Our Current State, Plus A Few More Fire Engines

I’ve been writing this in my head for weeks. There’s actually a file called “writing” on my computer that’s well over 2,000 words, were I’ve started it several times. Each time is different. Sometimes the writing is fueled by anger, sometimes despair, sometimes exhaustion. It’s taken several weeks, but this is the first time I’ve been able to write it from the perspective of grace.

Over a month ago, the contractor we hired to rebuild our house after it burned in a fire in February of 2017, walked off the job. He’d been paid in full and he took materials with him when he left.

We’ve been walking this new road mostly alone for the last few weeks, trying to figure out what to do, or, even where to start. We’ve sought legal counsel to explore our options but, regardless of what option we take we’re told we won’t see any money returned to us for at least a year, possibly longer.

But this isn’t a story about him. It’s a story about how we found ourselves exhausted and without a house, again, and how we’ve found grace and hope.

A few weeks after he walked I called a friend to ask about selling our house. I knew we needed enough money to pay off our loan and to have a little bit to put down a down payment on a new house. My heart was heavy as we talked about what was done, what wasn’t done, what materials I did have. I brought it all up to Bill one night and we sat on the couch (yes that one that was given to us so graciously) and cried together.

“Is this really what you want?”, he asked me.
“There is a part of me that is so tired, and run down, and just exhausted and that part of me wants to be done. But if we sell it, it will break my heart every time I see someone else living there.”

I’ve thought from the very beginning, from the moment the day after the fire, where I looked at Bill and my mom and said, “I have to write this”, that this whole experience, this whole journey is a story that we have to tell.

“ ‘So they were tired, and broken and worn down so they sold it, the end’. Is not how I feel our story ends”, I told Bill.

He agreed to this notion. And we both truly believed that selling it would be quitting, and it would not give God the opportunity to step in and be who He is. So right there on the couch we decided against it.

I started getting bids and talking to our insurance company and doing whatever I could to get things moving, even though I had no money.

I walked up to the house with a neighbor, to try to install a security camera, and the front door was cracked open. The house had been broken into. There wasn’t much left to be stollen but who ever it was did take a few things, and I felt frustrated and violated, but not at all surprised. There was a part of me that sort of just shrugged and said, “ok, so now this.”

I called my dad, crying, and asked if we could borrow money to at least get the electricity turned on so we could get security cameras installed. This was not easy for me. I don’t like asking for help. I don’t like asking for money. Even through our hardest financial times, we’ve done everything we could do to stay self sufficient. It broke me to have to ask him for money, to put my burden on someone else. But he’s a loving father, and he agreed to help and I was given a tiny bit of hope.

A new main electricity line still needed to be run underground, the cost, $1900, plus there was money the electricians were still owed. I called my dad, crying, defeated that it was going to cost so much and I was placing this burden on him. And then he gave me a really good talking to he said, “Look, I know this is terrible and it sucks and you shouldn’t have to deal with this, especially after the fire. I know you’re feeling a lot of emotions and guilt and all of those things are valid and you are allowed to feel them. However, you cannot let them control you and keep you from getting this done. I saw what you did during Harvey to help people, I saw you orchestrate massive donations and get 5 ton trucks, and volunteers, and you even had a helicopter land in the parking lot. If you can do ALL of that for other people, you can do this! You have to pull yourself together, and put that passion into it and use your creative mind to figure out how to do this.”

In the moment it was hard to hear, especially while I was ugly crying on the other end of the phone, but it was the kick in the pants I needed.

Instead of paying the electricians $1200 to dig the trench, we decided to rent a trencher for $200 and spend a Sunday doing it ourselves. I wiped the tears off my face, called 811 to have the lines marked (for the third time since the building process started), organized friends to help, got the electricians scheduled and secured the trencher.

Sunday morning we woke up early and went to pick up the trencher. From the moment I woke up I had a sense of dread. Something was going to go wrong. But it didn’t. The rental place had the trencher we needed, we picked it up with out issue. We prepped the yard, lines were all marked. It was going smoothly, until it wasn’t.

On the second pass with the trencher, all of a sudden there was a loud PSHHHHHHHHHHH sound. We’d hit the gas line, even though we were feet away from where they’d marked the line. We ran and I immediately called 911.

“Is anyone hurt?”

“No, everyone is fine, we’re just all REAL freaked out.”

