Three years ago this evening, we drove off to San Diego for the weekend for a family reunion with my husband David’s relatives. We had just booked into a hotel and sat down for dinner when we got a call from our neighbors saying our garage was on fire. It was one of those calls that you never want to get. We were three hours away from home and there was nothing we could do to save our home and our cat. Fortunately, another of our neighbors had called 911 and for the next few hours as we made our way home, we got intermittent reports on how well the firefighters were doing putting out the fire. By the time we got home, the firefighters had finished their work and left, and instead we faced vulture-like contractors hovering around our house eager for us to hire them to rebuild it.
From the moment we arrived home, we knew things were bad but we didn’t really understand the extent of the damage. Most importantly, the firefighters had saved our beloved cat, Tutti – the only family member who’d been at home during the fire. Poor thing – they’d even had to give him oxygen. As for the damage, we found out quickly that the fire had been contained in the garage and laundry room, which served also as a storage room for extra art, paperwork, baby clothes, and personal items. They were mostly destroyed. So was my car. I’d left my beloved red VW Beetle in the garage for the weekend, and the heat had melted its wiring, making it unsafe to drive. We went inside the house and walked around surveying the damage. The ceiling above the front door had been smashed open to allow the firefighters access to the house, and smoke had blown through all the power outlets and showerheads, leaving ugly black patches here and there throughout the house. But other than that, the house seemed in pretty good shape to us, considering. We imagined it would take a month or so to clean up the mess, and we crashed out at our neighbors’ homes trying to get some sleep.
The next morning, however, the insurance agent explained to us that because the electrical wiring was completely fried, it would all have to be replaced, which would mean ripping all the walls and floors open. So the house would basically have to be rebuilt. So we braced ourselves for a big upheaval – six months perhaps. Electrical items that had been plugged in at the time of the fire and mattresses and couches that had absorbed too much smoke to be cleaned – all these items had to be replaced. Everything else was to be cleaned – and it was when these things were returned to us in hundreds of boxes and dozens of plastic bags that I realized just how much stuff we had (began to want to get rid of as much stuff as possible.)
We moved into a hotel and then into a rental house a mile away and began a long and stressful relationship with a contractor to rebuild the house. We decided that while we were rebuilding the house we would make some changes, in particularly ones that would render the house easier for David to live in with his disability. Many people dream about rebuilding their homes and making them perfect, but being forced to rebuild your home because of a fire isn’t fun at all. Hundreds of decisions have to be made under the stress of being displaced and worries about time and insurance money running out, and everything takes longer and costs more than initial estimates. It took 1 year 4 months and 3 days before we were able to move back into our house, and even then it wasn’t finished. When it was finally completed, it did look more beautiful than ever and David and I realized we’d actually made some very good decisions about materials and colors despite our high stress levels.
Today, to mark the third year anniversary of the fire, I decided to offer a little token of my gratitude to the firefighters who put out the fire and rescued our cat. I had an extra glass jar in the kitchen. I went out to the drugstore and bought a couple of packets of Lifesavers candies. I filled up the jar and took it over to the firefighters at Los Angeles Fire Department Station #56. When I rang the bell, a familiar face greeted me – a tall, friendly firefighter called Ken, who I’d actually seen again a couple of times since the fire – once when David’s scooter had collapsed on our street and sent him crashing onto the pavement, and again this March when I had been having breathing in the middle of the night (before I was hospitalized for whooping cough). I felt a little silly handing Ken a small jar of candy as a thank you for the huge, dangerous job they had done for us, but Ken was incredibly graciously, smiling at my Lifesavers gesture, and reassuring me with the generous words, “It’s a pleasure to be of service.” Wow. When I think about the firefighters risking their lives to put out fires in the homes or businesses of people they don’t even know, day after day, I feel very humbled by the enormity of their daily gift to the world and even more inspired to make the last three months of my Giveaway really count.