When you are standing on the sidewalk watching your friend’s house burn, watching the firemen swarm, watching the smoke pour out from the playroom window, watching the sky fill with a giant grey column that rises like a mushroom cloud from their roof, a few things go through your mind.
First, you are sick sick sick with pity for your friend and her husband and their children.
Then you are relieved they all made it out safely even though the kids were home alone with the oldest son, and only a child would think to wake up the baby from her nap and drag all his sisters out to the neighbor’s house when he heard the smoke detector because adults would assume it was a false alarm and waste time looking for a fire.
Then you remember how just a few days ago you were walking through their house, admiring your friend’s new addition—barely finished—with its hardwood floors, all new appliances, new carpets, new furniture . . . you stop when you get to the custom bookshelves because you just can’t stand the image of it all in flames.
You think how last week you told your friend, and meant it, how happy you were for them. How much they deserved every inch of this beautiful new remodeled space. How glad you were they hadn’t moved away into a bigger, fancier home, even though they could have afforded to do it. But they love this neighborhood and can’t bear to leave it. We all do.
Then, for some reason, you think of their new flat screen TV and how cute your friend’s husband was about it when you were there. How it was still in the box but he was like a kid at Christmas, barely hiding his anxiousness to open it up and install it above the new stone fireplace in the family room now at the heart of the fire. He is the bishop of your ward and sacrifices much for the people he serves. He gets emotional almost every time he gives a talk in church. He called personally to apologize when your son was left behind from last week’s youth activity even though it wasn’t remotely his fault and he had been out of town all week on a business trip and probably hadn’t even had a chance to hug his own kids yet. He is exactly your age but seems decades more mature.
You think about the house itself. All the work that went into it. All the work it will take to rebuild it.
You think “thank heavens for insurance.”
But then you think about Christmas decorations, baby blankets, books, family pictures, kids’ school projects, a wedding dress... You wonder what your friend would have saved (besides the children, of course) if she'd been given a minute to decide.
You get philosophical and ponder the impermanence of material things. The transience of life itself but especially the stuff we grow attached to. It’s all tinder.
Then you hug your friend, say something cheerful and stupid that you’ll later regret and then beg her to tell you when you can help in any way. You are sincere but feel hollow and powerless. What are you going to do? Take them a casserole and say, “so sorry your home is ruined?” It all seems so unfair and cruel. Not that anyone deserves disaster. But especially not them. This is just too wrong.
As you walk home, you remember that the last time you were in their house, you were talking with your friend while she moved dishes into her new cabinets and your daughters both played. When it was time to go, both girls had changed into princess outfits and your daughter refused to give up her pretty blue dress and she threw an embarrassing fit and so you promised to bring the dress back later that night. But when you got home, your daughter still wouldn’t take it off and at dinner she spilled salsa on it so you had to wash it. And then you realized the sash had come unstitched and you had to mend it which took another day to get around to. You had meant to return the dress yesterday but forgot. And now you are glad to have one small thing to give back to them. One piece of their kids’ possessions that wasn’t burned or stained with smoke. It’s a drop in the bucket and you know it. But it’s something. It’s a start.