Preface: Our house burned down on February 20, 2016. Since that time, I have been almost completely unable to write anything of substance.
Yes, it was stressful.
Yes, it was emotional and had a huge impact on our lives.
However, I write. It’s sort of my thing, and the inability to do so has left me feeling isolated and emotionally drained.
Nothing was in slow motion as my green Hyundai Sonata turned the corner and entered our quiet Avondale, AZ neighborhood. It sure wasn’t like they show it in the movies. No mind-numbing slow zoom in, and no dramatic music highlighting the devastation that lay ahead.
I can vividly still picture the multiple fire trucks that had already descended upon our block, the alarming red of the trucks screaming DANGER to anyone in the vicinity. I can still clearly picture half swollen fire hoses, sweaty with condensation, running up and down the concrete walkway that led straight up the street right, through our splintered front door frame, and into the still smoldering house.
I remember being confused when my sandals felt the wet concrete. It’s a rare sight to see that much moisture on the hot Arizona streets. My wife, 13-year-old daughter, and mother-in-law, kept safely in the car, I recall walking towards our house. Windows were shattered, doors smashed in, a rush of brave firefighters going in and out of the house. I was hopefully optimistic at this point. I remember every dreadful second that led up to my first conversation with the supervisor and fire inspector. I remember it all because I still had hope. We still hadn’t assessed the situation and didn’t know exactly what we were looking at. Then, a brief second later, the illusion was destroyed and reality came crashing down.
After quickly identifying myself as the “owner” of the smoldering home that sat before us, I said the two saddest words I could muster, “the dogs?” The firefighter must have sensed the optimism in my voice because he looked directly at me, never breaking eye contact despite the sweat and soot that was surely overheating his massive frame, and he said with cold detachment, “They did not make it. I’m sorry, sir.”
It was like I was hit by a lightning bolt. Its electric charge stripped and charred me down to the only thing that was left, a sense of wretched dread. Immediately, panic set in. How was I supposed to walk back to the car and tell my family that the cat and all three of our rescued dogs died in the twenty minutes we were stuffing our faces at Panera?
I hadn’t even seen the house. It was still standing, so that was something. Sensing it was his moment to depart, the firefighter backed away and left me to process what I had just learned.
I’ve never fainted, but I imagine just before it happens most people feel the same sensation that took over my body during those first few seconds. It was a literal whirlwind of chemical based reactions in my brain. I swooned, intoxicated with confusion, dread, anger, and the most profound sense of grief I have ever felt in my entire life. It was only my hefty frame that kept me on my feet. As the rush of dopamine, serotonin, and whatever other chemical compounds were flashing through my cerebellum calmed down, I turned to face the house as another firefighter approached.
With minimal small talk, we entered the house. Walking up to the front door, I was seeing my own home through very different eyes for the first time, eyes shaded by the death of our cat and three dogs.
My puppy was gone.
Another gut punch of emotion.
Another couple of deep breaths.
Another opportunity to stay strong for my family.
The family! Another gut punch! I had to break the news to them still. I was feeling beat-up on an emotional level, and it had only been three minutes since I got out of the car!
Thick, harsh smoke still lingered in the air as I entered the house. The heat wasn’t unbearable. We live in Arizona, after all. It was just oddly out of place, like seeing a cassette tape or floppy disk in 2017. From front to back, every window was shattered. Blackened glass crackled underfoot and was pretty much everywhere. What the fire didn’t damage, firefighter procedure surely made up for. I don't blame them because safety is important. But to see it "in the moment," you can't help but get a little angry. If the split and splintered frame of my front door felt like a violation, it was the shattered windows and sliding glass door that sent a cold shiver down my spine and made me, for the first time since stepping out of the car, feel like a victim.
Thick black soot coated the walls, and everything was out of place. Imagine returning home and every single item in your house has been disturbed. Recognizable, but completely different from when you last left your home. The blistering heat, choking smoke, adrenaline fueled firefighters, flailing hoses, and general chaos turned our home into a twisted version of itself. It was like seeing a version of our home that only existed in Hell. Distorted by heat ripples, and smoke hanging heavy in the air. My new reality was a nightmare version of the happiness I felt just a few short hours ago. The kitchen was the source of the fire and the second room I entered.
Following behind the brave firefighter, who was kind enough to remove the bodies of our pets before I even entered the home, I willed myself forward. Using every ounce of strength that was already not dedicated to holding in my grief and rage, I looked upon our now fire-ravaged kitchen. It wasn’t exactly recognizable as a kitchen. It was a visual assault of burnt wood and char, mixed with a thick layer of mud, a result of burning drywall mixing with the water used to extinguish the blaze.
Unrecognizable, and the smell. God, the smell of dozens of boxed food, cans and bottles, and whatever else was in the pantry started creeping out from behind the harsh and abusive smell of wood burning. This couldn’t be where I spent my birthday just days prior. This couldn’t be the brutal remnants of the last place my father-in-law Frank cooked for us before he passed away quietly in his sleep. In this very house.
After all of this, the worst moment of my life was still to come. I knew it. I could do anything to stop it either. I was powerless in the inevitability of it all. I gathered up whatever dignity hadn’t been burnt away with my sense of safety and security, and I slowly walked back to the car to debrief my worried family.
I can’t explain to you the epic sense of sadness that comes with hearing those you love most sobbing and crying. I can’t explain to you the profound feeling of helplessness that washed over me as a father and as a husband. My family was devastated. In tears, their muffled sobs cut pieces of my heart away as I sat helpless, a victim of fire and circumstance.
There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t make this go away. I couldn’t fix it. So, I did the only thing left I had the strength to do. I checked out emotionally. I flipped that switch because I had to stay strong for my family. My teenager had just lost everything she owned, just as she was switching from Junior High to a High School that none of her former friends and classmates were attending. I had a wife and mother-in-law that just lost a father and husband respectively, and this crisis was our new reality. I had to put everything aside and handle business.
I had seen, heard, and smelled too much. Using what must have been a system of grunts and noises, I was able to communicate enough to tell them that the Fire Safety Inspector said the house was deemed unlivable. We were allowed a few moments to salvage what we could from the house, but after that we needed to vacate immediately.
I stood silently at the door, surveying the charred remains of our happy little home. Taking in the oddly comforting smell of a winter fire blowing in the evening wind, I lowered my head and said a silent prayer. My soul wept, drowning the wreckage of our entire lives and washing it away, just as cruel fate had swept in and destroyed everything we once held dear. I felt responsible for the deaths of our pets. The casual decision to “keep them outside” or “let them in” while we were gone has become a vile torment that plagues my dreams. The sense of loss that I feel, 10 months later, is only surpassed by the sense of responsibility I accept for the loss of our dogs.
At odd times, I find myself unable to think of anything else, and in these moments I wonder if my loyal friends, my companions, and my “Puppy of Dragons” suffered. Did they desperately wonder where I was to save them? Did they optimistically hope for the best in those final moments, as the lack of oxygen and build-up of smoke put them to sleep?
Even as I type this, there is a part of me that is disgusted by the tears burning my eyes as I try, and fail, to hold them back.
I want to be clear. My pets. I love you. I’m sorry. You deserved better.