The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

It is a strange feeling, for a mostly home mom to be displaced, living with your family in the home of another family with another mostly home mom.  My host is the best imaginable.  Not only is she generous enough to put us up while we look for alternate housing for the year (minimum) that it will take to rebuild our house, she is also flexible enough to let my family’s schedule and quirks melt naturally into the flow of hers.  Somehow a routine is forming for us all.  If your house is destroyed in a fire and your kids are in school and you need time to find a big-enough-for-four, comfortable-enough-to live-in-for-a-year rental, there simply could not be a better situation.

Still, the fact remains that I cannot go home.  Not all the way.  I can go look at my home, I can smell my home, but I cannot provide a life for my family there.  And that’s a big piece of my mother-identity, on hold until we can go back.

People are amazed at how upbeat I seem, how well I’m taking it, how calm  I am.  They say this because I am not usually calm.  I am normally type A, with a long checklist of daily rituals and  requirements—for exercise, productivity, family care—in order for  the day to count.  But now that I’m removed from all that, I am indeed surprisingly calm.  I’m able to be so thanks to our god-sent host family and also to the fact that I have to be calm for the sake of my kids.

Still, the loss hits me in strange ways when I least expect it.  For example, our local paper ran an article about someone else’s generator fire.  In it was a flippant mention of another freak fire that had taken place the week before.     Something about “a house fire, just last week, when a family went out, leaving a lighted candle.”   By “a family,” I realized they meant us.

We hadn’t gotten the fire report yet, so it was news to us that we’d left a lighted candle.  The truth was we’d blown the candles out before going upstate and checked the house twice for stray ones.  However, there was one big pillar candle, a fat one—the kind you don’t think you need a base for—which we had blown out, but apparently NOT WELL ENOUGH.   There was still an ember, deep inside where we didn’t see it, an ember just strong enough to reignite.  It took all day and probably most of the next night to melt all the way down to the dining room table, for the wax to melt, serving as an accelerant, igniting the table, which burned through the floor, which fell into the basement, and so on, and so on.

But we didn’t know that yet, and reading the quote in the paper felt so demoralizing.  Careless couple torches own houseGoes up state to do laundry.

This enormous sense of helplessness hit me while I was driving, running some post-fire errand.  Helplessness because I could not undo this horrible thing, which was such a fluke, after all.  Helplessness because it was now something that felt so public casting a harsh, cold light on what should have been our private pain and loss.  Helplessness, because no matter which way I drove, I could not drive home.

As I came to one of the town centers, I noticed a small, white dog—a poodle mix of some kind, running across the street.  She was alone, no Frisbee in her mouth, no leash dragging behind her.  She scurried through the traffic, now up on the sidewalk, now back into the vehicular current.   Clearly frightened, she ran in circles; I was terrified that she’d get hit.  Now I noticed three young men in pursuit of her, meaning to stop her and keep her safe, but the dog didn’t understand.  All she knew was that three big humans with deep voices were chasing her.  She turned a corner and they followed.  I thought fast, made a three point turn (on a busy street), and drove around the other way, where I hoped to head the dog off and save her myself.  Surely she wouldn’t be afraid of a nice lady with a soft mommy voice, right?

Suddenly I knew: I had to save this little dog, whom I took for a stray.  I wanted to take her home, though I myself had none to share with her.  It didn’t matter; I had children, a husband; we were the perfect family for this animal (who looked like a non-shedding mix, which would be okay for Jon and Zoe’s allergies).  In fact, it was kismet that I had seen her on this day, of all days.  She was my phoenix, rising from the ashes of our home.

The morning after we learned our house had been destroyed, before we returned to New Jersey to view the damage, my husband and I had taken our kids to brunch at a little Rhinebeck diner.  We’d been talking about the year ahead: where we would live?  What we would do, while our home was being rebuilt?  We’d all cried and bemoaned the loss and now were at a new stage of grief: crisis management and making the best.  Without consulting one another, my husband and I had made the same, seemingly spontaneous promise to the children:

“When this is all over and we move back in, we’re getting a dog.”  The ultimate silver lining, as far as the kids were concerned.   My gaze had met Jon’s over the remains of an omelet.  Did we mean this?  Yes we did.

