A home burns and lives are upended. But amid such loss, one’s heart is seared with a deeper appreciation of what’s truly important.

Story by Jessica Gordon
Photograph by Chris Colpo of the Lewes Fire Department
From the Winter 2022 issue


I am holding my breath, staring wide-eyed, unblinking. My heart pounds in my chest as if it’s trying to escape the confines of my rib cage. The rapid, rhythmic pumping of blood is all I can hear and my entire body trembles, like an earthquake has taken place in my solar plexus. 



Count: One. Two. Two. 


For a very brief moment, I foolishly entertain the possibility that this is just an incredibly realistic nightmare. Surely this isn’t happening? 

It’s a feeble attempt at wishful thinking, and I am faced with the reality that although my heart is beating and my blood is pumping, I am neither breathing nor blinking. Instead, I’m violently shaking on the sidewalk across the street from my house, watching it burn. 



Count: One. Two. Two. 

It is nearly 10 p.m. on Saturday, March 20, 2021. The street is deserted and silent with the exception of the beeps of the smoke detectors coming from inside our house. Our neighbors don’t yet know what is unfolding, but they will very soon. 

I watch the clouds of smoke that originated in our bedroom begin to plume from the eaves of the second story roofline. The nighttime darkness is punctured only by the streetlights and the small orange glow radiating from our house, which increases in size and brightness by the minute. 

As much as this scene makes my stomach turn, I can’t look away. Just moments ago we had been gathered around the fireplace in our living room, laughing and enjoying a rare evening with friends. Now we are across the street in the cold, helplessly watching our home be destroyed. I can’t wrap my head around how fast things went from cathartic to chaotic. 

As the sirens at the firehouse just blocks away start to wail, I check on our girls, then 12 and 11 years old, in our friend’s truck parked next to us in our neighbor’s driveway. My older daughter is sobbing, gasping for breath. She is trying to say something, but I can’t decipher her words. I try to calm her, but I don’t even know what to say. 

Our friend Lindsay holds both of them as they huddle in the back seat, and I silently give thanks for her because I am physically incapable of soothing, reassuring, or attempting anything besides trying to stay on my feet. But I don’t always succeed, and often have to crouch down. Recurring adrenaline rushes allow me to stand again. This happens over and over. 

As I start to pace the sidewalk, I see a firefighter in his personal car racing past our home toward the firehouse. I know he’s a firefighter not only by his speed of travel, but also because he stares at our home as he passes by, quickly trying to assess the monster he is about to come face to face with. I want to vomit for him. I want to vomit for us. 



Count. One. Two. Two. 

“How did this happen?” I ask my husband, John, taking a short break from pacing. We stare blankly at each other for a moment, and he doesn’t respond. So I go back to the things I’m actually able to focus on: blinking, breathing and methodically, obsessively, silently counting the members of my family who surround me: one husband, two kids, two dogs. 

My mind goes to Crackers, my daughter’s hamster in his cage on the third floor of our house. There is no way out for him, and the horror of the situation and the twinge of guilt I have is almost too much to take. No living, breathing creature should die like that. The thought of his impending death makes me dizzy, and I have to crouch down again and gather myself before standing back up. 

Despite the fact that it is March, a notoriously blustery month at the beach, it had been a gorgeous, warm day with abundant sunshine. We had spent the afternoon on the beach, watching as our daughters did cartwheels in the sand, barefoot and dressed in just T-shirts and sweatpants, no jackets needed. Spring is just around the corner. 

Both of our daughters had asked if they could have friends sleep over that night, but COVID-19 is still prevalent. We hate to tell our kids no, but we did that day.

We had arrived home around dinnertime, and although it had been a beautiful day in the 60s, it was supposed to drop below freezing overnight. You could already feel the chill in the air, and the girls asked John to build a fire. 

“Let’s enjoy this, girls,” John told us as he lit the wood in our fireplace. “This is probably our last fire of the season.” 

