Everything smelled like burnt plastic and seared wood and I just wanted to get back in the Honda and drive.
You couldn’t escape the stench.
Even the unstoppable January winds couldn’t seem to blow yesterday’s fire back into yesterday.
I was with two women from the Red Cross and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to be there. But who would? Who would want to be on the front porch of their home, a place of summertime memories, a place we spent watering plants, chasing kids, and sunset-watching, the day after the thing had caught fire? But still, I remember hearing one lady talking to me like Charlie Brown’s schoolteacher and in that moment I wanted her to just shut up.
I was, quite simply, blown apart. Our whole dream was dead. My ex-wife and I had moved into this house in a small country town hoping to create the kind of life for our two kids, Violet, 3, and Henry, 9 months, that we had never had. And for a while, we had. It was all going according to plan. We had the big house and the yard and we were in love with everything about where we’d ended up in this world after a lot of moving around and soul-searching.
Then, six months after we moved in, a few days after a pretty magical first Christmas in what finally felt like home, some passerby was pounding on our front door, yelling for us to get out.
“Hurry up,” he shouted at me through the storm door. “The top of your house is burning!”
And then one day later I was standing on the porch with the smell of burnt plastic all around me.
Now these two women, nice enough women who had started calling my cell phone even while the firefighters were still fighting the freakin fire the day before, were trying to keep their papers from flying off their clipboard and asking me about what mattresses we had lost and whether we had any diapers or needed any jackets. It was all so surreal and I wanted it to end.
But although I felt my soul had collapsed dead within my ribcage I still couldn’t be rude. That’s not me. That’s not any way to be to people taking an interest in your traumatized ass. Besides, as I sat there freezing my face off and answering their gentle questions, there was something about each of them that struck me. Something about them hit me as genuine and real.
At first, I couldn’t put my finger on why exactly The Red Cross would care about me or my family. I’d never donated any money to them except maybe a dollar or two outside the mall. I didn’t know anyone with any Red Cross stories or connections, either. The organization and the people who might be involved in it, and whatever it was that they did, or who they helped … none of that meant a thing to me for 40 years of living. To me, The Red Cross was a side story on the news; I thought they were the ones who made big vats of coffee for rescue workers pulling people out of flooded second-floor windows in a state far away. Maybe they handed out Army surplus blankets to tornado victims in an Oklahoma high school gym, I didn’t know. What I knew was that they had nothing to do with me or my world — and that’s all that mattered.
Now this though. Fire. Kids. Damage. Loss. Mattresses. Burnt up love letters in a sloppy heap in the driveway.
I smoked cigarettes as the ladies took turns talking to me. I was a mess, I can see that now. At the time, I thought I was handling everything pretty well considering, but looking back now I remember the things hurling through my brain. I was so scared. Why had this happened? Why did we have to give up everything we had just achieved, this home for our family?
I signed the papers at the end of our chat. Then we ended up talking about music. Out there in the roaring winds, on the porch of the uninhabitable place of dreams, we sat on a bench and talked about music. And food. And wine. By the time they handed me one of those ATM credit card things loaded with way more money than I had ever imagined, I had forgotten about the acrid smells and my pounding heart and the evil cold winds blowing through the shattered windows of my baby girl’s bedroom.
We were just three people laughing and smoking out there on a porch.
I put the card in my wallet eventually and we got up to go. I remember it was so brutally cold and they were both shivering. One of them said that we should have just sat in their car and done this whole meeting. We looked at each other and laughed. No one had even thought of that. I’ll never know why, I guess, but it seems to me there must be a little meaning in the fact that we sat on that porch when most people would have bailed.
“Call us if you need anything else at all, okay?” that’s what the boss lady said.
I nodded and threw my arms around her, catching her by surprise. I didn’t care. I needed to hug her.
She squeezed me back pretty good, too. Then I went and squeezed the other lady. I was holding back tears at this point.
Those women proved to me that day that there is help and decency out there in this mad world. To those of you reading this, I hope you never have to sit on your own porch and smell the smell of your own life burning up all around you, but if you do, you do. Just know that The American Red Cross can be there for your family like they were there for mine. With resources like their new app, MonsterGuard, you can help prepare yourself and your kids for real life emergencies. And that’s a pretty cool thing indeed.More On