Lesson #1 Everything can change in an instant.
One Saturday in December, while our 18-month-old son was upstairs napping, I decided to take advantage of the quiet time and relax. I cuddled up on the couch, with a fire going in the fireplace, and soon drifted off to sleep. When I woke up an hour or so later, the fire had died out and there was a chill to the air. It was time to wake our son up, and since the temperature outside wasn’t really all that bad, I suggested to my husband that we go for a walk.
We loaded our son up in the stroller and headed out into the neighborhood. Along the way, my husband pulled out his phone to order a pizza online for dinner. As we turned the corner to head towards our house, my husband looked up and said, “What is THAT?” I wasn’t sure what he saw, and then, as we moved past a tree, I saw thick, dark smoke rising into the sky. And it was coming from our house.
Neighbors tried to console me as we watched the firefighters battle the blaze. A friend arrived and tried to comfort me. I was in a daze, but at the same time, I was mentally making plans. We’d need clothes to sleep in and clothes for tomorrow. Our son needed something to eat – it was almost dinner time. We needed to get going. My friend and I grabbed dinner for my son and while he ate, I typed a list of essentials on my phone. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, diapers, children’s Motrin, sippy cups, kid plates and silverware, pajamas… stuff to get us by.
The entire house would need to be gutted. It was bad, but it could have been so much worse. One of our cats had been trapped inside the house. A fireman brought him out. The cat spent several hours on oxygen at the emergency vet, but he was just fine. Our other cat had escaped from the house and spent four days on the lam, but we finally caught her in a Havahart trap in our yard and she checked out okay, too. Our family was okay, after a few days, we were all back together, and that was all that mattered. In the days and weeks following the fire, the phrase “It’s just stuff!” kind of became our mantra. Stuff can be replaced or recreated. Family cannot.
Lesson #2 We had way too much stuff.
Insurance required us to log the contents of our home. Room by room. Every last thing. I started making lists immediately, of everything that I could think of. In doing so, you realize that, after however many years as an adult, and over four years of living together, two years in a house that you’ve completely remodeled and redecorated, and with a baby… you have a ton of stuff.
Every time our son went down for a nap, I’d pull out a list and start adding to it. After he went to bed at night, the work continued. In addition to listing each item, we also had to include how many, where we bought it, how much it cost, and how old it was. We worked on those lists for weeks.
In the meantime, we had to buy a few things. We replaced the basics. Clothes and pajamas for our son. A couple pairs of jeans, a handful of long-sleeved t-shirts and sweaters to get my husband and I through the winter. Some suits for my husband to wear to work. It’s a fraction of what we used to have. That stuff all seemed so important when we had it…
Don’t get me wrong. I miss our house. I miss our comfy sectional couch and cuddling in the corner with our son. I miss the three of us eating dinner at our kitchen counter, with him in his high chair in the middle. I miss taking bubble baths in my big, deep bathtub… It’s a bummer that we lost those things, but it’s all just stuff. The thought of trying to run out and immediately replace everything that we lost in the fire is exhausting. I can’t do it.
Lesson #3 Even though we lost everything, we gained so much more.
The three of us took over my friend’s house at the start of what was supposed to be her winter break. Toddler stuff sprawled everywhere, we constantly filled up her dishwasher, washer, and dryer, and then we added both of our cats into the mix, too. We asked her to watch our son several times while we ran errands and moved into our apartment.
People started to ask how they could help. A former colleague of mine sent over dinner. Another brought a basket of books for our son. We started to get e-mails from people we didn’t even know, asking how they could help. My friend was fielding phone calls and text messages from people who were eager to do something for us. Several neighbors got together and collected toddler clothes and toys. Former colleagues from the school where I used to teach started a supply list and a meal sign-up and shared it with I have no idea how many people.
We found a short term furnished apartment where we could stay for a week until our background checks were completed for the apartment that will be our home away from home until the house is rebuilt. My husband went out and bought what had to have been the last Christmas tree in Virginia so that we could have Christmas at “home”, like we’d planned. We decorated the tree with a few strands of lights, a box of bulbs, and a couple of ornaments he’d grabbed at the store. Both of our sets of parents came to visit on Christmas Day, just like they were going to before all of this happened.
In the days before Christmas, someone scrawled “GOD BLESS OUR NEIGHBORS” on the sidewalk in front of our house. A neighbor left a tin of Christmas cookies on the steps to the house. People sent us cards and letters. We sat in amazement, reading the kindest and most compassionate words with tear-filled eyes. I cried time and again at the most beautiful messages from people we don’t even know. My friend’s house ended up overflowing with supplies for our apartment and clothing, and toys for our son. People gave us cash and gift cards… they spent money that they could have spent on their own kids for Christmas. We received so many items and donations, we quickly started asking people to donate to the groups that helped us – the fire department, the emergency vet, the school where I used to work.
Lesson #4 We thought we were good people.
I have always thought that my husband and I are decent people. We donate regularly to charities. We donate used clothes and household items often. I found an organization in our town that helps less fortunate moms and donated an infant car seat and a baby carrier that we were no longer using. Then, around Thanksgiving, I stocked up on a ton of diapers and wipes and delivered them to the same place, for no reason other than I knew that they would go to somebody who probably really needed them.
Those small acts are nothing compared to the kindness bestowed upon us by our friends, neighbors, and strangers.
Lesson #5 Now it’s our turn.
