91: My Father’s Watch

91: My Father’s Watch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


My Father’s Watch

Oh, my friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.

~Hubert Humphrey

On the tenth anniversary of my father’s death, I awoke at 3:30 a.m. to deafening fire alarms. Alexis, my older daughter, was standing in the hallway with her cell phone and a blanket wrapped around her younger sister, Sierra. We ran down the stairs to the main floor. The girls stood by the front door while I checked for the cause of the alarm.

When I opened the door to my living room, I could see the carpets were smoking. My house really was on fire.

I yelled to the girls, “Get out! Get out! The house is on fire!” They turned and ran out the front. Because there was no smoke in the hallway, I ran upstairs two times to drag our terrified dogs outside. On my third trip, to find our cat Biscuit, the smoke curled up the stairs like a black menacing snake. Dreading Biscuit’s fate, I abandoned him and ran.

Explosions were shattering glass everywhere. The cars in the garage were exploding along with the lawnmower and snowblower. The fire burst out of the garage doors and crawled up the wall like deadly reptiles slithering up to the main floor. The heat shattered the windows, allowing the fire to climb back inside to continue its advance.

We ran through the woods to our neighbor’s house. Alexis was carrying Sierra and I was pulling both dogs by their collars as we climbed over limbs and stumbled over rocks. I pounded on my neighbor’s front door as police cars with their sirens blaring passed by.

Later, I was told it only took eight minutes for the fire trucks to arrive. The firefighters immediately started containing the fire. They saved a lot of our things and most importantly, Biscuit.

Standing outside my burned and smoking house the next day, I struggled with dozens of questions. I had no ID or cash. How was I going to pay for anything? I didn’t have a car so I couldn’t leave. Where would we sleep? Where would we live? What would happen to my house now? I didn’t even know where to start.

I was sleep deprived as I stood in my burned-out kitchen wearing my neighbor’s shoes, pants, and robe. My throat ached with unshed tears as I stared at my home in ruins. Everything was covered in burned wood, broken furniture, glass, soot, water, chemicals, and insulation. Everything smelled like smoke.

During the first weeks I wasn’t thinking clearly, eating, or sleeping. I was afraid of everything: loud noises, unusual smells, electricity, fire alarms, and being away from my girls. In our new rental, the girls and I slept huddled together in one room, even though we had separate rooms.

What I didn’t anticipate was how it would feel to have no personal items from our old house. Nothing was mine. I was sleeping in someone else’s house, wearing someone else’s clothes, and driving someone else’s car. The fire not only burned our possessions, it seemed to strip us of our identities.

Every day, I visited our burned house to search through the debris. It’s interesting how you learn what really matters to you in those circumstances. I found myself primarily searching for my late father’s watch. I found other treasures as I searched for his watch, including the ring my mom gave me when I left for college, a watch my grandmother gave me for high school graduation, and my daughter’s unworn prom dress, which was ruined. I found the last shirt I remembered my father having worn before his hospital stay. We had taken a cruise after his second course of chemo. It was the last vacation we would take before his death.

For sentimental reasons, I wanted to make sure my dad’s watch wasn’t thrown in the Dumpster. After weeks of searching, in the corner of the study underneath a pile of destroyed books, I found my dad’s watch. I wept with relief.

The lessons my daughters and I would learn from this experience were numerous. One of the greatest gifts we received was experiencing firsthand the kindness and thoughtfulness of our community. Friends and acquaintances, school counselors, teachers, principals, supportive contractors and thoughtful neighbors dropped by with food, clothing, furniture, and money. Others came by to help me sort through the debris for salvageable items. We had no idea how amazing people could be until our house caught fire.

Two years later, I feel differently about the fire. Despite the loss of valued mementoes, the fire did burn away a lot of needless clutter from my home and my life. I discovered that life is much easier with fewer items and less “stuff” to clutter the journey. I didn’t replace many of the things that I thought were necessities before the fire. My newly built home is cleaner and has more open space, as do I.

My dad’s watch is on my bedside table now. It is a physical reminder that time matters. Anyone or anything can be lost without warning. My desire is to find a sense of serenity, compassion, and strength within myself, model those qualities for my daughters, and share those qualities with others.

Since the fire, my girls and I keep watch for those who experience loss. It is important to us to repay the many kindnesses we received. My family experienced the genuine love and assistance of a community and the warmth it provided. That feeling was priceless. We will forever be profoundly grateful.

All in all, the fire gave us more than it took away.

~Paula Sherwin


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