I got the call from my sister (married to our childhood friend's cousin, so our childhood friend kinda became family). She said "Have you heard from Emily?! The house is gone. It burned down. It's on fire right now."
I was devastated. I started crying, was in disbelief, thinking, "It can't all be gone, they'll stop it in time to save the house."
I was wrong.
My friend, husband and two-year-old daughter went out to a fair that day. There was laundry in the dryer. That's something I know many of us have done, left the house with the dryer running, even for 15 minutes. It was the dryer vent.
When they came back hours later, the road was shut down, the house was only a blaze of fire, several trucks were there, and they knew they had lost their two cats and one puppy in the home. Their life was forever changed.
Image from Darby Penniman
They have spent every day working on the property to clean things out. People were trying to steal things like metal on day one. In order to get support from insurance, they needed to clear through what was left to see if anything was salvageable. Thankfully a few of the basement items were not burned. A few bins of baby clothing, her wedding dress, maternity clothes, and a few fall sweaters were saved. A few boxes of pictures were down there also. The family has been sorting through things, seeing what was too damaged from smoke and water.
A few random things, too, like a pencil that was not burned. And inside a drawer that was destroyed on the outside and the room around it was entirely burned... inside the drawer though was the baby book, unharmed.
It's a process. That's something I've come to see. Your house burns down, there's nothing left, and yet you are forced to pick up the pieces - literally go through the pieces to recreate your life.
This is what is left now after a week's worth of work round the clock.
Everything is gone.
Their two year old keeps asking where the puppy is and why they can't "just go home?" Even at two, this is affecting her. My friend went shopping to purchase new clothes for work and she became upset when picking out pants, thinking of sweaters she has "at home" that could go with the pants... but realizing that they are gone.
It's overwhelming. The list you have to make after a fire, the things you cannot even remember you need to purchase.
You notice your life has changed when you can't use phrases anymore like "let's get ready to go home" or "this is Joy's house" when really there is no house there, it's a property of dust and rubble now. When you realize there are no pets waiting for you to feed or take for a walk...
That is the biggest part of this that upsets this family, of course, the house is the secondary concern. They are devastated over their animals, their fur babies.
Through the tough times, the hard days, the constant moments of realizing things are gone, things you don't even consider. Things like contacts or eye glasses you cannot see without. Things like your phone charger, that you need right away so that insurance and fire department and supporters can use to contact you after the emergency. Things like your daughter's lovey toys or favorite blanket, your shoes to wear, a jacket.
There is the thought that these are all just things, at least you got out safely, at least you weren't home when it happened. Yes, of course that's true. It's just STUFF. And yet, I've personally had this feeling, sitting in my own home, staring at my "stuff", imagining what my friend is going through... thinking yes, of course it's just stuff, but at the same time it's not just stuff. It's a life.
It's presents from their bridal shower and it's pictures of their life. It's their favorite clothing they've had for years. It's handmade bowls and frames and a shelf that her husband was so crafty at building. It's the baby's hospital bracelet. It's the dried flowers from the wedding bouquet. It's all the gifts from the baby shower, the homemade afghans, the hand-knit sweaters.
It's everything that makes up a world, a life created by two people and love. And then it's all gone. Sure, it's stuff. Yes, they know they are lucky to be out alive and not harmed themselves. But after that thought sinks in, that they came close to death but survived it and are lucky... they still must think, "But it was OUR stuff. Stuff we loved... our life."
They are left with gift cards (graciously donated, they are so grateful for these) to stores where they can re-purchase all their "stuff." They can go get new clothes, new toys, new bedding and toiletries. They have to first remember what exactly they need. Because after a traumatic experience like this the remembering and thinking part doesn't come so easily, I'm seeing that it's hard to focus on anything.
A week after the fire, my friend's husband posted this picture above. Seeing them go through this struggle has been so hard. They are so strong, moving one step in front of the other, just keeping going.