Where there’s smoke …

Around 9 p.m., our friends Chris and Lindsay called from their car. They had been out to dinner and were driving past our house on their way home, but were wondering if we were up for a visit. Since the start of the pandemic, our in-home visits had been few and far between. 

But we told them to come by. 

The NCAA basketball tournament was on, and as a basketball-loving family, we were wrapped up in the excitement of March Madness, switching between games and watching the battles unfold. The girls asked if they could stay up later than usual, anticipating a fun evening past their bedtime, and we said yes. 

Ten minutes later we were all in the living room next to the fire, watching the games, talking, laughing and enjoying some beers (girls and dogs excluded). 

And then, in the midst of laughter and conversation and fire watching and Saturday night revelry, a smoke detector on our second floor went off. 

Beep, beep, beep

John and I looked at each other quizzically. But when we locked eyes, we both somehow knew something was very wrong. 

Within seconds, all the other smoke detectors in the house began to warn us in chorus. The beeps were ear piercing and made all of us jump to our feet (girls and dogs included). 

As John and I hastily made our way upstairs, we simultaneously said that we could smell smoke. When we rounded the 90-degree turn at the top of the stairs to enter the hallway, we were struck with a solid foot of rolling gray-black smoke on the ceiling. Glancing into our daughter’s bedrooms as we moved down the hallway, it became obvious the smoke was coming from our bedroom. As we entered the room and continued to follow the smoke as it became thicker, we saw fire erupting from the floor of John’s closet. Directly below it was our fireplace. 

The fireball where John’s clothes and shoes once resided pumped out enormous waves of black smoke in intervals of just a few seconds. We could hear the crackling of wood, but it wasn’t from the wood in the fireplace. It was the framing of our house. 

I stood still for a brief moment, simultaneously amazed and horrified that as a fire raged behind the walls of our living room and up into our bedroom, we had had no indication whatsoever of the destruction unfolding. 

We both knew immediately that it was too late to do anything but get out and call for help.

As we ran from our bedroom back downstairs, my heart initiated its attempt at escape from my chest, pounding furiously and sending my blood rushing with an intensity that echoed in my ears. I grabbed my phone to call 911 and Chris and Lindsay ushered the girls and the dogs out of the house and into Chris’s truck parked in our driveway.

The kids are safe.

The dogs are safe. 

As I tell myself these things, I feel my entire body exhale, and I’m able to shut down that part of my brain that first goes to the safety of my family. Now it’s John and I, trying to figure out what to do next. 

What the hell do we do next? 

How, in the midst of chaos, do you try to determine which material things to try to salvage? Did I even know where our wedding album was? Was there time to retrieve photos, some of the kids’ artwork, their keepsakes, the ring my grandmother had given me? 

As I relay information to the 911 operator, I hear John tell me to grab what I can as he goes back into the house. 

This does not concern me, because I am not thinking about the possibility of losing our entire house. I’m not really thinking at all. But I try to answer the 911 operator’s questions as I simultaneously rack my brain for what to save.

My mind goes to my laptop on the third floor. Since getting laid off from my job at the start of the pandemic, I had started my own marketing company, and everything was on that laptop. 

So I head back into the house and up the stairs to the second floor. 

Grab what you can. 

My mind is both blank and flooded with a cacophony of thoughts. What can I get to besides the laptop? What material things take precedence now that my family is safe? Surely the fire department will get here soon and they will put the fire out and maybe our bedroom will be damaged but …

As I reach the second floor, I stop short and feel my stomach drop, like I’m on a roller coaster that has just started its rapid descent, no brakes, just air. Except there is no excitement on this ride, just fear. And very little air. 

The smoke has inhabited the entire hallway, not just the ceiling. The lights in our bedroom down the hall are still on, emitting a foggy beacon, but gray-black haze makes it eerily dark. It is also hauntingly quiet, which is impossible because the smoke alarms are screaming. But it feels like the silence is deafening, as if arriving upstairs transported me to another dimension far away from the rest of the house. 

Get out! my mind screams. Run! 

