It’s been seven weeks since the fire and while progress has been made, some things are stuck at a standstill. We finally got the go-signal to begin demolition and cleanup, after weeks of failed attempts to figure out the cause of the fire. It will be a relief to drive up to the property without having to see the pile of rubble. The recent severe weather here, however, has pushed back our demolition plans. I am both eager to get it done and dreading it. But I continue to remind myself that every day is one day closer to being back home again.
The fire has taught us many things. Valuable things, both practical and life-changing. We have learned volumes about the depth of love that exists in friendship, the kindness of strangers, and how easy it is to make that leap from stranger to friend. Many people have told us how strong we are, how resilient. But we can’t take credit for that. What we are inside, we owe to our faith, and where we fall short, the people around us—both far and near—bolster us up, lifting us higher than we can stand on our own.
I know many others have gone through worse tragedies and suffered more than we have. I don’t use that to console myself. Instead, I think of how much potential there is for all of us to reach out to others, extend a helping hand. Whether in the form of material help or well wishes, or just the reassurance that they are not alone in their ordeal, it doesn’t take much to transform despair into hope. My uncle once told me: “There is great joy when God answers your prayers. There is even greater joy when God uses you to answer someone else’s prayers.”
I hope you feel that greater joy.
For some weeks now, I’ve been trying to think of a recipe to share with you. Or take photos to show you. In truth, it’s been difficult. My motivation to cook, bake, or shoot hasn’t been the same. I know it will take time and I also know that I can’t rush it. I think, too, that part of it is because there is something else I’d like to share. Something that isn’t as exciting as a new dish or beautiful photos but one that I feel is even more important, even though my hope is that you will never need it. What I want to share is a list of things we’ve learned dealing with the aftermath of the fire. It may not be yummy or exciting, but it might be the most important post I write. Because somewhere down the road, this might actually make a difference in someone’s life.
- Have a fire escape plan. If you have a two-storey house, plan different scenarios. What if you are trapped in the first floor? The second floor? If your escape plan involves a fire ladder, have everyone actually use it at least once. If the plan requires exiting from a window, walk everyone through it. Tom had a fire escape plan 15 years ago when he added a second floor to the house. He walked Tim through it just that one time, and all these years later, Tim was able to use that escape route to save his grandmother, without wasting precious seconds trying to figure out how to get out of the house. Children will remember.
- Make sure your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working properly. Keep a fire extinguisher and read the instructions. Remember the acronym PASS: Pull the pin, Aim the hose, Squeeze the trigger, and Sweep. Don’t attempt to put out a fire that isn’t contained. Instead, head for safety and call for help. When using a fire extinguisher, aim at the base of the fire, not at the top where the flames may look more intense. If your local fire department offers practice sessions, take advantage of the chance to get some hands-on training. Make a family outing of it.
- Be mindful of possible fire hazards in your home. If you use a fireplace, be careful about how you dispose of the ashes. Embers can smolder for days, so don’t throw them along with the trash. Don’t overload circuits and don’t forget to put out candles. Don’t be quick to mix and match power adaptors. Some may look the same but deliver vastly different voltage. Since we tend to leave power adaptors plugged in, you don’t want to accidentally fry a gadget AND start a small fire in the process.
DOCUMENTS AND VALUABLES
- Get a fireproof box. They are rated differently, some for 30-minute fires and others for 2 1/2 hours or more. Keep your valuables and original documents inside, as well as photocopies of your license and other forms of ID that you usually carry around with you. If you have a safety deposit box, keep your valuables and seldom-used original documents there instead. Don’t forget these:
Immmigration documents, if applicable
Social Security card
Titles, property and auto
A list of online accounts, logins and passwords
Any documents you may be holding for someone else, such as an elderly relative
- If you have anything important that can be scanned, scan it and then email it to yourself if you have a web-based email account. Or upload it to an online storage service if you’re using one, along with other important files you may have. I’ve heard wonderful things about DropBox and had considered using them before the fire. But I balked at the cost of storage (I did have almost 1TB of data to back up, mostly photos and media) and now that cost seems like a bargain compared to the value of the files I lost.
- As you’re scanning your documents, make hard copies as well. Put them in a folder and stash them in the home of a trusted friend. You can be document buddies and they can stash a copy of their documents with you, too. It’s highly unlikely that both your homes will be destroyed at the same time, so it’s a good third-layer backup.
- For those in the US, if your immigration status has changed from temporary to permanent (e.g. from student to resident), head to your local Social Security Administration office and have them update your records. Otherwise, they can—and will—allege that they have no proof of your legal status in the country. Replacement documents from Immigration Services proving otherwise can take up to a year to process. If this should ever happen to you, head to the US Federal Court in the district where you were sworn in and they can give you a document that certifies your legal status.
- Know your insurance policy. Ask your agent or provider to explain anything that isn’t clear to you. If you have specific items of value, make sure they are covered. Some insurance policies have an automatic limit on business losses unless you specifically request business coverage, so if you have a home office, make sure your office equipment is adequately covered. There are also automatic limits on jewelry, furs, fine art, silverware, antiques, and even Oriental rugs. Some policies may even limit coverage for camera equipment and musical instruments, so make sure you check that if you have those items. Update your policy whenever you acquire something valuable. Tom had his homeowner’s policy years ago, before we were married, and it was never updated to reflect the jewelry I had, some of my antiques, the rare and collectible gold coins my father passed on to me last year, etc. If you’re renting, make sure you get renter’s insurance.
- Take a video camera and go around your house filming everything you have. Open drawers, open closet doors, go up in the attic, down in the basement—document everything. One of the most difficult and painful tasks we’ve had to complete (and we have yet to complete it) is creating an inventory of everything that we lost. Which pretty much means every single thing in our house, from Tom’s model trains that he bought in Germany, the many different chess sets he bought for Tim every time he traveled overseas, to the number of kitchen towels I had in the laundry room. I know I’ll forget many things and the task would have been so much easier with a visual to use as a reference. Oh, and do stash that videotape in your safety deposit or fireproof box. I had tons of photos I could have used and my photos were backed up in multiple drives to protect them from hard drive failure, but the fire destroyed them all.
- Always pay your premiums on time. Sign up for automatic payment or renewal if possible. If you are even one day late and lose everything that day that you aren’t covered—ouch.
Finally, I want to tell you that even if everything you’ve ever owned is gone, it’s not the end of the world. It gets easier. Things may never be the same, but there will be many ways in which they will be better. You will grow closer to your family and friends, and you will experience the generous compassion of people. So continue to be kind, give of yourself to others. Belong to a community because believe me, there is great strength in numbers.
The final lesson that I wish I had learned earlier? I wish I learned how to receive graciously. But that’s one lesson that all of you are teaching me now. A friend put it in perspective for me when she said, “You know that joy you feel when you are able to give to other people? If you don’t learn how to receive, you’ll be depriving other people of that same joy.”
I want you to know that I wake up every morning thankful for all of you. And when you say that you marvel at my strength, in truth, what you see is the strength that you’ve imparted to me.