Her husband told me, "We can't sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We have to keep moving forward, we have to rebuild." I admire his strength and courage, perseverance and determination. He's rebuilding his family's world. That's what he knows to do so he's doing it one step at a time.
I visited last weekend and was speechless when I saw what was left of their home. I literally could not breathe for a moment. I was in shock. I had called her daily that whole week before. I'd seen pictures on Facebook. I read the news report. I knew it was bad. But when I got there and walked around, seeing the sun shining down on broken pieces of what used to be their world... I immediately was crying and just in shock that it was THIS bad.
I'm not sure what I expected to see in the aftermath of a fire. I guess I expected to see walls and nails, wood, pieces of the outside structure. I didn't think about the inside though. Walking through the rubble was eerie, terrifying, so incredibly devastating. We walked by shoes. My friend said, "Oh, there's a shoe that I wore in a wedding last year." We walked by toys. My friend teared up at the sight of her daughter's baby bath tub. We walked by towels, pieces of clothing, a walker, a trash bucket, etc. I kept saying, "This is your stuff. These are your things. This was your life right here in this pile of trash and dirt..." I couldn't fathom it. It made no sense to me.
I walked by a card game of their daughter's, not burned, just strewn about, pictures and letters on the cards... it made me so sad. Little things like that mattered in that moment.
Her husband told me that baby toys that make noise were going off in the rubble as he was sitting on an excavator loading pieces of their life into a dumpster. He said that was pretty eerie.
My daughter was with me when I visited their property. She wanted to swing in the baby swing... the swing that was on the deck at the time of the fire and that was melted... that picture will always be in my mind. It's just a simple picture of the devastation.
Despite the difficulties and the utterly sad parts of this experience, my friends are grateful for the silver lining, if you can call it that. They are so sweetly surprised by the outpouring of love, generosity and support - mostly from complete strangers, too.
In the last two weeks thousands of dollars have been raised to support this family. SO many moms in the Mommy Stories Facebook group have sent things and gift cards. Frozen and Sophia the First bed sheets and comforter set for Joy, the little two year old. Toys, a princess castle, Little People, bubbles, bath toys, and sippy cups (all her favorites). TONS of clothes and shoes were donated, lots of warm pajamas. Several moms asked what my friend needed, the mom, since they knew so many would support the little girl.
I personally am shocked and brought to tears by the generosity from the Mommy Stories moms.
My good friends who never met my friend Emily who had the fire are sending things, just to support me. Daily for a week I was like their secretary in Maine (a job I was grateful to have, since I felt so removed and helpless in Maine when they were in New York and I couldn't get there). My sister Amanda and I became their worker bees, helping coordinate donations and drop offs, accepting mail and directing people to addresses and donation sites, etc.
A friend of mine who works for Nike sent my friend a workout care package since she has been working out a lot the last year. Another friend sent diapers and a Little People set. Multiple friends of mine sent gift cards. Random moms who I don't know personally sent clothing, cups, etc. It's been amazing to see.
Local people have dropped off meals. Others have donated the contacts from the eye doctor. Others purchased her sneakers so she could workout and have a little stress relief. My sister is washing all of the salvaged baby clothing just to have that one piece of something off my friend's mind. She said it sounded silly that she cared so much about baby clothing, but that she "just wanted to hold on to something, you know?" It makes sense to me as a mother.
I know my friends will rise from these ashes. I know they will continue being strong, and someday soon will rebuild and feel like "normal" again. Maybe they will devise a new normal and it will be great. Watching friends go through something like this is so difficult. I can't imagine what they are actually going through. I just know that with every terrible thing in the world, there a thousand positive things to overcome it and bring sunlight around again.
I am reminded by the quote by Mr. Rogers:
THANK YOU again, moms, from the bottom of my heart and from my grateful friend. You are such a strong support system, all 1400+ of you in the Facebook group. Thank you for the thoughts, prayers, donations and packages sent her way. It's amazing what a group of moms can do when they stick together.
To help this beautiful family please visit our Go Fund Me site.