But I don’t. 

While my rational mind tells me one thing, my heart tells me another. This is our house. We live here, raise our kids here, eat meals and celebrate holidays and entertain family and friends within its walls. No way is a fire going to take that from us. While I don’t completely understand the magnitude of the catastrophe taking place, I also don’t want to. Denial is an intensely strong emotion. 

So I divert my eyes from my looming nemesis, turn and round the corner toward the third floor. 

Grab what 

you can. 

My laptop. I have to get my laptop. And Crackers the hamster is just a few feet from where my laptop is, so I can grab him while I’m up there. I wonder if I have time to find the little ball of fluff buried in his bedding, and I think about where I can stuff him as we exit the house.

But before I reach the top landing, my mind takes over for my heart. The little voice that had been waving red flags in my consciousness is now screaming at me with all the might of self-preservation. 

I am choking; the air is thin and rapidly disappearing. It is hot. I had just run through a hallway that became engulfed in smoke in mere minutes. 

What the hell am I doing?!

I am incredulous that my heart thought it could take on a fire, but also sort of impressed by her determination. 

I hear John screaming my name from downstairs, and, cursing, I abandon my mission. I turn around and flee down the two flights of stairs and out of my home.

 Hugs and ashes

When we first laid eyes on our house just four years earlier, we were smitten. With three stories, light pouring in from windows in every room, Brazilian cherry hardwood floors that gleamed, and character from more than 100 years of history, it was exactly what we had been looking for. It also sat on a large lot in Lewes and was within walking distance of downtown and our younger daughter’s school. 

And that fireplace.

Brick, it sat catty-cornered in the living room, outlined by gorgeous trim work and a mantel perfect for hanging Christmas stockings. We felt so 

fortunate to have found this historic beauty and it had felt like home from the moment we walked in.

Now we are standing across the street from our dream house as it is being ravaged by flames and smoke. As the smoke alarms beep in the distance and the fire engine sirens scream our way, I feel utterly helpless and more alone than I ever have in my life. 

Although it feels like forever, help shows up quickly. At first it is just one lone firefighter who happens to live close by. 

“Is everyone out?” he asks. 

After I confirm that we are, the reality of what happens next suddenly washes over me: We are all out, and he is about to go in. I almost want to tell him — a volunteer firefighter — to let it burn. 

He immediately gets to work and is soon joined by others from the Lewes Fire Department. It is an amazing scene to witness as they work fluidly, seamlessly, closing off the road, running lines of hoses, working in unison. Soon the Rehoboth Beach Fire Company arrives. I don’t know it at the time, but later learn there are a total of four fire departments responding to our call: Milton and Indian River join the ranks as well. 

The approaching sirens seem endless. They come one after another, many of them sounded by volunteer firefighters who dropped their Saturday night plans to help a family they didn’t know, to battle the monster in our adult-sized nightmare. 

In addition to the firefighters, our neighbors are now coming out to see what all the fuss is about. They stare incredulously at our home, then disappear into theirs and come back with an assortment of items for us: water bottles, blankets, coats, hot tea in a thermos. It is close to freezing at this point in the night; the temperature dropped to the mid-30s.

As the night drags on, it seems each time I turn away from the train wreck that is our home, I am turning into another hug. Like the fire trucks, our friends and local family show up, one after another. 

The bodily earthquake within me continues to rumble as I stand surrounded by our people on the sidewalk. The night is pierced by sounds of CB radios, breaking glass and voices of firefighters strategizing. Any hope that the blaze wouldn’t destroy our home entirely is quickly fading. 

When I hear a chainsaw start up, my bottom lip starts to quiver and I have to turn away. John is walking toward me, arms outstretched. I bury my face into his chest and let loose the flow of tears that have been dammed up for hours.

“It’s just stuff,” he says, but he is shaking too. “It can all be replaced.” 

And he’s right, most of it can. But not all of it.

Just moments later, the first firefighter on the scene approaches us. 

“Is there anything in particular you’d like us to try to save?” 

