Half of the photos you see in this post are from a trip to Destin for our 15th anniversary in 2002. Most of the time I view them with an extreme sense of nostalgia, but today I view them with an emotion I cannot rightly express.
I see the smiling faces, the moment in time when, after what had been a really bad year, things seemed right with the world. I look at the smiles, detached from my own self, and think, they have no idea what’s about to happen. My disembodied self wishes I could time travel to that moment and warn them, or at least shield the children from what lies ahead.
Today is the 5th anniversary of the day that changed my life forever. On July 19, 2002, a Friday as I recall, I had only been back at work for a few days. I got a call from Lintilla’s cell, as I did every morning. But this time, her voice was different. She was out of breath and quite stressed.
“Get home NOW!”
“Wendy [our next door neighbor] called. Our house is on fire!”
My heart raced and sunk at the same time. I told my boss where I was going and literally ran to my car. I drove 70 miles an hour down West End, which was easy because rush hour traffic was going the other way. The police had blocked off our street, and they wouldn’t let me through until I expalined, “It’s MY house that’s on fire!”. Still, due to fire trucks in the street, I could still only get as close as a couple of blocks away.
I ran the rest of the way. When I got there, what I saw seemed surreal to me. There was our house, but half of it was simply not there, and flames were shooting out of the roof of the other half.
I don’t think we’ll be able to sleep at home tonight was my first thought. Funny.
One thing you have to understand, I had been through this before. In 1984, when I was at that weird stage in life where you’re half on your own, half still living with your parents, our house burned to the ground, in a total loss. Also, when I was growing up, we moved a lot. I did not understand emotional attachments to buildings.
But this just devastated Lintilla. It was her childhood home. Her father was gone, her mother had died six months prior, and her remaining connection to them was crashing to the ground in flames. Seeing her pain and devastation was almost more than I could bear.
And then there were the children.
We decided to leave them in preschool that day, as long as possible. Let them have “normal” as long as they can, was our thinking. But they knew when we picked them up that something was different. We didn’t take our normal route, and there were these new bags in the car with red crosses on them. So, on the way to the hotel, we told them. They reacted the way 4 and 5 year olds react. They asked about each beloved toy, one by one. After each question about each toy, we responded: it’s gone.
After each answer, the following question was more and more desperate. When we finally let them see what was left of the house, they wept in pure grief, and only small children can do. This is something I’ll never forget.
Lintilla and I had no time for grief. The insurance company let it be known that if we did not accept sight unseen their lowball offer on our claim, we would have to do it the hard way. We had to inventory every item that was in the house. Now, we had to simply use memory to list the contents of the half of the house that was totally gone, but for the rest, which was a total loss due to smoke damage, we literally had to inventory.
Remember – it was the middle of July, in Nashville, there was no electricity, no light, no AC, and I’m standing in a soot-covered closet with water-logged carpet, holding a flashlight, counting what used to be my stuff and writing each entry in a notebook. (I still have that notebook, by the way). Somewhere in the middle of the third 10-hour day of this, I lost it.
I had never really grown up before this time. I was the kind of guy who still called his parents to bail him out of this or that mess. Even though I had children, I was in no way “a man”. My parents had moved to Florida, Lintilla’s parents had died. And here I was in this closet, exhausted, filthy, smelly, at my wits end, with a grief-stricken wife and two small children, all of them looking at me, asking, “what do we do, Daddy?”
“Lord, I can’t do this”
I remember, I didn’t just think this, I said it out loud. “Help”.
I’m glad nobody had taken a picture of me at that time, but if they had, I could look at it now and say to myself, you have no idea what’s about to happen. Beaten and bloodied, I finally tagged my partner and let Him wrestle for a while.
What happened next defies description. Coworker, friends, and especially our new church stepped up to help. It was like the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, and then some. There was such a joyous, infectious element to the lifting up of my family, I can only say that I have seen the work of the Holy Spirit with my waking eyes. You could call it mumbo jumbo, but you weren’t there (well, some of you were). I know what I saw.
Of course, there was monetary help, and it was the lifeboat that got us through. My employer was stellar, allowing me all the time off I needed to handle my affairs (I wish I could say the same for Lintilla’s former employer). All of these we will never forget, and we will always be grateful for them.
But amongst all the help we recieved, two things stand out in my mind as lifechanging. First, a member of our Sunday School class met us in the parking lot at Target one day and handed us the largest bag of toys you’ve ever seen, courtesy of the Sunday school class. I cannot speak of this without weeping. I don’t know what it is, but the kindness to my children touches me in a way I cannot desrcibe.
The second was, what would seem to the naked eye, an insignificant event. Shortly after I lost my mind, we were invited to dinner at church by the husband and wife who were at the time the praise leaders at Belle Meade UMC. Until you’ve been stuck in a dark, hot, smelly closet working all day, you’d have a hard time understanding how important simple things are like having time to wash the muck off of yourself, having a hot, home-cooked meal, enoying friendship, and having friends pray with you. They even gave us passes to the movies (it may seem silly but they were trying to help us escape our rough reality, at least for a couple of hours).
I’ve never been the same since that day. I knew Christ before that day. But that day, I SAW Him. He placed His arms around me and my family, He made sure we were fed, both physically and spiritually.
The people who showed us Christ in such a personal way, Tom and Marcy Mulnix now live in Texas. Tom writes this blog, in fact. I’ve never really properly thanked them, so I hope they’re reading this. Tom and Marcy, thank you. Just, thank you.
And I thank the rest of you who helped us get through that time. You know who you are.
So, it’s a strange anniversary today. It’s not a happy one, but it IS an important one.