Fire of Compassion

By Beth Wolfer

A home in flames leads to thanks-giving.

"Thank you" can be a complete sentence," my friend told me.

How," I'd asked her, "do I handle the outpouring of compassion, sympathy and, well, stuff that has come to me and my three daughters in the days and weeks following our devastating house fire, from friends and strangers alike?"

Yes, of course I'd said thank you, and had written so many thank you notes my mother would have been proud. But, like so many other things we unexpectedly encounter in our adult life that stray from the safe cocoons of our daily routine and, in my case, my sheltered upbringing, there weren't really instructions for how to handle this.

fireofcompassionFire has been a cleansing, transformative force since cavemen could rub two sticks together. But it is easy to become immune to its power for most people, because usually fire stays in the campfire ring, behind the fireplace screen or at the end of a candle, where it belongs. We're taught prevention, as children, by Smokey the Bear, and again as adults, with public education reminders, usually by television weathermen, to check our smoke alarms every fall and spring, with Daylight Savings. Each summer, we witness news accounts of wildfires in Arizona, California, Colorado, and sometimes even Utah, but often from the comfort of our air-conditioned living rooms.

It wasn't until fire leapt from the confines of my fireplace and into the middle of my life that I truly appreciated its fierce destruction or acknowledged its cleansing attributes. That fire has not only removed possessions (at least temporarily) from cluttering up our lives, with our previously overstuffed closets, ridiculously overflowing toy boxes and stacks of papers, CDs and magazines, but it has taught us deep, lifelong lessons of compassion, having been at the receiving end of incredible love and support these past few weeks.

In Latin, compassion means to "suffer with." With its power to inflict fear into almost anyone, fire has brought forth many in our lives who have chosen, if even for a moment, to suffer with us. I have sensed, in a few, an underlying sense of relief that the fire didn't happen to them, but, for the most part, I've known that their compassion was genuine. This fire has brought us the gift of compassion, learning to accept it, and, looking forward, the ability to appreciate and to provide compassion for others, I hope for the rest of our lives.

Flames. Shooting from my living room window as I pulled into my driveway on a frigid November night, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. 

We'd had a fire in the fireplace during dinner, but it had died down considerably by the time we left the house an hour later to get some dessert. During that brief 15-minute period, while my nine-year-old daughter Rose, my friend David and I were at Denny's, a spark jumped through my fireplace screen onto some newspaper. The fire investigator would later tell me the spark was caused by a microburst of wind down the chimney or simply a shifting log. No one's fault.

From the newspaper, the flames spread to an oversized chair, which sat next to a window. There, the wood blinds ignited, heating the windows enough to shatter the glass outward as I turned the car into the driveway, headlights illuminating it all. The air through the broken windows provided the fire with enough oxygen to cause it to grow in intensity and in size.

We all scrambled from my van and, knowing the front door was locked but the back was open, we ran around to the back yard. I pushed open the back door, only to be blown back down the two steps by heat and smoke.

"Pumpkin, oh no, Pumpkin!" I heard Rose yell, as her spooked cat leapt from her arms and darted back into the house through her basement cat door. "Mommy, the kitty, the kitty, she's inside!"

David was reopening the back door, on his knees, to crawl inside to reach a fire extinguisher, as I grabbed Rose's hand and ran next door to my neighbor's. My cell phone was unfortunately inside my house, so I needed to borrow their phone to call 9-1-1.

The fire extinguisher's retardant lasted all of about 10 seconds before it ran out, so I ran to my front lawn, cranking open the faucet on the garden hose. Nothing. It was 20 degrees out, and the hose had frozen solid.

So David and one of the neighbors and I formed a real-life bucket brigade, using water from the same neighbor's faucet and a couple of five-gallon paint buckets, the orange kind you see at Home Depot.

As David continued to throw water in through the broken windows, we heard sirens growing closer and louder. Four fire engines pulled up, 20 firefighters adjusting their helmets and buckling their heavy coats as they ran toward the house.

I put down my bucket and reached for my purse to retrieve my front door key. My hands were shaking badly as I fumbled in the dark, and I heard what sounded to me like bad movie dialog from the nearest fireman.

"That's OK," he stated as he lifted an axe, "we have our own key,"

and brought it down through my front door.