There are so many things. So. Many. Things. Yet — inexplicably — my mind is blank. 

“My mom’s ashes,” John says quietly. 

Like a bolt of lightning, I realize what my older daughter, Mia, had been trying to say earlier through her tears: “Mom Mom is in there.”

Babs had passed away in June of 2019 after an eight-week battle with pancreatic cancer. Eight short, brutal weeks. It seemed to come out of nowhere, since by the time the disease was discovered there was nothing that could be done. The urn containing her ashes stayed with one of her four children on a rotating basis; we had Babs with us when the fire broke out. 

Wordlessly, the firefighter disappears back into the house. 

How had I forgotten about Babs? What else was I forgetting? 

The fire chief approaches us, offering words of consolation. He asks us some questions and confirms what we had suspected: It was a chimney fire. That beautiful corner fireplace of ours had an unusual flue that sat at a 45-degree angle just above the hearth behind the wall. That is where the fire originated, burning through the flue and bricks that surrounded it and up into the wooden framing. We had had hundreds of fires and were oblivious to the ticking time bomb, undetectable to the human eye or even a chimney sweep, sitting in wait behind our walls. 

“You may have noticed you’ve got some company here,” the chief says, nodding to a couple groups of men who stand nearby with clipboards and pamphlets. “They want your business, but I would suggest not signing anything. At least not tonight.”

It occurs to me these strangers had been standing there for quite some time, glancing in our direction. They had heard about our fire and showed up in hopes we would contract with their company to remediate and/or rebuild our house. Trying to figure out when to approach us, they now catch on to the fact that we know why they’re there, and they descend.

They say all the right things: “I’m so sorry for your loss,” “We’re here to help,” “We drove from Wilmington/Maryland/Pennsylvania when we heard this was happening.” But it’s our introduction to the first of many people who tell us one thing but have very different intentions. 

Our neighbors and friends begin to leave. It is past 2 a.m. The kids and dogs are asleep in Chris’s truck; Lindsay’s arms are still draped around the girls. The fire is out; there is just smoke now. There is nothing more that can be done. 

Just then, the firefighter who had gone back into the house in search of Babs’s ashes reappears. Not only has he found them, but he is also holding the ashes of our first fur baby, Miles, whose collar sits on his urn.

I smile, a wave of relief washing over me that we have them both back. 

I want to tell this man about who he just saved. I want him to know that Babs would have hugged him, as she did everyone she met. “Nice to know you,” she would say, smiling and peering through glasses at him from her 4-foot-10-inch frame. She would probably tell him that her Dad was a firefighter for the Cranston Heights Fire Company in Wilmington. She would mention how proud she was of the job he did — both in paid and volunteer capacities. She would probably tell this man that she was proud of him, too, thank him for his service, maybe even offer to cook him dinner.

Miles, our black Labrador retriever whom we had for 13 years, would have run gleefully toward him, butt wiggling, tail wagging and ears crinkled, a smile on his doggie lips. We adopted Miles when he was just 8 weeks old and we lived in an apartment in Wilmington with a “No Pets” policy. He was with us when we moved into our first house, when we got engaged (Miles fetched the ring box), when we got married (he was our ring bearer), when we moved to the beach and when we became parents. He was an amazing big fur brother to our girls until he passed away in 2015.

I want to tell the firefighter all these things, but there’s a lump in my throat and I can’t get anything out besides “thank you,” which feels woefully inadequate.

Thinking of Miles makes me realize there is another item I would love to find: my engagement ring. Not only was it the most gorgeous piece of jewelry I ever owned, it was part of our story. John had picked it out by himself, surprising me one November night in the living room of our home in Wilmington, cleverly involving Miles in the plan. 

But the ring — about the size of a quarter — had been in our bedroom and was now lost in the part of our house that saw the worst of the fire.

Charred remains

As some of the firetrucks begin to leave, we ask a couple of firefighters about the status of our house.

“How bad is it?”

They ask if we’d like to go in, and we do.

