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In the midst of devastation and loss, a most amazing thing happened. A joy they didn’t anticipate suddenly filled them.

The date was Monday, July 10, 2000. The time: 1:00 p.m. The day started out like any other Monday. My husband had gone off to work, as did our son. Our daughter was away on vacation with a girlfriend and her family. As a pastor, Monday was typically my day off. Enjoying some ‘relax time’ on the back deck with my two canine companions, Wilson and Cheddy, I began to feel hungry. I got up and went inside with my two shadows right behind me. I put a pot of water on the stove and left the kitchen. Just moments later I heard a familiar sound – the sound of something igniting. It was a sound that would be familiar to anyone who has ever lit a barbeque. Immediately alarmed by the sound, I headed straight for the kitchen. That’s odd, I thought. Everything seemed fine, but I knew what I had heard!

Dining alcove

For months I had been telling my husband that every time I would go to turn on the lawn hose located directly beside the gas meter, I could smell a faint smell of gas. He repeatedly assured me that there was no cause for alarm. He was right but at this particular moment, that was all I could think about. Sliding open the patio doors, I ran out to check the meter. Nothing! Everything was fine! Still experiencing a sense of alarm, I ran back through the yard and into the house – smoke! Smoke was rising from the vents. With my heart pounding and my mind racing, I found myself repeating, “What do I do, what do I do?” Reaching for the phone, I dialled 911 only to realize after several frantic attempts that I had no dial tone. The phone was dead.

Smoke was now filling the house. I ran out the front door and began screaming for help, but to no avail.

The dogs! I had to get the dogs! I ran back inside. Noticeably distressed, they followed me quickly to the back door and out. They would be safe now, out of the smoke and safely secured in our fenced backyard. Sliding the doors shut behind them, I ran back through the house and out the front door again. This time, someone heard my screams for help.

“What’s going on?” my neighbour asked as she came out her front door.

“Fire! Fire! Call 911! My phone is dead, call 911!” I exclaimed.

As she rushed inside to make the call, I suddenly remembered that I was wearing shorts – appropriate attire for the privacy of my own backyard, but not in public. (I’m very modest). I had to go back in. I opened the screen door, ran in and up the stairs. Grabbing the first pair of slacks I could find, I made the change and then dashed down the stairs and out the front door again. (My husband still cringes when he thinks about what I did and insists that I not leave out this part of the story but rather share my insanity with the world...somehow it seemed important at the time).

I needed to call my husband. With phone in hand, our neighbour was ready to make the call but I was so frazzled that I just could not think of the number – a number that, under normal circumstances, I could dial in my sleep. After three wrong tries, I got it right and the page went through. As he was driving along University Avenue, my husband received the page. Neither of us owns a cell phone, so he stopped at the first available place to respond – the emergency department of a hospital.

Second level access

Not knowing exactly what the condition was inside the house, I opened the front door only to be confronted with a dense, black wall of smoke! Staring reality in the face, I began to cry. “Where is everyone?” I exclaimed. “What is taking them so long?”

The few minutes between the 911 call and the arrival of the first police officer on the scene seemed to take forever. Where was the fire department? With only four blocks between our house and the fire station I could not understand the delay in their response. Four minutes, five, six, seven minutes, eight minutes – finally the sound of sirens approaching. Apparently, every fire station goes on a special training session one day each year. This particular day was the training session for our local fire station. The response to ‘the call’ came from a station outside our immediate community.

Suddenly our quiet suburban street looked like a clip from an action-packed disaster movie: police cruisers, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles. Everyone was moving quickly to do exactly what they were trained to do. God bless emergency workers! The firefighters smashed the skylights and windows and black smoke filled the air. Wilson and Cheddy were moved to the safety of a neighbour’s yard while I sat on the curb crying.

My husband finally arrived, as did my brother and our son who was deeply shaken. We cried; stunned by what was happening right before our very eyes. We embraced; thankful that we were together – thankful that no life had been taken. How the news got around, I don’t know, but some people from our church began to arrive. As we stood on the sidewalk I could not help but cry again. “My wedding rings! My bible! They’re gone!” I said to my husband. He held me and wiped away my tears. (We discovered later that, except for being blackened with smoke, both my Bible and rings survived the fire).

