful church family who helped us in so many ways. However, there were just some things no one could do for us. There was only one person who really knew and could identify what items, now burned, were in my house, and if I wanted my home back, I had to do it.
Over the next four months, wearing a breathing mask, I spent hours in my burned house, working to chart, log and record everything I possibly could, with hopes of one day having our family home restored. Eighty plus percent of the belongings we had accumulated, over 30 years of married life, had to be disposed of. (Three industrial-sized construction dumpsters were filled with fire-damaged debris.) Often tears came to my eyes as I went room by room, sifting and sorting through charred, soot-covered items, trying to satisfy the insurance requirements. It was “stuff,” just earthly belongings. Yes, that was true. Oddly enough, it wasn’t the loss of “things” that bothered me, but the memories attached to those belongings, and the fact that our family no longer had a place to call “home.” Methodically going through that process made me feel like I was reliving our family history and throwing away my children’s childhood. It was a constant exercise in “letting go.”
There were mountains of “paper work:” recording, filling out forms and documentation. And then there was “leg work,” actually going to stores and malls, finding comparable items, recording prices, descriptions, getting receipts and more documentation. On and on it went! I seriously wondered if my life would ever be normal again! Some people worried about me. I’m sure I often had the “deer in the headlights” look as a result of the stress. It was a blessing to have our contractor-son oversee the rebuilding process. Now, there were new challenges, and even more work to be done. It was six months before we were able to move back home, and well over a year before anything felt close to normal again. There were many things to learn from this traumatic event in our family history.
We did not ask for this trial. I never would have chosen it. In the beginning, I had to force myself to make a conscious choice to see it as a blessing. Looking back now, I see that this choice was a critical factor for me. None of this was easy. My frayed emotions often said this was anything but a blessing! Still, I had a sense that if I got this wrong, it would be a turning point in our family’s history!
There can be a large difference between “saying it and believing it!” It is in the hardest of times that we decide whether we truly believe and trust God’s Will. Even though there were times of struggle, I wanted to believe the fire would turn out to be a blessing. I knew focusing on the Goodness of God was the only way to avoid self-pity and bitterness.
I tried to count my blessings. Over the years, I had seen what happened in the lives of people who focus only on the “loss” and forget about all the blessings God provides daily.
My husband was still alive! The experts were amazed that he survived! Most people with his experience don’t! It was a miracle. I should be thankful, and I need to remember that there is always someone whose trial is deeper, harder, and longer than mine.
The fire fighters told us that our home was a mere five minutes from being burned to the ground! God blessed us, and like Job, He gave us more than we had before!
Being on front page news, we had the opportunity for God to use us as an example and testimony to our lost community. Everywhere we went, people were asking us questions, and we had many opportunities to witness, as a result. We were privileged for the Lord to use us to be a living example to our church members, showing them a path to praising the Lord amidst the trials of life. We were blessed, time and again, by our wonderful church family. (Meals, help with laundry, notes of encouragement, help with removal of burned items, etc. The list is endless.)
We really should not expect mortal life to be trouble-free, smooth sailing, or perfect! That’s only heaven! Don’t be like I was in my early married life. I often worried about the “what if’s” of the years ahead. Time and time again, I’ve experienced a Heavenly Father who is so loving and patient to teach me that even if “tragedy” strikes, God is still in control. Nothing takes Him by surprise. When the unexpected happens, and the dust finally settles, He shows another plan, a different path, and always a solid answer for every situation of life! He is trustworthy and faithful. No matter what the circumstances are or what my emotions say, He is always, always good!
Editor’s note: January marked 10 years since our “house fire.”