It is as if we have landed on a different planet. The power to the house has been cut, so it’s pitch-black except for the beams cast by the firefighters’ headlamps and flashlights. Water is pouring from the ceiling in our living room. Drywall and insulation spew from tears in the ceilings and the walls. Debris lies at our feet everywhere we walk. The smell of smoke, charred wood and things that shouldn’t be burned — carpets, plastic, furniture, paint, shutters, screens — singes our nostrils. It’s hard to breathe. 

As we head toward the stairs, stepping over puddles and around broken glass, I realize I am still in my slippers. On our way up to the second floor, I glance again into the living room. How is it we were just sitting there and everything was fine … just hours ago? I can almost see us — me, John, Mia, Mikaela, Chris and Lindsay — smiles on our faces, conversation flowing, the dogs at our feet. We had no idea how quickly our night would turn nightmarish, and I feel my flesh crawl.

Upstairs is even worse. Our bedroom is ground zero, and in the darkness punctured by occasional flashlight beams all I see is black. There are no walls, just charred studs, and everything — the wooden framing, the ceiling, all of our belongings — is the color of night. There’s no glass in the windows. 

“Was this your bedroom?” one of the firefighters asks. All we can do is nod. He turns around to meet our eyes and says, matter-of-factly, “Y’all were lucky.”

The other firefighter nods in agreement and adds, “If you had been sleeping, you probably would have kept on sleeping. Someone was looking out for you.” 

Arriving on the third floor, we see a hole in the ceiling where the firefighters chain-sawed their way through the roof to let the smoke escape. The carpeted floor is like stepping on a huge, soaked sponge. I feel the water seep into my slippers, and I shake even harder. 

There is a bat flying around the room, which compounds the feeling of disbelief. I almost have to laugh because it feels as if I’ve been dropped into a horror movie. 

I glance at my laptop, which is black. I notice Crackers’ hamster cage is open and I ask about him. One of the firefighters shakes his head. 

“It was like a convection oven up here,” he explains, and I am gripped by a wave of nausea. He tells me the same firefighter who grabbed Babs and Miles, whose name is Chris Colpo, got rid of Crackers for us.

“But don’t look in your trash can,” he warns.

We’ve seen enough. We’ve seen there is nothing. With water pouring down from the third floor, every room has fire, smoke or water damage, or a combination of the three. There’s 2 feet of water in our basement. 

Everything is gone.



Bedeviled by ‘what if?’

On our way out of what was once our home, I change out of my slippers and into shoes by the back door. I also grab the coat John had bought me just the Christmas before. Both the shoes and my coat smell terrible, but I don’t care. I grab my car keys, and with one look back at the chaos, we close the door.

We retrieve our sleepy kids and fur babies from Chris’s truck, thank him and Lindsay for standing by us all night, and do our best to convey our gratitude to the firefighters.

We’ve received numerous offers for places to crash for the night, but having two large dogs meant being strategic about where to stay. I briefly wonder how we’ll find a pet-friendly place to live long-term with the summer season just around the corner and rental rates through the roof. 

I try not to think too much about the fact that we are now homeless as we climb the stairs to the apartment above our friend’s garage, weary and in shock. Opening the door to two beds already made for us, I suddenly feel exhausted. The girls and dogs are asleep again within minutes, but John and I take some time to respond to a few of the many messages that have poured into our cellphones. Word had spread quickly, and the phone calls, text messages and social media messages came in one after the other, all night long and will do so for days to come.

I finally crawl into bed and, for the first time all night, take a moment to try to process what has happened. I am still shaking but I’m not cold, and I have to acknowledge that I am in shock both mentally and physically. I have no control over the tremors, and as I drift off into a fitful slumber, I wonder how long they will continue. 

I awake suddenly from a nightmare that we didn’t all make it out of the house. I’m shaking again — did I ever stop? — and out of breath and I can’t figure out where I am. As my eyes adjust and I remember everything that happened, I search for the things that bring me peace. 