I thought I'd known compassion before. I'd been raised in a caring, loving family, always rooting for the underdog, bringing home stray pets, including a pigeon we named Walter when I was eight.

As I grew up, I extended myself to others, doing volunteer work, helping at school and church, sympathizing with friends and coworkers, a good listener and confidante. Family and friends were there for me too, when my marriage unraveled and my mother was diagnosed with and died from Alzheimer's disease.

But following, and even during , the fire, we were the recipients of such selfless gestures of compassion from not only friends, but also from people I barely knew, and, most surprisingly to me, from complete strangers. This experience opened me up to an entirely new level of appreciation, to be sure, but also to a genuine goodness in people I'd rarely witnessed. I look back on earlier seemingly selfless acts of kindness, given or received up until the fire, as sort of Compassion Lite…nice enough, but a little superficial.

My two older daughters, Kallie and Margot, ran down the street, having been forced to park their car beyond the barricade set up by the firemen at the end of my block, and clung to me with disaster-level fierceness. I'd called them and their dad when Rose, calmer now, wandered from fireman to fireman, tugging on each of their sleeves saying, "can you find my cat? She's orange, and her name is Pumpkin." It was heartbreaking. The air grew even colder. Several neighbors still huddled on their front lawns, drawn by the fire, by the activity, and by a vague sense of helplessness. Someone put a coat around my middle daughter Margot's underdressed shoulders, and Barb, the neighbor I knew best, offered me a place to stay.

As the girls went to look for the cat in the backyard, an across-the-street neighbor I'd met maybe twice walked up to me with a giant jar of money. "Some of us have been collecting for awhile, and we didn't know who this was for, but now it's clear to us that it's meant for you," she said, handing it to me, along with a small book. "When you have a chance, I mean not right away or anything, you should read this book, 'The Christmas Jar,'" she said. I hugged her, speechless except for a chokey-sounding "thank you," with tears running down my face. The jar weighed at least 20 pounds, and I could see not only coins, but bills of all denominations, all stacked to the very top.

The fire captain gathered the facts of the fire from me and said an investigator was on his way. He asked if I had a place to stay, and, thanks to Barb, I said yes. He told me that if not, the American Red Cross could provide shelter. While I hold great admiration for that agency, its volunteers and its good works, the only mental picture I had to go along with the Red Cross involved cots in high school gymnasiums with drab thin blankets and people coughing. Later I learned that in cases like mine the Red Cross actually works with local hotels such as Crystal Inn to find emergency lodging. 

As the firemen wound up their hoses, Rex the investigator arrived and escorted me inside the house. I pointed out with a flashlight where the screen had been, and the newspaper, and told him we'd let the fire die down substantially before leaving for ice cream. I knew that we were gone exactly 15 minutes, because I had teased Rose about how quickly she devoured her dessert, looking at my watch, pretending to time her.

Water dripped from the ceiling, where the firemen had punched holes to (I learned later) relieve the pressure of the heat from the fire, and to douse any flames in the attic. The smoke was still thick in the air, and I held my jacket up over my nose and mouth as we slowly surveyed the damage from room to room. It was probably a good thing that night that I could only see the destruction in six-foot triangles of light from the flashlight, small doses. While the flames had remained in one corner of the living room, the smoke and heat had destroyed most of the main floor. I was told later that it had reached over 700 degrees in the house. I stepped over the melted smoke alarm in the hallway, grabbing my still-packed-from-a-weekend-away duffle bag, and shut the shattered front door behind me..

When I went outside, the girls shouted, "Mom, we found Pumpkin!" The shaking cat had been huddling under a big pine tree out back. 

After everyone left, I couldn't sleep at Barb's, so I bundled up to walk back over to the house. The temperature was now in the single digits. I heard the crunch of broken glass under my boots as I stepped across the threshold, shining a beam of light around the room. Some of the furniture was completely burned, some destroyed in other ways, like the melted TV and VCR. My grandfather's piano was badly charred, and my cell phone lay shriveled and ruined on the blackened coffee table.

