From the Ashes

From the Ashes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

From the Ashes

I am not a phoenix yet, but here among the ashes, it may be that the pain is chiefly that of new wings trying to push through.

May Sarton

“Mom! There’s a fire in the basement!” my son, Jared, screamed as he pounded up the stairs. “I called 911! Get everyone out of the house. Now!”

Fire! Adrenaline pumped through my system as I hurried to get my elderly father, who lived in the upstairs apartment. “Paul, Ricky, do you hear me? Get out now.” The boys flew out of their rooms just as I was coming out of the apartment with Dad. “Hurry! Everyone stay together.” Smoke was already filling the house as we made our way out the front door.

I trembled in the chilly night air and stared in disbelief as flames licked at the windows of our home. Huddled in a soundless circle, I sent up a silent prayer of thanks that we’d all made it out safely. Suddenly, Jared broke away.

“I’m going to try and put it out Mom,” he yelled, moving toward the house.

I grabbed him. “No, Jared, it’s not safe.”

“Mom, don’t worry, I’m not going in.” He shot forward and kicked in the basement window, sending shards of glass flying. Inky black smoke poured out as he raced for the garden hose. But as he turned on the faucet, the hose burst from the intense heat. Nothing but a thin stream of smoky vapor hissed out. Jared’s shoulders slumped as he realized there was nothing more he could do.

Helplessly, I watched as flames crackled, consuming the home I loved. Back when we first moved in I’d wept over the loss of my husband, Richie. The words of the doctor played over and over in my head. “Mrs. Hoberg, we’re terribly sorry, but your husband suffered a heart attack. He’s . . . he’s gone.” Shocked and heartbroken, I returned home alone and struggled to raise our sons as best I could on my own.

Putting on a brave face, I would tuck the boys into bed with a story and a kiss goodnight. Afterward, I would sit at the dining room table, panicking over the growing stack of bills. How would we manage? It took a lot of hard work, but the boys and I slowly built a new life in this house. Dad even came to live with us. Happy times, like birthday parties in the backyard and popcorn and movie nights, replaced the sadness.

Swallowing hard, I blinked back tears. I’ve already lost my husband; please don’t take my house, too. Would the firemen ever get here? We had a lifetime of memories inside, boxes of pictures that could never be replaced, Grandma’s hand-crocheted doilies and my treasured Christmas decorations. The dated ornaments from the year each boy was born were so special to me. The furniture and other things could be replaced, but those things couldn’t. Would any of it survive?

Screaming sirens cut into my thoughts as the fire trucks pulled to an abrupt stop at the curb. Don’t let them be too late. The hoses were reeled out and mighty arcs of water drenched the house.

Jared draped a blanket over my shoulders, tears coursing down his face. “Mom, I’m so sorry. It’s my fault. I was cleaning my car collection for the show next week . . . the cleaner . . . I don’t know how it happened. There were flames. I used the fire extinguisher right away. I thought it was out. But then the smoke started again.” He wept as his shoulders shook.

“Come here, son,” I gathered him in my arms as if he were a boy again, not the young man he was.

“It was an accident.” I lifted his chin and looked straight into his eyes. “Do you hear me? It’s okay, the important thing is that we all got out.”

The chief approached me as the firefighters began winding up their hoses. I felt weak in the knees; not at all ready to hear what he had to say.

“We have the fire out, but I’m afraid the news isn’t good. There’s a great deal of structural damage and no floor just inside the front door.” He handed me a slip of paper.

“We’re putting you up at a hotel tonight. I’ve called ahead, so they’ll have your rooms ready by the time you get there.”

I hadn’t even thought of where we would stay! “Thank you,” I stammered as I tucked the paper into my pocket.

The days that followed were chaotic. I spent hours on the phone with my insurance company. Claims adjustors took photographs, and the contractor stopped by to assess the damage. The whole interior was blackened, and as I followed behind him, the acrid smell made my eyes and nostrils sting. Everything inside was destroyed and would need to be rebuilt. Tears clogged my throat as I reached down and touched the charred remains of our photo albums, it was clear that all of our keepsakes were lost forever.

Until the renovation was completed, we lived in a temporary trailer that was set up on the front lawn. Fitting me, the boys, and Dad into such a small space made for really cramped quarters. Going back to work was almost a relief, and besides, we needed the money. Even working two jobs, I could barely meet our bills. I had to stock our empty trailer. We needed everything, but for now, clothing and groceries would have to do. After a final stop at the pharmacy to pick up Dad’s prescription, I returned to the trailer to set up our new “home.”

I plodded into the tiny kitchen and plunked the groceries on the counter. Everything always lands on my shoulders. That’s when I saw it. A covered dish with a pink sticky note perched on top. “My famous lasagna. Enjoy! If there’s anything else you need, don’t hesitate to call. Love, Mary.”

I lifted the lid and inhaled the delicious, spicy aroma. She had also included two loaves of garlic bread and a salad, too. I popped a ripe cherry tomato into my mouth and smiled for the first time in days. I wouldn’t have to cook tonight.

Then I spied the stack of fluffy new towels my neighbor had dropped off last night. And what about the overnight bag my friend Mary Joan from down the street had put together for us the night of the fire? We didn’t even have to ask. I’d been overwhelmed at her thoughtfulness. In fact, that same night our lawn had been dotted with friends and neighbors. They’d wrapped jackets around us to keep us warm and handed us cups of hot coffee from a thermos. One couple took Dad to their place for a cup of tea and to rest up.

Long after that night, I felt supported and loved. Greeting cards filled the mailbox. One in particular made me smile. Sprigs of flowers and a little bluebird graced the front and inside a simple handwritten note, “Thinking of you, don’t forget we’re here for you. Love, Charlene.” Some folks dropped by just to give me a hug.

See, Linda, you really aren’t alone, whispered a still, small voice.

All along, caring friends and neighbors had surrounded me; I just hadn’t realized it until now. I wasn’t alone after all. Deep gratitude filled every corner of my heart. Right then and there I stopped thinking about what I’d lost and started counting all that I still had. Sure, we’d suffered a major setback, but we still had our lives, one another, and friends who cared enough to see us through.

The boys and I, along with my dad, would face the future together. And I was certain God would help us to build a beautiful new life from the ashes of the old.

Linda Hoberg
as told to Susan A. Karas

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