“It’s going to be fine. We’re sending the fire department out now. You need to get at least 1000 feet away.”

In my head I could not figure out exactly how far away 1000 feet was.

“Is anything electric on?”

“We have a bluetooth speaker playing music, but that’s it.”

“Ok, thats fine, just leave it and get to a safe distance. Are your neighbors close by? You need to tell them not to light any flames and to turn off any devices outside. I don’t want you to hang up the phone with me until you’re at least 1000 feet away.”

I’m running down the middle of the street yelling for our neighbor’s son not to start his edger. I get down to the end of the street to tell a neighbor, who’s fixing his fence, not to use his power tools. It’s a neighbor I’ve never really met, so he asks me all the normal questions; how did it happen? Is everyone ok? When will it be done? And gives me all the normal, kind, loving responses; I’m so sorry. I can’t believe this has happened to you. We wish you the best. Your house will be beautiful when its done.

As he’s talking out of the corner of my eye I see the fire trucks peeling onto our street from the other end. They’re the same trucks that responded that day, I know their numbers by heart. I’m still talking to the neighbor, but my brain is not on the conversation, its on the fire trucks. I say under my breath, “oh man. This isn’t going to be good.”

I say goodbye to him and start down the sidewalk, the same sidewalk I ran down that day. The same direction. The same way, not knowing what was happening. Not knowing if Bill was alive that day. I didn’t even get half way to where I was when I passed out that day and I doubled over, tears streaming down my face, heavy, panting breaths. I did a quick turn down a side street and put my hands on my knees, staring through the concrete, trying to catch my breath, trying to ward of the panic attack that was now in full swing.

Then I saw Bill’s face, and then I saw my father’s. I tried to remember all the things Marla had taught us in counseling months ago when panic attacks were a daily occurrence. I just focused on my dad’s voice (Bill had gone back to work with the fire fighters), “you’re ok, there’s no fire, this is not a big deal, they will take care of it, everyone is safe”. “I’m ok. Bill’s ok. Issa’s ok. We’re all safe”, I chanted this over and over in my head.

I pulled it together and wiped away the tears just as the fire fighters were finishing up. They knew who I was. They remembered that day. They know our faces, and our house and who we are. It’s burned in their brains I’m sure.

Later our friend David, who took the reigns when the fire trucks arrived because he understands PTSD, and knew we’d have a hard time told me about the first fire fighter to jump off the truck. He said he jumped down, stopped in his tracks and looked at David and said, “this is the house that burned.”

We waited for the gas company, I was so angry at the situation, because again…ok so now this. I started to take a walk when some other neighbors who had gathered on the corner after all the commotion stopped me to ask what was going on. I told them when had happened, why we were digging the trench, and you know what, they were amazing, and kind, and even made me laugh. This group of strangers pulled me right out of my anger and got me focused again.

The gas company arrived, they seemed less than concerned about the whole thing, just wanted proof that I’d actually had the lines marked.

I learned a few things.

  1. Gas lines are not metal (which is what I assumed since thats what is used in homes), but they’re a flexible plastic, similar to PEX pipe.
  2. They are not 5 feet below the surface as I’d been told, but a mere 18-24 inches.

They started to dig a hole around the broken line, and as they did they began to uncover the original buried electric line. For those who don’t know, this is a rather thick, multi strand metal cable that is run inside a 2” PVC type pipe. They’d told us at the beginning that we’d have to replace the whole cable because there’s no telling how far down it had burned.

I picked up the broken up PVC type pipe and inspected it. From the center, through the bottom of the pipe it was burned and melted, yards away from the house. Logically it made sense, but I was never the less shocked that it was that degraded, that far away.

And then I thought about it for a moment.

In the very place we just so happened to hit the gas line, at least a foot away from where they’d marked it’s location, the gas line and the original electrical line crossed each other, actually touching (even though they weren’t supposed to be). The gas line was destroyed from the trencher, but it is totally possible that that little section of line was actually compromised from the burned electrical line above it.

We decided to dig the rest of the trench by hand, which ended up being a wise choice because we also found a buried, unmarked man hole, which was right in the line we were planning to dig. On the way to return the trencher my dad said, “I know that sucked, but it might be a good thing that it happened. Maybe you needed to see those fire trucks. You needed to feel that again to know that its ok and that maybe you still have some things you need to work through.”

My dad is a smart guy.

(There’s more to this story, which I will update in the coming days.)