The day after Christmas 2001, shortly after 8:00 am, I was awakened by my then-boyfriend, John Healy, frantic because the living room was full of smoke. As we both grabbed for our senses, we inspected the fireplace and Christmas tree, and then we heard it; Behind the closed door leading to the office and a long hallway, we could hear the snap, crackle and pop of burning fire. Against all conventional wisdom, I opened that door to give my cats a way out before I ran for the phone in the kitchen to call 911. Unbeknownst to me, John had gone out the front door to call 911 from the next-door neighbor’s house and to move his car to make space for the fire trucks. While I was on the phone with 911, the dispatcher said, “What’s going on over there?” “My house is on fire!” I shouted to her, and then I heard a cat scream followed by breaking glass. I thought John was in the sunroom busting out windows to save my cat, when in actuality, the windows were exploding. I hung up with 911 and made my exit out the back door, when the bright light of day in contrast to the darkness of the smoke-filled house emboldened me as I announced out loud, “This will all get fixed!” My bare feet hit the snow as I made my way to the front yard, where I met John. I led the way to Patti and Joyce’s house across the street, and I rang the bell and knocked loudly, hoping someone was awake. Joyce answered the door, and without words, I pointed to my home, now with flames and smoke billowing out the northwest corner of the house. As soon as we retreated indoors, the fire trucks arrived, shortly followed by the news cameras. I went back outside to uninvite the press because I didn’t want to be the sad day-after-Christmas story as the firemen fought the fire. “I’m just doing my job, ma’am.” (Friends told me later that they saw my house on the news.) Two of the firemen came over to Joyce’s and Patti’s, each bearing a cat wrapped in a towel. Yes! They were alive! Amber, my fat calico, suffered burns when her feet hit the burning floor, causing great shock, so she passed out. The fireman told me he found her on the office floor and that he had given her oxygen. There was another knock on the door, and it was Virginia Harrison and her boyfriend Robert. Thank God for comic relief, Virginia was wearing a cow print bathrobe and Robert was donning a Russian style hat, the kind with the furry flaps over the ears. Concerned and vocal as they as they are, they showered me with hugs and gave their account of hearing my alarm siren blaring, followed by fire trucks rushing by their house, which is behind mine and across the street. They knew it was my house that was one fire, and they high-tailed it over. I asked one of the firemen if he would call LeRon West, a fire marshal and good friend who became like a brother to me on our group trip to Africa in 1999. LeRon showed up right as the official fire marshal came inside to ask me questions about the placement of light fixtures, etc. I described the room to him and told him that there was a candle on a wicker chest in front of the couch, but that I had looked at it when I went around to blow out candles late Christmas night. I didn’t see it burning. I explained that the wick had become buried in the wax, and I’d used a knife to cut away the wax around the wick so I could light it. When I did light it, it was the smallest blue flame. I remember thinking that I’d have to come back shortly to light it again, but I never did circle back to it. Well, as it turns out, that little blue flame burned for over 12 hours, and it had flowers in the wax, which likely ignited. The fire marshal went back over to my house and came back shortly to report that the fire had been deemed an accident. LeRon turned to me and said, “It’s been deemed an accident, that’s what you needed to hear.” LeRon and I proceed across the street to assess the damage, and he said “It’s not as bad as it looks. Plaster is a great fire barrier, which probably saved your home.” As we crossed the threshold into the pitch-black house, the smell of char and soot was disgusting and a smell that I will never forget. It was hard to see much, but I was able to capture pictures later with a flash.
What followed that day was truly wonderful. Lisa Regan came bearing warm clothes in my size, and Anna Veronisi invited me to live in her amazingly private and cozy upstairs bedroom, featuring its own bathroom and a sleeping porch decorated with tea lights. Due to slowness of everyone’s holiday schedules, it took a week to work out a place to stay with the insurance company, so it was so healing to have a loving place to retreat to. I remember when Angela Brazeal called, wanting to do something to help, and I asked if she might pick me up a toothbrush. I think it was Anna who gave me a nugget of wisdom that has stayed with me when she said, “People are going to want to help you, so let them.” It was so true, and everyone’s kindness made such a difference, from driving me around to run errands so I could stay on the phone constantly, to the generous Target gift card given to me by Steve and Katie Pier to get me by until I could get back on my feet.
“What did you lose?” my therapist asked me in our first session after the fire. Obviously, I lost my cat. (Amber didn’t survive her wounds.) “What else did you lose?” My garden burned. He assured me that there was still life underground. “I think what I lost most is that I did it myself.” I bought my house in 1999 for $60K and spent two years renovating it, mostly by myself. I’d scraped, sanded, and painted every single one of the 36 windows in the house. Now it was gone. Someone else would come in and re-do the work I had already done. It was Leslie Brown who optimistically reminded me of all that I had learned and that if I hadn’t made the upgrades I made, the insurance company wouldn’t have made them either. (Well put.) Here’s where I make my PSA for having insurance with full replacement value and where I make a shameless plug for State Farm. When I bought the house, I specifically told my agent that I was buying a historical home and needed to know if they would cover restoring the house back to its original glory if I ever had a disaster. She said yes. I’m here to tell you that they made good on that promise, right down to wood windows, new trim to match the old, and replacing the siding with the original redwood. I won’t say it wasn’t stressful, but my uncle Robert Heyer (whose house burned to the ground years before) was exactly right when he told me that I would have a better house when it was done. I was out of the house for 10 months while they fixed it, but I can’t say enough about the apartment State Farm put me up in, which was less than a mile from home. Having to run the contractors was a full-time job in itself, and I already had a full-time job. Burning the candle from both ends? Been there. It took two years to replace what I lost, and I will never enjoy shopping the same way ever again. But I’m not complaining. Decorating is my passion, and it was fun to start with a fresh palette. Yet, I have no doubt that the stress and emotional toil led to my manic breakdown that started in 2003. It’s tempting when bad things happen to ask why. I asked it of nearly everyone I encountered. “What is the meaning of my fire?” seeking the right metaphor to illuminate my strife. Now, 15 years later, I can see innumerable blessings that came from the people and circumstances that surrounded me. Most importantly, I reached my breaking point that was undeniable proof that I needed medical intervention, a shift that has changed my life for the better in every way. Today, I live in this home with my amazing life partner, Terry, and our cat, Scotch. Terry came here and found a love for gardening, so what we’ve created together has surpassed the dreams that I had early on. My therapist was right; Spring came, life returned, and the forces of God’s loving and never-ending support helped me in both unspeakable and obvious ways. I’m stronger now, both in myself and in faith, and I’m eternally grateful for all of you who have touched my life.