16: Fear of Fire

16: Fear of Fire

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen

Fear of Fire

Believers, look up—take courage. The angels are nearer than you think.

~Billy Graham

As a child I had an irrational fear of fire, and I had nightmares about our home burning down. I have always believed this was the result of an oven fire at our home when I was small. I couldn’t have been more than three, but I vividly remember screaming with terror as I saw flames coming out of that oven.

Our small town had only a volunteer fire department. Back then the only way to summon firefighters to the station was by setting off a loud siren. How I hated the sound of it! Even as I got older I would wind up in my parents’ bed when it sounded at night. It was a great relief to me when the city stopped using it in the late 1980s, designating it for use only in the event of a disaster.

As I entered my teenage years, my fears about fire subsided and that siren remained silent. But on a summer day in 1992, those fears came racing back.

I had gone to run errands with my family that day, temporarily closing the office of the small motel my parents had owned and operated all my life. We locked up and left our dog in charge for a few hours. Upon our return we were horrified to see the lot full of fire trucks, and firefighters descending ladders in the front of the building. A lamp cord had shorted out, igniting a fire that swept through the front office and living quarters, leaving serious damage. Thankfully the firefighters arrived in time to rescue our dog, but the office was a total loss.

I immediately blamed myself for what had happened. I had agreed to stay behind and mind the office that day, but at the last minute decided to go along. I can remember hugging my father and sobbing, apologizing for allowing it to happen. In his loving, gentle way, he put his hands on my face and smiled, telling me that it wasn’t my fault and he was just thankful I wasn’t there, where I might have been hurt or killed. The rest of the day was filled with chaos as family members and friends arrived to offer help and we began surveying the damage.

I don’t recall a great deal about what went on, but I do vividly recall the moment that changed everything. As I stood at a distance from the door and watched what was happening, I saw a firefighter enter the office through a side door. Almost as if my eyes had switched into slow motion mode, I watched through a sooty window as he trudged through the office. At that moment I felt the same fear that had crippled me as a child.

I spent the rest of that summer afraid. I was nineteen years old and wouldn’t leave my parents. I could hardly sleep, and when I did my dreams were filled with fires. I shook with terror at the sound of every ambulance or police car. I had to drop out of my college classes. I got up several times every night to make sure the house wasn’t on fire. I was a complete mess. I couldn’t even function normally, and it was sucking the life out of me. I attended counseling for PTSD, but it didn’t seem to help.

I was at the end of the proverbial rope one August night when it all changed—again.

I lay in bed in the wee hours of the night, scared and crying as usual. My eyes could not stay open, but the moment I fell asleep the fire alarm inside my mind would sound. I would wake to make sure I was ready to run if a fire started. I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. I got up and sat down at my vanity table. The reflection I saw in the mirror was pathetic. I looked sick and old.

I put my face in my hands and began sobbing uncontrollably. I could not continue living this way, but didn’t know what to do. In desperation I cried out, “God, please help me!” I cried a while longer, then slowly raised my head once more.

As I looked, again, at my reflection in the mirror, I caught sight of something over my left shoulder. It was a sort of white mist, almost like smoke, and it seemed to dance just behind me. I wiped my eyes, certain it was the product of too many tears and an overactive imagination. But as I looked beyond my shoulder, it was still there, thicker and even more visible than before. It mesmerized me, and I watched intently as it hovered over me. Suddenly it shifted and entered my body like lightning. At that moment I felt the unmistakable sensation of hands touching my shoulders.

I sat upright, frozen in disbelief as I felt the pressure on my shoulders intensify and a sensation of deep warmth flow from my head to my toes. I took a deep breath and the moment passed. In my own fear and doubt, I arose and made a hasty exit. I spent the rest of the night out on the couch, where I slept better than I had in two months. In sharing my experience with my mother the next morning, she surmised that an angel had visited me.

As the next few weeks passed, something amazing happened—I got my life back. I slept normally, resumed my classes, began socializing again, and no longer plagued by nightmares or afraid of sirens. In fact, just a month later, I started work as a dispatcher for our local police and fire department. I was on duty the day our city held its annual Emergency Services Appreciation Day, when a day of activities ended with a loud parade of sirens from various emergency vehicles. As part of the festivities, organizers decided to fire up the old volunteer siren, done by pulling a lever inside the police station. I was thrilled to be the one to pull that lever, that day and for years to come. I did so each time with a smile, remembering the little girl who had once been so afraid of it.

That was over twenty years ago, and I have never forgotten that night or that amazing encounter. I was recently hired as a dispatcher in another city, where setting off sirens is part of my daily routine. My co-workers hate the sound of it, but I get a real charge when I hear the volunteer siren begin to whine—and there isn’t a single time it does that I don’t remember my angel.

~Linda Nichols

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