A family from our church had slipped away to Wal-Mart during all the commotion to buy each of us a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, combs, and new underwear. It is absolutely amazing how one very simple gesture of kindness can mean so much. What a wonderfully thoughtful thing for them to do. (This was just one of many incredibly moving acts of kindness that would be shown to our family over the course of the next few months).

With neighbours now arriving home from work, the street became quite crowded, and even though the street was closed off to through traffic, the curious were coming on foot to take a look.

It was now getting dark, and all that needed to be done was done. At the end of the day, we had nothing left but the clothes on our backs and the shoes on our feet. What we did not lose to the flames, we lost to smoke and water damage. The fire marshal determined that the cause of fire was the power wire for the air conditioner that had been installed two years prior. He said that it was actually a “fire waiting to happen.” That information gave us the shivers! All of the what if thoughts began to run through our minds. We thank God for protection from what could have been!

Dining room

One of the many families that had offered to open up their home to us was a caring Greek family from our church. Accepting their offer and now completely drained, we made the 15-minute drive over to their home where we stayed for a couple of weeks.

It was now the morning after the fire and we had called our daughter. It was not going to be easy. We knew how hard she would take the news, but thankfully she was among friends who helped her process the information. She came home two days later.

Mid-morning that same day, something incomprehensible began to happen. A sense of joy seemed to slowly envelop us. It was extraordinary! A joy that cannot be described, except to say that it was beyond anything we had ever experienced. Where there should have been an overwhelming sense of loss and devastation, there was joy! Somehow, the loss didn’t seem to matter. The loss of family photos and treasured gifts received over the years didn’t matter. The antique piano, family heirlooms, favourite articles of clothing and other valuables did not seem to hold any sense of importance.

We had certainly experienced happiness before, but happiness depends on favourable or pleasing circumstances and is a completely natural feeling. This was different and completely independent of external conditions or circumstances. We had read about this kind of spiritual joy in the Bible. This supernatural manifestation of joy put everything into perspective. We knew with absolute clarity what mattered, and it was not the loss of stuff. What mattered was God, life, and faith. We rejoiced knowing in whom our hearts were truly anchored. Material loss meant nothing in the greater scope of things. God had done an amazing thing. He had equipped us to go through the next few months of upheaval with absolute contentment.

The insurance company secured an available vacant house for us. Each of us was provided with a bed and dresser; again a provision of the insurance company. Leaving the home and hospitality of our Greek friends, we moved to the vacant house where we spent the next five months while our house was being rebuilt.

The date was December 19, 2000. We finally received word that we could go home. The contractor had worked very hard to have us home for Christmas. Opening the front door and walking in to our house made us want to cry; it was just so good to be home. That evening the doorbell rang. What a great surprise! Friends from church! “Come on in”!

Over the next few days, the doorbell rang a few times with neighbours bringing welcome-home gifts and cards. Once again we were blessed by the very same people who stood on the street with us five months earlier. We sent ‘thank-you’ notes to everyone but it really didn’t seem like enough. From start to finish everyone had been so good to us. It reminded us never to lose sight of the fact that God can and often does use people to touch our lives with His love.

Christmas morning was one that we will never forget. The gifts we had bought for each other were wrapped and on the floor. On top of the pile of gifts was a tiny Christmas tree, just nine inches tall, with little red velvet bows and a burlap bottom. We wanted to be able to say that we had gifts “under” the Christmas tree. There were no curtains on the windows, no carpets on the floors; there was no kitchen table where to eat breakfast and no furniture to cozy up in, but we were together and we were happy.

Over the next few years, we rebuilt our lives, except this time we built them differently – with no excess. We know now that no matter what the difficulties, God is nearer to us than we think.

Rev. Diane Makarewicz is a founder of Taking the Gospel Ministries.

Originally published in Off the Fence, April/May 2007.




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