Of course, when I wrote Secret Light, I used my imagination to explore the painful subject of fire. I imagined what it would be like, for example, to stand on the front lawn in my Sunday grubby clothes watching the firefighters put out the smoldering ruins of my garage, I imagined what would flash through my head in that moment. I would hold my dog tighter, knowing she was out and safe, but I’d worry about finding a leash for her. I would count my children’s heads over and over. If someone was hurt, what would happen? And what would I do if it was my husband, and I was all alone to face that reality of the rubble of my house? Of being essentially homeless in the dark, having to keep my game face in place because I owe it to my tribe.
I would have flashes — were the Christmas stockings my mother had lovingly needlepointed for me in the garage yet? Had we gotten to putting those away after Christmas or had procrastination worked in our favor for once? (The answer is yes, they were in the garage and they’re gone.) Was that my pink bike cruiser and it’s lovely detachable willow wicker basket melting in the corner? Is that the Cartwheels wagon I’d used to trek my children up and down the beach when they were babies, the one we used to use to carry water when the girl scouts marched in the Heritage Day parade.
Sooner or later, you begin to realize all these questions have a common thread, one that stitches all the really valuable parts of your life together. You start to think, oh, no, that’s the sewing machine I used to make my children’s Harry Potter Pajamas and their Christmas Elf hats. That’s our camping gear, remember when I went on my first trip as a cub scout den leader and wasn’t that the “blind leading the blind?”
The common thread is that all of these things, whether they’re irreplaceable objects of art or simply utilitarian items I could get at the nearest Wal-Mart, is that they only have value to me because of the irreplaceable beloved, fully alive and breathing humans whose heads I counted over and over like Rain Man as I watched my house burn.
Actually we were lucky, only the garage burned — it’s a total loss — but the house was filled with toxic smoke and as a result has been provisionally red tagged, and there’s some talk that it may take up to six months for us to be allowed back inside.
My husband was injured with second degree burns on his arms when he ran to take the car out of the garage so it wouldn’t explode and possibly level the neighbor’s house as well (as you know, we build ’em close together in California.) He’s fine, returned to us that night, but it was devastating.
I was that woman, wondering what I was going to do, when neighbors of all walks of life, some I knew and some I didn’t, came to help. The activities director of my children’s middle school pressed hotel keys into my hand (he’d gone and actually rented two rooms on our behalf so we’d have some place to sleep.) I had no idea he lived right around the block. My neighbor two doors down kept all of us supplied with a steady stream of bottled water and packed up a paper bag with toiletries for us when we left. She gave me shoes because I was barefoot and jackets for my kids when night fell and it got cold.
People are really lovely. Friends from church showed up, both those charged with shepherding our family anyway, (home teachers and our church hierarchy — and this, even though I’ve made my hard feelings known in a pretty clear way about their involvement in the prop 8 debacle. I’ve actually informed them that I actively work against them in the area of LGBTQ equality.
One couple who are good friends came because they saw it on Facebook. (Someone FACEBOOKED our fire while it was still burning! Imagine that — our friends saw it and came to offer help.) Like drumbeat communications between distant tribes of indiginous peoples, Facebook is there.
But the most important thing I have to say, because we all really know we need to cherish each other — that’s almost redundant because it’s the theme of everything I write — is what I learned about fire.
Fire is HOT. Fire burns. Smoke kills. But there’s something about people that makes them believe they can run and get that photo album, or that computer, or that car from the burning garage, because right now the flames aren’t anywhere near what they’re heading for and it doesn’t look too bad.
IF you never listen to a word I’ve ever said, or IF you don’t even read my books, don’t like my work, don’t like me, think I’m an enormous waste of time, but you’re reading this because everyone enjoys a good trainwreck and fire is sexy, READ THIS:
Fire is HOT. Even if you see no flames licking at the object you think you need badly enough to make a run for it, the air is already superheating in the area in which your object most likely is enjoying its last, melting moments on earth.
The fire’s been smoldering there, heating that environment, spewing toxic things into the atmosphere, for a while. You might believe — since you see no flames — you’re safe to run in, grab whatever and get out.
IT. IS. NOT. SAFE.
Even if you are never touched by a flame the heat will melt your skin off. MELT IT, I reiterate, and the skin will peel off and dangle from an open wound and it will hurt like a motherfucker. Skin that seemed fine when you left that fire with your object will blister, fall off, scab, and get infected. The air you breathe will burn your lungs. The smoke you inhale will KILL you.
My husband’s instinct to get his car out so it wouldn’t explode resulted in very minor burns, thank heavens, yet they are still extremely painful, and we’re not sure what damage it did to his ear, which they never even noticed in the hospital because the blistering happened later. His car was already hot enough that it took a deep, quarter-sized chunk of flesh right off the side of his right hand when he touched the door handle. He got second degree burns along his left arm. Since I had to back my car out so he could remove his, I was responsible for his life and what if I had been unable to keep my head and manage my own part of the process???
He got the car out, but it was a very near thing, our children were on the lawn screaming “Daddy” in a way that I will hear in my head until the day that I die. For a few heart-stopping moments, I believed we were all going to watch him die.
If you hear nothing else I’ve ever said, please hear this: nothing is worth your life, even if you believe something might explode, alert your neighbors so they too can evacuate, and let the firefighters do their work.
I love you all. I’m so grateful for my family’s continued health and so blessed by the kindness of my neighbors.