Yesterday in the middle of teaching, the school counselor came to my door and asked me to go into the hallway with her. She told me that she had just had a call from the mother of one of my students. Their home had just burned down. Standing there with my mouth open, completely shocked, I didn't know what to say, what to do. I had known Tristan since second grade when I first started in the morning daycare. Tristan's mom was going to come pick him up later in the afternoon. That's when she would tell him the news.
Walking back into that classroom was one of the hardest things I have done. Tristan was sitting there grinning from ear to ear, with his shaggy blond hair sweeping across his brown eyes, clueless that his home was engulfed in flames. He had no idea his world was getting ready to be turned upside down.
We continued with our lesson and after a bit, the secretary came over the intercom telling me that Tristan was being checked out. I told him to take his time gathering his things and that I'd be right back. I rushed to the office to speak with his mom who was standing in the conference room. Tiffanie is a beautiful, petite woman with large brown eyes. I'll never forget the look on her face. Peeking out from beneath her baseball cap, her eyes were wide open. Disbelief. Shock. Confusion.
I told her how sorry I was and for her to not worry about school at all for now. After giving her my phone number and telling her to call if she needed anything, I left to return to my class. Walking through the office, I ran into Tristan and gave him a cheery hug goodbye. I worried how he would react to the news.
Later that evening our school was hosting Bingo Night. I had to run home quickly before I came back to the school. But before I did, I decided to run by Tristan's house. He lived very close to me, but I wasn't exactly sure where. As I drove down a long road looking for his house, I finally saw several cars parked in the street and wondered if this was his house. I couldn't see anything because of the large trees blocking the view.
As I got closer, the charred house gradually came into view. The entire center of the house was burned, the roof partially caved in. There was no more smoke. The fire department was gone. A Channel 5 news crew was finishing up their filming. People stood in the front yard talking, surrounded by some household items that had been retrieved from the home. Tristan was darting about in the house. His younger brother Jaden was playing in the yard, oblivious to what was happening.
After parking my vehicle I walked up to Tiffanie. Her brown eyes still wide, she was calm, assessing the situation. I asked if I could help. Seeing my white jeans and tennis shoes she said something about me not being dressed for it. I told her I lived a short distance away and could be back in a few minutes after changing my clothes. She said ok.
I ran home quickly. My daughter, Caroline, was in the middle of a helping out her big brother with a project. I told her what was going on and quickly left. I remember thinking how grateful I was for my nice, neat apartment that I had just walked into. I realized that I would have my own soft, clean bed to crawl into that night. I would have fresh clothes to put on the next day. Tristan's family would have none of that. Everything they owned had burned up or melted, buried under a pile of charcoaled roofing materials, insulation, and water.
When I returned, I went inside and got my first look around. I walked into the living room where there were electrical wires hanging everywhere, their insulated coverings gone. The floor was squishy with water and debris. There was some laundry on the sofa waiting to be folded. I stepped on a small empty picture frame on the floor as I walked in to the hallway leading to Tristan's room. The picture it used to contain was gone.
Everything was black. Some light filtered in through the open roof and windows but otherwise it was hidden in shadows. I started digging through the debris looking for anything salvageable. Electronics looked like something out of a Salvador Dali painting....melted, almost beyond recognition. Wet sheet rock covered the floor. As I all dug through the mess, occasionally I would find something that could be saved. Then I had to carefully walk back out through wreckage to carry it outside. The pile outside was growing, but not by much.
At one point Jeremy's brother walked out with the family Bible. As he handed it to Tiffanie a huge smile came across her face. She squealed with excitement. She couldn't believe it had made it through. Jeremy, her husband, was working on boarding up the windows. Tiffanie continued to deal with the insurance company, restoration people, and neighbors coming to help. Tristan was in and out, taking it all in, finding little treasures that had made it. Sadly, his hamster, Izzy, was not one of those who made it. I found Izzy's body, buried under a heap of rubble, still soft, not burned. Tristan had said that they had lost one member of the family today. It was Izzy.
As we found usable clothing that could be cleaned, we piled them up. Such a small pile. I remember wondering about the days to come. Being a woman, I have my favorite clothes that I love. I imagined the day would come when Tiffanie would want to put on her favorite piece of clothing and realize she no longer had it. Or her favorite earrings or shoes. Maybe Jeremy had his favorite baseball cap that he'd never see again. A lot of Tristan's soccer things survived strangely enough. Jaden is too young to care.
We all worked until we weren't sure what else to do. I left and went home. My hands were black from the soot, my boots covered with the remnants of their home. I was tired and dirty. But all I could think about was Tristan's family. They are good people. They were so strong through this. Calmly handling everything, I never once saw either of them break down. They just dealt with it all, smiling the whole time.
The next day I dropped by to show my mom the remains of the house and to check on the family. Tiffanie was standing in the yard. They'd clearly been working again. She told me that the roof might be about to cave in. It's a miracle it didn't happen yesterday when we were all in and out of the house. She said that Jeremy had found some treasured photos for her. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me the paper around them was completely charred, but the photos remained intact. She couldn't believe it. That's when she realized that she had been so worried about the house and now, well, now, it just didn't matter. Her family and those photos were the important things in life. She had everything she needed.
I tried not to start crying right there in front of her. She had a beautiful aha moment that day at a terrible cost. But I know they will be ok. They have family, friends, and each other. They will be just fine.
The whole experience helped me realize just how grateful I am for everything in my life and how quickly things can change. Value the important things in life and let go of the things that are not. Sometimes it takes hard lessons for us to truly grasp that concept. But as someone who has had a few hard lessons in her life, I feel daily so much gratitude for everything I have in my life. That which does not kill us truly does make us stronger. And I'm glad for the strength that I now possess.
Tristan's family possesses that strength as well. My love and prayers go out to them.....