What would you grab on the way out the door if your house was on fire?
Organizations like Forbes and FEMA make super practical lists you can consult, but they don’t seem to have any grasp on reality, as far as I can see. They tell you to grab your paperwork – licenses, passports, checkbooks, computer hard drives, insurance policies, birth certificates, IDs, and medication. They tell you that if you really have your act together, you’ll keep all these documents plus a full inventory of every item in your house in a tiny, fireproof safe that you can just pick up and carry out the door as you walk out of your burning house.
Really, they actually say this. Go buy your tiny fireproof safe today.
These lists are ridiculous. They don’t tell you anything you need to know, but I will.
The truth is, these lists are ridiculous. They don’t tell you anything you need to know, but I will. When your house catches on fire, like mine did two years ago, pull your partner and your children out of their beds. Don’t ever leave them behind. If you have time to do anything beyond preserving human life, this is what I recommend.
Put on a decent pair of shoes. Flip flops seem like a great idea at the time, but they suck the next day when you are walking through the wet and poky rubble of your life.
Grab your phone, because nobody memorizes phone numbers anymore and God knows you are going to need your friends.
Grab your car keys and the dog leash, your glasses, and the dog.
Definitely find a bra. You’re going to be meeting with a lot of people these next few days.
When the fire is out and the firefighters come to let you back into the house, go for your wedding rings, the necklace your grandmother always wore that you wear now when you need to feel her love close around you. Go for the stuffed animals your children used to sleep with safe in their beds. And definitely find a bra. You’re going to be meeting with a lot of people these next few days.
Grab your son’s homework, the papers he so diligently filled out sitting at the dining room table just hours before. Watch the water and the soot roll off the pages as you lift them up from under the tarp the firefighters draped over the table where you ate breakfast and dinner. Pause to remember the day you moved into the house and worried that the hot pizza boxes you’d just put on the new table would leave a mark on the finish.
Pull the photographs out of the cabinet. Notice for a fleeting moment the irony of wrapping your most precious memories in white plastic garbage bags with red pull ties and quietly carry them to your car where your dog has been waiting, wondering what the hell is going on as he paces back and forth, quiet, for once, as his whole world turns upside down, too.
Grab some little bit of gratitude, some humor, some grace – wherever you can, whenever you can.
Grab some little bit of gratitude, some humor, some grace – wherever you can, whenever you can. Take a mantra – a word, a phrase, something to hold onto. For us, it was this: we all walked out of that house.
Notice your neighbor, your daughter in his arms and your son holding tight to his hand as they walk away from the house and into his family’s embrace of safety and strength. Say yes when they ask to pack your kids’ lunches for school the next day.
When your friends pull up in front of your still smoldering house, let them take the phone when the insurance agent asks again about the extent of the damage. Let them drive when it’s time to leave. Let them tuck your kids into beds, their children scooting over and holding little hands until they all fall asleep. Let them braid your daughter’s hair the next morning, stopping you to insist on first day of kindergarten photos by the tree in their front yard.
Each night after the fire, scoop up your family and hold them close to your chest. Your heart is going to pound harder than you can imagine in the days ahead and you are going to need each other. You are going to need to remember that it could be so much worse as you bury your head in your partner’s chest, as your children collapse into you, their breathing finally changing from heaving sob to slowing inhale and exhale to deep, improbable sleep. You will keep moving because you have them: going out to meet the contractors, finding a new place to live, collecting receipts in a giant envelope. You will show up, keep things moving when all you want to do is lie down and cry. They need you to make things right again.
You will smile at the well-meaning people who want to draw a smiley face on your sadness.
You will smile at the well-meaning people who want to draw a smiley face on your sadness, brushing away the ones who tell you that if you had just had a lightning rod or a shorter house or a taller house or a different house this wouldn’t have happened to you. Don’t fall for their lies, their need to control, manage, and contain this loss. You know the truth now, that life is not that neat, that loss comes to all of us whether we are prepared or not. Drop the illusion of the tiny fireproof safe filled with the lie that this loss could be contained or controlled. The loss is big. The pain is real. The safe would not have helped.
It mattered that we all walked out of that house, that we each managed to recover a couple of the items that meant the most to us. But what I could not have known then was that what we needed was never inside that house. What we needed was a web of people present, past, and future, who would hold my family in love and would not let us go. The web that would tremble and break in places. It would re-knit and hold strong even when we thought that all was lost. Even when the pain brought us to our knees – what we needed was never inside that house.
So when your house burns down, take what you need. What will help you survive the inevitable losses in life may be different. People will have all kinds of advice and ideas for you, many of them unhelpful and unwanted, many of them directed at what might make this loss easier for them. What we all need are people who can sit next to us when there are no words, who can suggest things and then let them go if they aren’t quite right or follow through when they hit the mark. What we need is safety and shelter and whatever comfort looks like to us.
May you discover a web of love that can hold you and your unique loss.
May you find what you need. May you discover a web of love that can hold you and your unique loss. May you let go of the lists and advice that so many others will have for you, and take what you need. No tiny safe required.