One husband. Two kids. Two dogs. 

We are all here. We all made it out. 

I have only slept for a few hours, but I know the second my eyes open that I won’t be able to fall back to sleep. I’m still trying to process everything and have already fallen prey to the endless, torturous “what ifs.”

What if we had allowed our girls to have their friends sleep over and they had all gone to bed before we were alerted to the destruction unfolding? What if they awoke to smoke alarms and, confused, didn’t know how to get out of the house? 

What if Chris and Lindsay hadn’t stopped by?

What if our girls had been in bed? 

What if we had been sleeping? What if the firefighters were right and we didn’t wake up and our girls became orphans? 

What if only one of our girls woke up and she had been the only one to survive that night?

What if …

It is too much to consider, and I shake my head in an attempt to rid myself of the thoughts that will continue to haunt me for months.

Keepsakes are forever

Within the hour we are back at our house. We all want to go back as soon as possible, even though we know it’s a scene that will be even more difficult to digest in the sunlight. It’s still our home and it’s the only home we have, despite the state it’s in. 

As we pull up, we see some of our family members and friends have beat us there. Some of them have brought their waders and duck boots, ready to face the 2 feet of water in our basement to sort through what might be salvageable. 

It’s just past 7 on a Sunday morning, and we have a brigade of people willing to enter a burned-out house to help us. Despite the fact that we’re pulling up to our home that is destroyed and in pieces, I feel like one of the luckiest people on the planet. 

The number of people who come to the shell of our home to console and offer help continues to grow. Some have already started sifting through remnants of our things scattered in our yard. A small dresser that sat in our bedroom had been tossed out a window the night before and now lies in the side yard, my charred jewelry strewn throughout grass and trees and bushes. 

A friend hands me a couple of pieces that aren’t completely ruined, including a bracelet Mia made for me when she was 4 — plastic beads and the word “MOMMY” carefully placed within them. It makes my heart soar, and when I tell her how grateful I am for this find, especially given the loss of my engagement ring, she pauses

“You know, that ring is made of metal and rock,” she says. “There’s a chance it’s still intact.”

This gives me an idea. 

All morning, people have been asking what they could do and what we need, and I haven’t known what to say. But now I take out my phone and text a few different group threads: “Does anyone have a metal detector?”

Within no time at all, a couple of friends show up with two. 

Going into the house without a mask is futile; the smell of smoke combined with everything that burned is impossible to breathe. But thanks to COVID, most people have masks with them. 

Once we have our masks and our boots and our courage, we venture into the house. I hear small gasps from people who enter behind us. It looks like a war zone inside. It is still raining in the living room. The smoke detectors are still screaming and even with masks it’s hard to breathe. 

But our friends and family come anyway.

Three hours into their search, our friends with the metal detectors have sifted through a solid 8 inches of wet drywall and insulation on what was our bedroom floor. They have hit on hundreds of nails, but no engagement ring. It is hot, tedious, backbreaking work, and I invite them to give up.

They don’t.

I walk like a zombie through each room of my home, watching the people I love and some people I hardly know try to save some of our belongings. They heave sopping wet photo albums out of the basement. They carefully place smoked-out kitchen items into boxes. They continue to look for my engagement ring.

Sometime in the afternoon as I climb the stairs to the second floor, I hear commotion coming from our bedroom. As I round the corner, John turns to me, my engagement ring in between his thumb and index finger, a wide grin on his face.

“Will you marry me … again?” 

The ring is black and charred but intact, and finding it is a small miracle, bolstering the morale of everyone here. 

It is a symbol of the collective effort; an ack­nowledgment that horrible things can happen at any time to anyone, and there is communal heartbreak — and small triumphs — when they do. 

Generosity and perspective

The next week is spent in a blur of text messages, voicemails, meetings with our insurance company, takeout meals and trying to find a place to live for more than a couple of months. We get leads from friends and end up in a pet-friendly rental just a week after our fire — no small feat. It is unfurnished, though, and we have nothing, so we once again turn to our community for help. 