I slowly wandered from room to room, gathering up a sad little collection of things in my arms: the Mickey Mouse Rose had just brought me from her Thanksgiving trip to Disneyland, my journal and some other important papers, a sooty can of cat food from the kitchen cupboard, a photo of my parents on their wedding day, and Rose's American Girl Doll, Molly, who had partially melted to the couch cushions. Molly had recently returned from the American Girl Hospital (I am not making this up), where I'd sent her to have a broken leg fixed. Rose had been so delighted to have her back, she'd debated taking her to Denny's with us, but decided instead to leave her on the couch, where she could "rest by the fire."

The next few days were a blur. My two best girlfriends arrived in the morning, wanting to do something concrete to help, so they emptied all of our dressers, stuffing clothes into big black garbage bags to take back to their spacious laundry rooms. Later, they sent their husbands to meet the disaster relief contractor and my insurance adjuster with me, to provide a "manly presence" in my single-mom household.

My daughters were shocked and upset, and I spoke to each of their school counselors and to Rose's teacher. A few days later, we also visited the family therapist we'd seen a year earlier who'd helped us deal with the divorce.

Since it was three weeks before Christmas, people were already in a spirit of giving, but seemed to go even farther in our situation. Co-workers brought in clothing and blankets; friends in my department ordered a new Molly doll for Rose; there was a buildingwide collection of cash presented to me, and an especially generous volunteer stepped forward, with her entire extended family, to provide Christmas gifts for all three girls and me.

"Each year, my family provides Christmas for a needy family through some social service agency," she told me, "which can be gratifying, but usually pretty impersonal. So I was wondering, circumstances being what they are," she paused, "if we could do you?"

Rose's elementary school principal called two weeks before Christmas. "The City of Cottonwood Heights called," he told me, "and they'd like to adopt your family for their Sub for Santa program. How do you feel about that?" he asked.

"Well," I said, "incredibly awkward, to be honest. I mean, eventually things will be sorted out, and the insurance company will help us replace what we've lost," I explained. "Surely, there are needier families at your school." But they'd heard our story, and seemed to be eager to help us. The protective mother-tiger in me conceded that our coats and gloves had been ruined, so it would be great to replace them as soon as possible. So I clumsily put together a list of the girls' ages and sizes, and of immediate needs, along with a couple of "wants." I had organized Sub for Santa arrangements for others, either through work or through church, for at least 10 years, so, while it was wonderful, it was also very weird to be on the receiving end.

Friends dropped everything to help us move into the temporary apartment provided by our insurance company. One girlfriend, seeing the drabness of the beige rental furniture, beige counters, beige carpet, loaned us some books, dishes, flannel sheets, etc. "Wow," I said to her, overwhelmed. "How am I going to remember all that is yours when it's time to move again?" "Easy," she said, "I brought you the only things in this place with any color!"

Another friend, who'd recently lost both parents, provided kitchen accouterments that didn't come with our rental package, but were so welcome, like a large cutting board, a paper towel holder and a couple of throw rugs. These were things we didn't realize we were missing until she lugged them up our three flights of stairs and plopped them on our kitchen table.

Six women from my book club chipped in to buy me a gift certificate for a 90-minute massage. A woman I'd grown up with, but haven't seen for at least 10 years, having heard of the fire through an e-mail grapevine, sent $100 with a note that said, "take a trip to Target on me." My employers let me take all the time I needed while I embarked upon the long recovery process of learning the insurance- and construction-speak. The girls' teachers understood when they had trouble concentrating or needed to come home early. And on and on.

Beyond saying "thank you" for all of these wonderful expressions of love and support, I can tell our friends and acquaintances that one of fire's biggest gifts to me, as a mom, has been witnessing my daughters' willingness to give back, to provide selfless acts of kindness to others from now on. Fire has wiped away some typical adolescent self-centeredness to prepare the way for them to reach out. "I can't wait to do Sub for Santa for someone else next year," my middle daughter, Margot, proclaimed a couple of weeks ago, closely affirmed by her two sisters.

For me, it has cleared the way for deeper appreciation for life, for people and for acts of compassion – past, present and future. So yes, "thank you" has been a complete sentence. But it's also been a liberating force to unleash my and my children's ability to help those around us, to suffer with them, if necessary, and to draw closer in the process.

This article was originally published on November 22, 2006.