Friday, December 23, 2016
Out of the Darkness, a Christmas Blessing
On a hot and humid August night, just days before I was set to start fourth grade, our home burned to the ground. It wasn't a dream home or a rambling white Iowa farmhouse that I always dreamt of living in. It was, instead, a small trailer on a tiny lot inside a small square full of other trailers in a trailer park bordered by cornfields outside of the small town of Bondurant, Iowa. It was not a dream home but it was our home, a home full of love and we had lived there for years, surrounded by friends and neighbors.
That night, the night when we lost all of our Earthly belongings, was a terrible night. It also was a night full of miracles and the miracles would not end when that awful night was over.
My Mom was gone that evening at a concert at the Iowa State Fair. It was incredibly rare for my Mom to go out without the family, both because money was tight and because our family was always my parents' priority. But, she was gone that evening and my Dad, in an unusual gesture, asked if all three of the kids wanted to sleep in his bedroom and have a slumber party of sorts. We happily agreed and my little brother cozied up in the big bed with Dad and my sister and I snuggled into blankets on the floor at the foot of the bed. We watched the tiny television in the bedroom until we all fell asleep, the television still streaming light into the dark bedroom which was all the way at the back end of the trailer.
A short time later, I was awoken by my Dad screaming. He was frantic, physically pulling us up onto our feet, holding my brother in his arms and we raced, still sleepy and confused, down the tiny hallway of the trailer that ran alongside the bedrooms. The smoke was thick and the crackle of the fire deafening. I remember my heart racing as I saw the bedroom that my sister and I shared was completely engulfed in flames.
We raced to the neighbors house and my Dad frantically pounded on the door until finally the neighbor opened the door and, still in his underwear, joined my dad in dragging out their garden hoses and focusing the water both on our trailer and his in an effort to both stop our fire and prevent it from spreading from one trailer to the next as only a tiny dried bit of grass separated the two structures.
We stood warily out in the street watching as the fire department, full of half-asleep volunteers, arrived and tried to put out the flames. Our neighbors and friends surrounded us and wrapped us in blankets as we stood shivering, even though the Iowa summer air was sweltering. We were in shock as the gaping hole in the side of the trailer became wider and wider, a sick gaping smile in what was once our family home, being licked ever wider by orange flames. I cried for my Pamela doll and my copy of Alice in Wonderland that were surely lost inside the flames. My brother and sister cried silently beside me, each of us lost in our minds thinking of what was lost as my Dad raced around, watching the fire fighters and talking to police officers.
Nearly every earthly possession we had was now gone. We mourned our favorite things. As the shock wore off, however, we were realizing that we were all together, alive and unharmed. I remember hearing my dad talking to a police officer and saying over and over again in a daze that my sister and I could have been dead. I'd never seem him so discombobulated and confused, repeating things over and over again. In my vivid imagination, I remembered just hours before seeing our bedroom aflame. I realized, with a start, that had my mother not been at that concert and we had not been invited for a sleepover in my parents bedroom, that we would have been snuggled into our shared bed in that bedroom in a bed that bordered the wall shared with the water heater that exploded and started the fire that night. We would not have survived.
As a child, I had never before thought of the possibility of my own death before. That night I realized that the simple act of my sister and I breathing in and out, unharmed and with our life before us, was a miracle. We were alive.
Other miracles would follow. The box of photographs that would lay untouched and completely unharmed by fire, smoke or water damage in a closet-- I remember my mother crying over that box of photos. The kindness of strangers and friends and family, alike as we were showered with donations and love.
In the months to come there would be many struggles for my parents trying to make a new life for us on a pittance of an insurance check. There would be a new school and a new apartment that smelled faintly of the chain-smoker that lived there before us. We received new clothing and toys, but only in meager amounts as money was very tight. As a painfully shy and awkward girl, I struggled to acclimate to all of the newness.
The fall was a trying time and as we came into the Christmas season, I was weary and tired and a large part of me wanted our old life back. I cannot now, as an adult, imagine how much more challenging these times had to have been on my parents, but they did not often show the strain. I warily looked forward to Christmas as a bright spot among the weariness of the constant change.
On Christmas Eve we had a gathering at my dad's family home as always. On our way home, we kept our eyes focused out of the car windows and on the sky to try to spot Santa's sleigh, as always. It was our family tradition to open presents on Christmas Eve and Santa somehow always had our presents waiting for us when we came home from the party. I had not believed in Santa for years but happily searched the sky for bright stars that I could point out to my siblings as "Rudolph's nose". We arrived home to our meager apartment and I expected the handful of presents that we usually received. I dreamt of packages of books and, just maybe- a Pamela doll like the one I'd had before(that we had not been able to find in stores since). What we walked into was so much more than our usual Christmas, however.
In the living room was our modest Christmas tree, lit up in multicolored lights that shined across the darkened room. And, on the floor- across the ENTIRE floor- were presents. Presents stretched and stacked everywhere the eye could see. It was a child's dream. At our parent's blessing, we ripped into the presents and discovered toys and books and clothing and shoes- all of the things that we had lost and more.
After, we sat blissfully surrounded by presents and torn paper, our faces lit by the lights and by the joy we carried. My siblings played with their new toys and I stacked up my new books in my lap. My brother and sister believed that this miracle was the work of Santa, but I knew differently. My parents, out of love and sacrifice, had made this miracle happen and that was even more of a miracle and a blessing than a strange man climbing down our chimney.
Just months before, I had taken many things for granted; a cozy home, my family and even my own life. I now knew what a real miracle was. That night four months before, we lost so many things. However, my sister and I had very nearly been spared the loss of our own lives and our family was nearly broken. We were saved, in so many ways.
We had lost so much that year. My family had always been the five of us against the world and that Christmas night I was grateful for the presents around our tree but was ever so sure that the true blessing was the five of us together, in a room that held so much love that I didn't know how the walls managed to contain it.
The unusual truth about awful happenings is that it is often in the wake of tragedy that beautiful truths can come to the light, truths that we should've known all along but had forgotten. In the midst of the darkness, there can shine a light so determined that it overcomes the darkest of nights. Out of our darkness came a series of miracles that culminated in the most glorious Christmas that our family had ever known or would ever know again. I will be forever grateful to carry those memories with me for always.