Couches appear in our driveway. Mattresses are dropped off. We come “home” to find bags of new and gently used clothing for me, John and the girls. Dog food is delivered to our doorstep. We are told our daughters’ lunches for school are taken care of. 

One day Mikaela comes home from school with a large bag and informs us one of her fellow students had organized a card drive for us. There are more than 100 drawings, well wishes and words of gratitude for our safety from kids in kindergarten through fifth grade. There are carefully drawn ladders and fire hoses, firefighters and hearts, and notes of encouragement. 

Some of our friends start a GoFundMe page for us, and donations come in from high school acquaintances, co-workers from years ago, aunts and uncles, old teammates, clients of mine and customers of John’s, in addition to the family and friends who stand by us throughout it all. 

Each offering makes me cry. For the first few weeks after the fire, I feel high on gratitude, so thankful that not only had we made it out, but that in the aftermath we are so incredibly supported and loved by our community. 

But there are dark days, too. Days when the enormity and gravity of the situation is overwhelming. Days when 

I remember something really special we lost, and my heart hurts. For more than six weeks I sleep in small increments of time — an hour here, a half-hour there — and usually startle awake, thinking I’ve heard a smoke alarm. 

I simply go through the motions each day, detached and distracted: get out of bed, get the kids off to school, call our insurance company. Work on the list of everything we lost, organize receipts of what we’ve bought, try to somehow actually work on my own business. Show up at the house, talk with the people hired by our remediation company who sift through incredibly personal articles of our life pre-fire. Answer questions, respond to emails, research builders, work on a floor plan for the rebuild. 

There is so much work to be done, and we don’t want to do any of it. I realize insurance is not at all what I thought it was; it’s heartbreaking and exhausting and infuriating to have to fight for what you had before tragedy struck. 

Yet often it is on a really dark day that something incredible happens. While shopping for shoes one afternoon, I strike up a conversation with a saleswoman. I tell her about the fire, and she inhales sharply. 

“My husband was there,” she tells me. 

When he got the call that night, he left her and their small children to help us. She admitted that when he gets called for fires, she can’t sleep until he returns. I wonder what time he returned that night, and I want to hug her and thank her for sacrificing her sanity and her sleep while her husband helped us, a family he didn’t even know. 

Out for lunch one day, I learn that a woman I’ve known on a casual basis for years was on a date night with her husband when he got the call for our fire, and she spent the rest of the night in the firehouse, waiting for him to come back.

It is moments like these that remind me of what’s really important. And I think most of us have it all wrong. Surviving a fire and losing almost everything you own in a consumer-driven society has a way of changing your perspective. 

That big expensive house in the perfect neighborhood? Not important. That roomy SUV, designer handbag, 60-inch television? Also not important. Even those items you own that are special — for me, pictures, handwritten Mother’s Day cards, things like that — are still things. And the beauty of those things is how they make you feel. The physical presence of them may serve as a reminder of that feeling, but the feeling never actually abandons you; it stays within you, in a place no fire or other catastrophic event can touch. 

My five senses seem sharper after the fire. My daughter’s singing in the shower has never sounded sweeter. The smile on my husband’s face, the wag of my dogs’ tails, the sun rising out of the water touch my heart in a different way. Certain song lyrics hit me in my solar plexus, in the same place my bodily earthquake originated that night. There is nothing quite like the smell or taste of a meal cooked for your family by someone who loves you. I have never loved hugs more. 

I’ve also noticed I am more tolerant and a bit less judgmental than I used to be. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that when you need help, when your house is literally going up in flames, you don’t care who comes to your rescue. You don’t care how they voted or how they feel about COVID. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is, who they love or whether or not they are vaccinated. You only care that they show up — to fight the fire, to stand with you, to support and love you.

And they do. 

And when we move back into our house in a few days from the time I’m writing this, 534 days after we left it that night, we will be taking our new perspectives, our love for life and for each other and for our community with us. 

Me, one husband, two kids and two dogs.