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 house. Goes 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.