It wasn’t that spontaneous an idea.  Unbeknownst to the kids, we’d been thinking of it for almost a year, but now, we felt suddenly ready.   Partly, it was the loss of our gerbils in the fire, the tiny triumvirate who were themselves dog-placeholders.   But the fantasy of family life, complete with dog, somehow eased our homesickness.  As if having a dog in place would make our new home more solid than the one we’d lost.

The runaway pup had disappeared around the corner of Walnut and Christopher, where there was a big, leaf-covered schoolyard.   Once I’d made my illegal three-point turn, I sped ahead, whipped around Label Street and then onto Christopher, anticipating that the dog would be running toward me.  She was, with the three young guys still in hot pursuit.  I stopped abruptly, which startled the dog.  She froze, staring at my car.  I got out, approaching her slowly, one hand extended, addressing her in the gentlest tone I could, as I might talk to a lost toddler.  The guys followed my lead, but this seemed to make the dog even more uneasy.  She cowered just a little, black eyes darting from me to the guys and back.  I asked if they knew her; one guy said he’d seen her
around.   But when he took a bold step toward her, the little dog growled at him.   The young man jumped back as his friends chuckled.

“Uh—she really doesn’t like people.”

I refused to believe it.

“Hi sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice high and soft.  But she was afraid of me too:  the crazy lady with a minivan who seemed to be sniffling for some reason.  I knelt and repeated my words until she began inching toward me, meaning to sniff my outstretched hand, anxiously seeking  someone to trust.   How I wanted to be that someone.  But then, one of the guys made a sudden move which spooked her again.  The dog bolted, ran through the school yard, across the street and up the front steps of a house on the far corner.   By the time we caught up with her, she was pawing at the door, though no one seemed to be home.  The guy who knew the dog explained: he’d seen her there before and thought she lived there.

So the dog had a home, a rundown little home where no one seemed to be missing her at the moment, but still, a home with toys out front: a red wagon, a Little Tikes house and truck.  A home with children.  And now I could see that the dog had a collar and tag: a red, heart-shaped tag.   Someone had taken the care to provide her with that.

Finally–since no one seemed to want to harm her–the dog allowed one of the guys to get close to her.  First he let her sniff his hand, then gently he patted her.  She didn’t growl or otherwise object, though her tail did not wag.  The guy rose to ring the doorbell.  We all waited.  No one came.  The dog seemed to relax nevertheless, trust growing; we might be her friends.

The guy rang the bell again and still, no one came, so he called the phone number on the dog’s tag.  By now, I knew they had her under control.  There was no reason for me to stay any longer.   I was glad the dog was safe, glad that I might have played a role in her rescue.  Though as I walked back to my car, I felt this overwhelming sense of empty-handedness.

Here was my real fantasy of the rescue: I whip my car around the corner of Label and Christopher, the little dog stops, unsure, but sensing a loving presence behind the darkened windshield.  I get out, slide open the side of my minivan, crouch down to her level and say:

Here, Sweet Doggie.  Come: be safe and loved.   I have a family who needs you, who have lost a home just like you have.  Together we can make a new one.

It doesn’t take much coaxing, because her instincts are strong and she understands truly who I am and what I mean.  With a little yip and a wag of her tail, she hops inside and rides shotgun as I bring her home to begin a new life for us all.

17 responses to “The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

  1. I have been wondering how it is going. Thinking about you so much. Whenever I have been displaced, I often get a calm come over me. I guess I am too busy coordinating everything, that there is no room for worries. It is a weird process. We have no power for three days and I wasn’t self judging at all. A few years ago, we had to be out of our house 5 weeks before our other temporary condo was done-while we waited for our house to be build. (thats’ three moves in a short time) but in some ways I was strangely calmer than ever. It is weird, but a blessing.

    • This is so true, Jodi. People all around me are lamenting this thing that happened to me and mostly I’m telling them how lucky we all are, which I believe strongly. I have such an appreciation for everything I once took for granted.

