Blessings arise out of ashes of fire

Posted: Thursday, November 27, 2003

The aroma fills the house wonderfully as I watch my oldest daughter shuffle up the driveway. I feel I have come full circle: baking cookies for my kids at holiday time. It is frigid outside, and the new fallen snow heralds winter's intent to stay. There is no trace of what happened here last winter.

We had left home just a half an hour before to take our daughters to school and pick our son up. Any other day I would have been at home sleeping soundly after another colicky night with my newborn, but something had compelled me to go with my husband that day.

I remember he was agitated at the break in routine, but I was excited to be getting out. That excitement turned to fear when we received word that our house was on fire.

At first we thought it must be a prank, or that someone was just burning brush nearby. We came to within two miles without seeing any smoke and thought everything was OK, then I got a call on my cell phone from the Alaska State Troopers asking if there was anyone inside my home. Upon rounding the corner half a mile away, we saw lights from emergency vehicles and a very dark smoke billowing across the road into the inlet.

My heart sinks now every time I come around that corner.

My immediate neighbor thought the baby and I were inside and had entered the fully engulfed house looking for us. He was forced out by the flames and was an emotional wreck when we arrived. To know he risked his life for that of ours wrought deep feelings of humility and brotherly love. He is a hero to me for that selfless act.

Imagine what it was like for me standing there holding my tiny baby, facing homelessness in rural Alaska in the midst of winter, our nearest family thousands of miles away. With my husband several yards away being steadied and comforted by the men, my teenage son sitting stunned in the car, and my two young girls blissfully unaware at school, I felt terribly alone. I thankfully could not see any details, as I had neglected putting in my contacts that morning, but through the blurriness could see the big picture:

There was a disturbing empty space where an old two-story house once stood. The smell was unlike that of a brush pile, wood stove, burnt dinner or any familiar fire. It was old wood, urethane, ghastly green paint and a thousand memories being swept out over Cook Inlet.

It sounded different, too: a rapid, furious crackling as if in a hurry to consume the last timbers. The well house was just catching. Oh, why didn't we have the presence of mind to save it?

In the hours that followed, we were counseled by the Red Cross and reassured by the school staff and others that we would not face this alone. Each of us felt the weight of the tragedy differently.

My husband and oldest daughter experienced it immediately.

My son broke down during the intense physical labor of clearing debris.

My younger daughter cried at school when they had a routine fire drill.

For me, it came the night we moved in with an elderly neighbor. She was so sweet and kind, a wonderful cook and a generous host, but I cried and just wanted to go home. She was gently understanding, having lost everything in a fire herself many years before.

The day after the fire, donations began flooding in. People gave freely of their own belongings: a wonderful wool sweater for me, winter work gear and tools for my husband (whose business burned with the house), and bags and bags of clothes for the kids.

The most beautiful gifts of all were from my daughters' classmates, treasures from the heart: books, games, a well-loved stuffed animal and a tiny red velvet jewelry box with 64 cents inside.

Nothing in my life had prepared me for being at the receiving end of such kindness. I have been the giver: volunteering at the hospital for years, donating blood, doing for others.

I felt a bit raw for being at the center of attention and hesitated to accept all the donations, but a wise elder of the community taught me the importance of letting others have their blessings, and that I should graciously receive what is offered.

When I went back to our property again, I could see well, and the details were shocking and heart-wrenching.

The family Bible sat near a pile of ashes that was my library. Com-pletely incinerated yet strangely intact, its pages separated slightly, revealing timeless words. It disintegrated when I reached out and touched it.

I found a melted locket given to me by my mother, and the broken pieces of a silver baby rattle which all four of my children used. My daughter found her marble collection melted into a beautiful collage, which she gave to her best friend.

I reflected on all that was lost: a lifetime of pictures and books, treasured family heirlooms, my son's collections of computers and scientific equipment and Goldie and Snow Beauty (the stuffed animals my girls couldn't sleep without).

I was comforted by my kindergartner's sage comment: "Things don't matter, Mommy, people do!"

I thought that after a week or two we would be old news and the attention would taper off, but not so.

These remarkable citizens were in it for the long haul. I commented to someone how wonderful it was to be cared about, and she replied that up here in Alaska, many people are without their kin so we become each other's family. What a lovely sentiment.

Well, this new family took us in (quite literally), giving us shelter, food, clothing and love. Over the next few months, as we settled back into our lives, we received a steady shower of unsolicited gifts. Those who didn't give material possessions gave deeply of themselves.

Here is a snapshot of the blessings we received: free room and board, homegrown vegetables, an entire caribou, kitchen gadgets, help rebuilding our well (and the use of showers until then), a junk drawer of odds and ends (how useful!), handmade quilts customized for each child, truck repairs, our first subsistence fishing trip, homemade soup, building supplies, debris removal, baby diapers and supplies, beds and other furniture, magazines and books, a septic system to replace our damaged "crib" type and, recently, a nice mobile home to replace the old trailer we used all summer.

From the detective work it took to deliver the initial news of the fire to the apple pie brought over last Saturday, our lives have been enriched with selfless acts of kindness and incredible, often anonymous, generosity. I have made good friends and developed a deep respect for all who helped.

The greatest gift of all, however, was perspective, for I have been shown what truly matters in this life. I look forward to giving all I can back to my community. Thank you all for being a spectacular aurora in my darkest hours.

Amanda Chesley and her family moved to the Kenai Peninsula in January 2002. The fire that destroyed their Cohoe Loop home in Kasilof occurred Jan. 22, 2003.

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