It was stupid; let’s get that part out of the way. It was unbelievably stupid for me to walk away from a pan with oil in it, sitting on a hot stove.
But I did it, because sometimes I do stupid things. And as a single mom, there’s never another adult around to catch me in the moment when my highly distractible nature leads me to do these stupid things.
I was making stovetop popcorn, the same way my mom used to when I was a kid. I’ve done this a thousand times before. But this time, I needed to pee. And I’d stupidly assumed I had a few minutes before the oil in the pan would be ready.
When I came out of the bathroom, the flames were already reaching up toward the ceiling.
My daughter was sleeping. My dog was freaking out. The fire alarms hadn’t gone off yet, even though one was just a few feet away from where the fire began.
I ran into the kitchen and pulled out our fire extinguisher from under the sink. This wasn’t the first time I’d used one, but for some reason when I pulled the pin and pointed the extinguisher at the flames before pushing the handle down, nothing happened. I battled with it there in the kitchen for a second.
There was no one to call to for help; no one to tell me what I was doing wrong. It was just me, staring at the flames reaching well above my head and trying to figure out what to do next.
I began screaming for my daughter to wake up. And as the flames rose, I realized I was seconds away from having my only exit out of the kitchen blocked off.
I was in the house alone with my 4-year-old. If I got trapped in the kitchen, there would have been no one around to get her out. As that horrifying thought overwhelmed me, the fire alarms finally sounded.
I ducked down and out of the kitchen, hurling the useless fire extinguisher behind me. I screamed for my daughter to wake up again, yelling above the alarms. I wondered if I had time to go for our other extinguisher, the one I’d purchased and stashed in a different location when I completed my foster care certification. I wondered if I should just grab my daughter and run.
With no one around to help me make that decision, I glanced back at our kitchen. I figured I had maybe 30 seconds before giving up would be the only option. This was our home; I needed to try.
Reaching into the hall closet, I grabbed our backup extinguisher. Pulling the pin, I quickly looked to ensure I had the instructions right. Then I pointed it at the fire and pressed down on the handle.
This time, it worked.
It took about 10 seconds to completely extinguish the fire. I burned myself reaching under the melting microwave to turn the stove off. I stood there in shock for a moment, as the room filled with smoke and extinguisher dust. The cabinets were charred. The microwave had been destroyed. A white film covered everything I could see.
My daughter was still sound asleep. Despite the fire alarm in her room, she never woke up. If I had gotten hurt, she would have been trapped. My mind raced through all these horrible thoughts of what-if and how-bad-it-could-have-been. I felt scared and alone and so completely ill-equipped to take care of myself, let alone my daughter and our puppy.
That’s the thing about single motherhood, most of the time I feel like I totally have this. We have a good life. My daughter goes to a great school. I take her to swim lessons and play dates with friends; we spend our weekends outside playing with our dog.
But every once in a while, I screw up bad enough that I’m left to wonder how I could have ever thought this would be a good idea. How I could have ever decided that I was capable of doing this all on my own. That night was one of those moments.
I was shaken and scared. And I wanted to know someone else was in our home helping me keep my daughter safe. I wanted arms wrapped around me, telling me everything would be okay. I wanted someone who loved me to swoop in and help me with the cleanup.
Instead, I was there by myself. Surveying the damage and trying to figure out where to start. Eventually, I had no other choice but to begin cleaning. The job took more than five hours that night, and several hours over the next few days. I’m still finding extinguisher dust in corners of every room and as I open drawers. Our microwave melted all over the stovetop, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully remove the soot from our ceiling.
I didn’t cry though. Not until I was crawling into bed that night and the weight of what had happened fully hit me. I was embarrassed to tell people what had happened the next day because it was stupid. Walking away from a pot of oil on the stove had been so, so stupid.
But I was surprised as friends praised me for my quick thinking. For having a second fire extinguisher at all. For remaining calm and putting out the flames. For cleaning it all up myself. For keeping a cool head when it mattered. For finding a killer deal on a new microwave. For having our house mostly back to normal within a week.
I still catch my breath when I think about that night. I went out and bought three new fire extinguishers the next day, and I’ve been researching alternative fire alarms meant for waking kids up in an emergency. I had an electrician come out and check our wiring just this week, purely because the thought of another fire had been keeping me up at night.
But when it mattered, I suppose my friends are right. I did keep myself together long enough to put out the flames. I did put our house back together enough so that my daughter wouldn’t be scared when she woke the next morning.
It’s hard sometimes, doing it all on my own without someone else here to help me hold all the pieces together. It’s especially hard to not tear myself apart when it literally all goes up in flames. But I suppose there is something empowering about knowing that when it mattered, I knew what to do and didn’t hesitate to act.
Sure, it would be easier if there were someone else here. But most days, even when I’m practically lighting our house on fire, I suppose I’ve still got this … and that’s got to count for something.