  2. Dear beautiful, dog-friendly Lisa, my heart melts at your words, you strike a chord deep within me. This story is so powerful, so filled with meaning and truth and love and sorrow and hope and possibility.

    Thank you for sharing these Chronicles. When that relationship that was so awful ended, I awoke from that living hell to realize that I too had lost everything I owned, as did my daughters.

    As my youngest daughter says though — it was only stuff.

    And with or without the stuff, what we’ve got is Love. And love goes a long way to heal a broken heart.

    You my friend are amazing. I am so grateful to have encountered you here.

    Blessings and love.

    • Grateful to you too, Louise. Sometimes when I’m going through a lot–like now–I really do reflect back on some of your blog posts. I can feel your support and it makes me stronger, Love does get you through so much. Thank you!

  3. This sounds horrible, Lisa. Was everything lost? I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now. A good wake up call for us all and a reminder to take extra precautions when burning candles. Sending you lots of hugs and good thoughts!

    • Thanks Monica–we will soon see what, if anything can be salvaged. There are many photographs on my computer, which I had with me, though and neighbors did rescue a lot of mementos. I say more about it in the two previous posts. I hope you are well too–haven’t been blogging or blog-reading much unfortunately. Hugs back to you!

  4. Lisa, I continue to be amazed and so sorry. I just wish each time I read your chronicles I could reach over and hug you, give you a shoulder to lean on. Something solid to breakdown on even if just for one minute, even if it is something to hit (I can take it I promise you).

    I am sad you read the story of your house fire in the paper, terrible. But know in your heart it remains an accident, terrible but not your fault.


  5. Dear Lisa, first of all i’m sorry that you read the news before you got the fire report – people are so quick to judge but which of us hasn’t gone off and left something turned on?
    Also I’m sure the perfect dog is waiting for you when the time is right! You’ll have a happy time choosing and I hope you soon find your temporary home!

  6. Thanks, Gilly. I believe we will!

  7. Victoria Gunn-Saye

    I was not aware, I am truly sorry..I am hear to help anyway I can please feel free to reach out to me. As for the story it always seems like a pointing finger but in reality we all know that things happens and we never intend for things to always turn out the way they do. You and your family are held in prayer for healing, patience, and tolerance until you are back in your NEW home environment. I think a dog would be a splendid thing to open your new home life too! I am especially happy that all of you are safe.

  8. Dear Lisa, through all your soul-searching, and anguish, there is always in you that wonderful capacity for love and tenderness, and an openness to the world. Zoe and Theo have those qualities too, and an inner resilience that you and Jon have nurtured in them. It is hard not to reflect on the accident, but you are wise to look to the future. What a wonderful decision to add a puppy to your lives!

  9. Dear Lisa, the above comment is not from Steve but from Wilma. Sorry I didn ‘t correct address. Wilma

  10. I loved how you used the dog moment to tell the story of where you are in this home loss event. It flowed. So creative and clearly true. Life is so life… isn’t it? In the midst of the big, life changers – the smaller life changers are still there, and important and thank goodness for that, maybe. Wish I could accelerate your rebuilding process!

  11. Lisa,
    When I read the sentence about the candle not being blown out well enough, it took me back to the time when, at age 16, I dropped a cigarette ash (I was secretly smoking) into the pillows of a chair at my grandmother’s. We all went out for about an hour and came home to a burning chair. Fortunately, that was all that burned. I was horrified.

    I just ache for you. Reading the final analysis in the newspaper has to be demoralizing. Ugh. How unfortunate that you didn’t get the chance to digest that news in private before it went public.

    I know that calm you mention. I have the same feeling when I’m in cope-with-an-emergency mode, as I did for years while taking care of sick parents. You become efficient at dealing with things – making lists, making plans, making decisions, doing for others, reaching out for warmth, as you did with the dog. You’re in fixit mode. Do try (and I know this may be impossible, really) to take some time for yourself and breath. Try to.

    Best wishes.

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