On my first day of third grade, there was a tornado warning. We had to wait in the gym until my mom could come pick me and my sister up from school. Traffic was pretty bad already, so mom decided to try and go around it. But her old Honda overheated on the drive home.
Luckily, the car broke down pretty close to a Jiffy Lube, so we stopped there to have it checked out. A mechanic agreed that the car had just overheated, but that he would take a closer look while mom walked us to grab dinner.
The mechanic said we should be able to make it the rest of the way safely, so we got back in the car and headed home. Traffic was so bad that we could barely get into our town and only seemed to get worse the closer we got to our neighborhood.
When we finally pulled into the neighborhood, our entire street was blocked off by fire trucks and ambulances, with our neighbors surrounding them. I remember my mom saying, “Oh no, I hope no one got hurt.”
One of our neighbors walked up to the car and knocked on the driver’s side window. Her face said it all. My mom immediately turned, drove out of our neighborhood, and dropped me and my sister at our aunt’s house.
She wasn’t ready for her kids, who were in third and fourth grade at the time, to see what she already knew was waiting at home. Or what was left of it.
Later that night, we found out that our house had been struck by lightning and caught on fire, completely destroying everything inside. The only thing that made it out was my bright blue crayfish, Pinchy, in a fireman’s helmet.
We had just moved into the house and I remember my mom being stressed over how many of our things were still in boxes. Well, there were no boxes left to stress over. As my mom walked through with the Fire Marshal, she couldn’t believe how little of our new home remained.
The Fire Marshal stopped her to ask, “What would each of you have been doing if you were at home?” My mom would have been in the kitchen making dinner. My sister and I would have been in the living room filling out papers from our first day of school.
He walked her over to the living room and pointed at the wall. “You see these pieces of plastic in this wall? That’s your TV that was on the other side of this room. If your family had been here, those pieces of plastic would have impaled whoever was there.” We were very lucky.
But it didn’t feel lucky, eight-year-old me was hysterical. I had just lost my TV, my clothes, my games, my shoes, my books – in my mind, I had lost everything.
My mom was more stressed about the present. That her elementary schoolers had no pajamas, no clothes to wear to the second day of school, no toothbrushes, no blankets. That’s when the American Red Cross showed up.
They handed my mom a list with everything she needed to do, and a gift card to buy pajamas and clothes and toothbrushes and blankets.
We found ourselves back in the car, driving to the nearest Walmart to get what we needed for the night. Everything else could wait until tomorrow. Everything else we could figure out tomorrow.
An employee at the entrance told my mom the store was closing, we would have to come back tomorrow. My mom broke down. Tears streamed down her face, mixing with the soot on her cheeks from walking through what was left of our house.
She told them about the fire, that we had lost everything we owned. She just needed to get her kids enough to get through the night. They let us in.
We quickly went through the store and got what we needed, but when we got to the register the cashier wouldn’t accept our gift card from the American Red Cross.
“Put your card away, we’ve got it,” he said. “We all talked about what happened to your family tonight and this is the least that we can do.”
It was our first sign that everything would be okay, that things could have been far worse.
The next night, we went to get Chinese food for dinner. And when my mom opened her fortune cookie the tears flowed once again.
We lost important things, like our birth certificates. We lost sentimental things, like our baby pictures and family heirlooms.
But while having to get new social security cards is a pain in the ass, losing a loved one is a whole different kind of pain. (Take it from someone who has lost both).
At the end of the day, no matter how important these things were, the things that we lost in the fire were still just things.
Fifteen years later, a lot has changed. My mom doesn’t drive that old Honda anymore. Her third grader and fourth grader have both graduated from college, one of them is getting her PhD. The only survivor of the fire, my blue crayfish, Pinchy, is long gone.
But my mom still carries that fortune in her wallet as a reminder. We lost a lot, but in the end we still had so much to be thankful for.
Who knew anyone could ever be thankful for an old Honda that overheated?