We thought we were good people. As my husband says, “Now we know we can do better”. Not sure how, but we plan on being there for people when they need it, just like our community was there for us. We want to pay it back… and pay it forward. And say thank you.
I started by going through the clothes people had donated for our son. A bunch of the clothes were too small and just couldn’t be used. A lot of the pajamas were one-piece, footie PJs – the kind our son absolutely refuses to wear. Then I realized I had a pile of ten toddler-sized coats in front of me, some of them still new with tags. TEN! There was no way we could make use of all this stuff. I picked out some essentials – a lighter jacket for the spring, some warm winter clothes, some clothing in the next size up in case of a growth spurt, some shoes, and then bundled the rest up to donate to the mom’s organization in town. I would have felt guilty hanging on to all that stuff when we just have one kid, and I know there are probably several more families in town that need it just as much, if not more, than we do.
When we finished logging the contents of our house, I started working on yet another list. Our thank you list. For every card or letter from a neighbor that we opened, I wrote down the sender’s name and address if they left one. I took screenshots of the online supply and meal lists so that I could get those people’s names, too. And then I started looking up addresses. I tried to send a handwritten thank you note to every person who took the time to do something nice for us. Since some donations were anonymous, and since I couldn’t locate correct addresses for some people, I wrote a message of gratitude to our community and asked the editor of our local newspaper to print it. I also sent the message to our school district, and it went out in the schools’ electronic newsletter on the first day back after winter break. I hope our notes somehow made their way to the people who helped us, so they know that we are truly grateful.
I took breakfast to my old school to thank the staff and teachers who so kindly helped us out. We had gift baskets made to give to the vet’s office for looking after our cats. Friends of ours have made donations in our name to the fire department and the other groups that helped us out. We’re still trying to figure out what else we can do to thank some of the remaining people who stepped up to bat for us.
And if something like this ever happens to a family in our neighborhood again, we want to be there for them like our neighbors were there for us.
Lesson #6 One step forward, two steps back, one step forward again…
We’re only a month or so into this journey, and we’ve had our share of speed bumps along the way. For everything that has gone right, something else has gone wrong. Clothing that we hoped would be salvaged by the restoration company is ruined. Cherished mementos disappeared in the rubble that is our living room.
I think I’m handling all this okay, and then I break down into tears when I realize we’re eating off someone else’s dinner plates. At times like this, my husband has reminded me to focus on the positive stuff. That’s when I remember that we’re all here. Together. Alive. Healthy. We have a roof over our heads. We live in an amazing community. Our kid is happy and makes us laugh and smile every day. Thankfully, at only eighteen months old, he won’t remember a thing about this. He is blissfully unaware of how scary that all was, and how stressed we’ve been.
Lesson #7 This will all take time.
When we bought our house in September 2014, we decided to completely remodel before moving in. We had just found out that I was pregnant and we wanted to make sure that the house was complete before we moved in, so that we weren’t still dealing with renovations when the baby came. So, in addition to anticipating the arrival of our son, we were anticipating the completion of what was (is!) going to be our family home at least until he’s out of high school. It stinks to literally be going back to the drawing board, but I’m trying to remember the excitement we felt as we looked forward to moving in the first time around.
We’ll get there eventually. Permits are being pulled and plans are being made. We don’t really plan on doing anything dramatically different. We liked our house the way it was. And we know, having already remodeled once, that this process will take time. We know that deadlines don’t always get met and that just when you think everything is going okay, some other problem will arise. We’re as prepared for it as we’re going to be, I guess.
The one thing that we’ve got going for us? We’ve learned that when you have a baby, time flies. Those nine months that I was pregnant? Gone in a flash. Our son’s first year? Wait… He’s coming up on his second birthday already? So, even though we might get antsy and sometimes feel all cooped up in the apartment, I just keep telling myself we’ll be back home before we know it!
Lesson #8 Stronger for it.
Watching our house go up in flames was devastating. It’s a sight that will, unfortunately, be stuck in my brain for years and years to come. Picking through the rubble and debris at the house to see if there’s anything worth salvaging is as disheartening as it sounds. We’re still not quite settled in our apartment. I still walk into the bathroom and reach to the left for the light switch, because that’s where it was at home. I’m not sure that I’ll feel “at home” again until we get back into the house.
But, for everything that we’ve been through, I know that I’m so much stronger for it. We hit the bottom and pulled ourselves back up again. We had no choice. It was hard, but we kept it together – we had to – for our son and for each other.
There have been many nights where we hardly got any sleep, but we still had to get up in the morning and take care of business; whether that meant my husband had to head into the office or I had to get up and make scrambled eggs for our son.
There have been times where my husband and I have been so stressed that our patience with each other has come close to wearing thin. Rather than trying to shoulder everything alone, we’ve realized that we need to lean on each other and support each other. All we can do is communicate, love each other, and keep checking things off our massive to-do list to help each other get from one day to the next.
There have been many times where I’ve started to cry, and eventually snapped out of it because I know that things could be much worse. In so many ways.
There have been other times where I’ve started to cry because I realize just how lucky I really am.
About the Author
Jessica Goodwin is 30-somethingish wife and stay-at-home toddler mom who lives just outside of Washington, DC. If her son is napping, she’s usually writing. Jessica has written four books and has contributed to Scary Mommy, Baby Gaga, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and Chocolate & Chaos. She’s a wannabe world traveler and writes about her family’s adventures on her blog. Say hi on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook!