I was watching television on Saturday afternoon when I heard some sirens that sounded a bit louder than those we hear from the main roads. I wondered, but didn’t think much about it. About 30 minutes later, Oliver and I went out for a walk. As we climbed the hill up to the main street, there they were: at least five fire engines, three police cars and countless onlookers.
One of my neighbor’s homes was on fire, seemingly from the furnace in the attic. I felt really uncomfortable about obviously gawking at it, so we walked around the back way to another courtyard, where I ran into some neighbors I knew. That put me in direct view of the fire, though, from about 50 yards away. Disaster clearly brings people together, as I met at least five more neighbors standing there. One even brought out snacks while we all watched the firemen try to save the house.
The whole time I had a really sick feeling thinking about the family that lives there. I don’t know them directly, but I’ve heard about them and know neighbors in common. I suspect they were the ones huddled with another group in chairs on the lawn immediately in front of the house. Fire is just about my worst fear — so much so that I often run back upstairs (and even turn the car around) if I think I might have left the iron, the stove, the coffee pot on. So to watch my neighbors’ home be destroyed was gut-wrenching. I steered Oliver toward home, but stopped to talk to another, elderly neighbor who had come outside to watch. I was turned away from the home, until she exclaimed, “Oh, there it goes!” The entire roof was seriously ablaze, and flames were shooting out of the attic vents, threatening even to jump to the roof next door. That was it — more than I could take, and we headed back to the safety of our own home.
Everything calmed down about 7 p.m. — the firemen rolled up the hoses, the trucks cleared, the police wrapped the area in caution tape. I was able to drive out and go to dinner, to escape for a moment the horror that consumed our little community. When I came home, workmen were covering the roof in tarps by spotlight and pulling out what damaged wood they could. On our walk this morning, Oliver and I stopped to talk with one of the insurance surveyors, who said two homes were damaged. In these cases, the fire may not have been as damaging as the water, so he said it’s usual to just gut the home and rebuild. Those families will probably be out for at least six months. Horrible.
I can’t help but empathize — thinking about what my life would be like or what I would do in such a situation. What would I grab first — after Oliver, of course? The computer, the photos, the personal documents, that signed copy of Wally Lamb’s book, jewelry, my passport? Even sillier items? I really don’t know. I’m so glad that no one was hurt, but my mind lingers on the possessions — not the replaceable ones like clothes and furniture, but the special things, the heirlooms, the trinkets that hold immeasurable sentimental value. I know I have a too high attachment to “things,” and I fear that I would never get over the unexpected loss of them.
But then the verse from Matthew enters my head. It’s a phrase that’s repeated every Sunday at my mother’s church, and it became important to me back when I was discouraged with life in New York. I felt like everyone around me had the wrong priorities, focused more on money and ambition than on the right way to treat people. That revelation was a key reason I came back home. The verse reads:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moth and rust corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal;
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
— Matthew 6:19-21
The words have renewed meaning for me after this weekend. It’s the people and the ones we love, the way we treat them, and especially how we act towards those we don’t know that matters. The shining moment of the terrible events this weekend will be to watch the way our community mobilizes to support those who lost so much. Because they are one of us.