In January of this year, a fire broke out behind the walls of my sons’ rooms. In a matter of minutes, the new home my family and I had just gotten settled into went from peaceful and quiet in the cold winter air to gutted, and my family went from noticing a faint wisp of smoke to frantically banging on the door of a neighbor we barely knew. I had my three-year-old and six-month-old sons, my husband, and no socks. I felt like the whole world had fallen apart—and then just weeks later the whole world actually did fall apart.
I never could have imagined that 2020 would start off the way that it did for us or that it would turn out the way it did for so many families around the world. It’s hard to process the months of collective grief. But on that night in January, everything just seemed perfect. Both of our children were in bed—a huge feat to have two sleeping children—and my husband and I were sitting in front of our fireplace talking. In the corner of my eye I remember seeing a little bit of smoke hanging under this great big floor lamp we had. I wasn’t scared. If anything, I was annoyed. Our house is 100 years old, we’d poured every last bit of our savings into renovating it, and I kind of just looked at this sticky smoke in this dimly lit room like, Ugh, man, something else not going right in the house.
We opened the windows (exactly the wrong thing to do) and checked the kids who were still sleeping soundly. The last thing on my mind was fire. But when my husband Brian went back upstairs about 10 minutes later to check on our toddler, his room had filled with smoke. We called my husband’s brother who is a home inspector: “You could have a fire behind the walls,” he said. “You need to get out of the house immediately.”
It might sound crazy but the idea that my house could really be on fire still didn’t set in—our smoke alarms hadn’t gone off. When I called the fire department, I actually asked them not to turn on the sirens so they wouldn’t wake up the whole neighborhood.
When the firefighters arrived, sirens blaring, they found that a fire had broken out behind the walls of our fireplace and it was raging up through the walls behind our children’s bedrooms. Our smoke detectors never went off because I had unplugged the central alarm system a day prior, not knowing the smoke alarms were hardwired into it—not battery-operated. Luckily, they saved the overall structure of our home but the inside was completely gutted by the smoke damage and the fire and the thousands of gallons of water pumped into our home to put it out. The fire chief looked at Brian and me and said, “You are so lucky. If you had waited any longer to go into your son’s room, this would have been a very different night.”
When we showed up at my neighbor’s house, I didn’t have shoes or a jacket or baby bottles or a plan. I mean, you just feel naked. In the days and weeks that followed, a couple of friends put the word out on social media, and the amount of people that started showing up and reaching out was the most overwhelming experience. I’ve covered tragedies as a journalist, but no amount of empathy can really prepare you for what it feels like to suddenly find yourself in the position of needing so much support. People started mobilizing in a way that I had never experienced—I had people showing up to my husband’s parents’ house whom we’d never even met before, who had heard what happened and were there with a bag of clothes or books for the children. There was a clothing drive and a toy drive. It was so kind. My in-laws’ basement looked like FEMA within a few days, stocked with supplies for us and the kids. (In the end, there were more donations than we could possibly need, so we were able to pay it forward by passing them on to other families in need.)
I felt really uncomfortable at first accepting anything because I didn’t want anyone to pity us. We have a lot of privilege. Even in this moment we were so privileged—we had homeowners insurance, we had a community that rallied around us and supported us—but suddenly finding myself in a position of such acute need really changed me. Loss forces you to be incredibly vulnerable, to rely on the strength of your community. When you open your door and you see a stranger standing there who says, “I’m so sorry, how can I help?” the emotions that run through you are overwhelming. When you see people stepping up like that, it touches your core.