Getting Along Like a House On Fire

To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, it has NOT been a quiet week in Lake Woebegone.

I still haven’t heard any decision about SSDI and whether I need to start looking for a job or not. I did talk to the paralegal for my attorney, who explained that the moment my case’s change in status is officially entered into the computer, they will know–which is about 7-10 days BEFORE I’d see any hard copy snail mail. And the office checks that computer every morning–and they will call me the minute (more or less) they find out. Which means I can relax (somewhat) and not keep trying to check the mail on something approaching a regular basis.

In the meantime, I try to find other things to do with which to occupy my mind and keep me from running like a hamster in the wheel of indecision and dangling answers. Beloved and I have taken sandwiches and donuts to the beach for a quasi picnic lunch a couple of times, as the weather in September, in Eureka, is amazingly wonderful. Or at least it has been for us.

My in-laws generously arranged for the bed frame to appear. What a difference 14 inches in height can make for getting out of bed! Instead of trying to rise up from a deep knee bend (thighs….of steel), now we can just sit up and put our feet on the floor. The change in sleeping level is inexplicable but definite. And the ability to get in and out of bed without a plan for escape–or what I have always referred to as the “wench winch” is priceless. It is worth the flare-up that putting it together cost me. Sigh.

Fate herself is helping out with distractions…if you want to call it that. Last Sunday, all four of us at home (me, Beloved and the roomies, G & M)…He in our bedroom, G in their room, with me and M in the kitchen–I was making late lunch/early dinner and M was doing dishes. (Better someone else than me…I HATE doing dishes.) Then G says, “There is smoke coming in the window.” Why yes, yes there was…in fact, look–it’s starting to come into the kitchen window, which is on that same wall.

G & M run downstairs to see where the smoke is coming from. Oh my! Oh dear! Conniptions and spasms! Flee! It’s OUR house that’s on fire. (It used to was a house; now it’s 5 apartments. We’re upstairs.) I turn off the GAS stove and grab my phone and iPod. (Oh the things we choose when we have to save our most precious belongings.) Beloved picks up the house phone and is dialing 911 even as he exits the building. The roomies, being young and spry, run around the house, banging on doors and making sure everyone is out of there. Beloved moves the van from in front of the house and we stand on the sidewalk across the street. Definitely smoke…and hot enough inside that the front window has already cracked. Which, for those you who are neither firemen or arsonists (or fascinated with fire), means that the heat is already reaching dangerous levels. I’m trying to think about where we could go, with our van and the clothes on our backs…and our phones…if the house goes up in flames.

A crowd gathers and we are avidly listening for the sirens. Now you must realize that the fire department here is volunteer–and up in Eureka–we live a couple miles outside–so we’re not talking a 5 minute response time. On the other hand, to get everyone to the firehouse, in their fireman’s suits and out to us only took about 10-15 minutes. Acceptable. When they get here, the guys are off the truck almost before it comes to a stop, yanking hoses off and going up to the house to see what they are facing. Within moments, they are inside and knocking the windows out. Axes, ladders and … chain saws? Oh my.

Beloved had called the landlord right after he hung up with 911. “Hi, landlord? Yes, it’s your renter…and your house is on fire.” Needless to say, the landlord arrived before the second fire truck. By the time it was all done, we had three fire trucks, including the brand new hook and ladder, at the house. People were taking pictures and video but no one had the bad manners to bring a Jiffy-Pop popcorn pan and make it…on our house.

So as we’re standing there, one of the other tenants comes up to us and asks what’s going on. We know which apartment he lives in…and have to tell him, “Dude, your stuff is on fire.” He and his son (5 years old) stood there with the same expression on their faces: big eyes and a growing realization that…their stuff is burning. The child was aghast that the firemen were breaking the windows. I told him that it was okay, they were already cracked.

I’ve been coughing since we walked out of the house–and it’s just getting worse, to the point that Beloved steers me over to the fire chief to find out if EMTs are coming to this housewarming party. And they were! They got me hooked up on oxygen and starting taking information. Then the actual ambulance arrived and the paramedics took over. They suggested a ride for me, and off I went, to the ER at the local hospital–which I have now been to 3 times in the past 6 months. They’re going to think I’m a hypochondriac or something. Oh well.

A breathing treatment (albuterol inhaler on the oxygen mask) on the way to the hospital. And the paramedic inserted an IV port–while we’re speeding down the highway. (By the way, no siren for me as I was not dying.) I have to tell you, that was the best stick for medical purposes I’ve ever had. We get to the ER and were whisked straight back to my own room. Great service, let me tell you. No waiting out there with all those sick people.

Another breathing treatment and a nice shot of anti-anxiety medication since I told them that if I had been at home, I’d have been taking my own. Answered lots of questions, which is not easy to do with an oxygen mask on. Only slightly better than talking to your dentist when he’s exploring for your tonsils. Got a chest x-ray. Beloved showed up to tell me that the cause of the fire had already been determined.

Modern technology is a wonderful thing. If this fire had occurred 10-15 years ago, the firemen would not have had the thermal scanners and such that they used to deal with the fire. Not just the water and the chain saws–yes, they used them on the outside wall, to open up the room where the fire started–but thermal detection of just how far the fire had gotten and if the house was safe to go back into. The fire chief told Beloved that our quick calling to 911 had made a real difference. Three minutes more and our apartment would have gone; three minutes more after that and the house would have gone. There’s a small and often fine line between utter disaster and a great story to tell your friends and family.

So in the course of ascertaining that the fire was indeed fully out, that it had been contained within a specific area and there was no further danger, the cause of the fire was discovered…a wood burning tool, left on, under the plastic table. The son had gotten a hold of the tool and was using it–and jumped up to run out with dad and go skateboarding. They had literally only been gone about 20 minutes. Oops. I guess that tool really lived up to its name. I wonder what brand it was…

The smoke that had gotten to me was not plain old wood smoke…it was the chemicals from the plastic table, along with everything else that was burning. No wonder it irritated me and gave me bronchial spasms. Adding insult to injury for the tenant who is now homeless…all of his textbooks were on top of that table, “were” being the operative word. But there was a little ray of sunshine for them–the pet lizard (in another room) survived to tell the tale.

So I spent a couple of hours in the ER, coming home with orders to take it easy, come back if I had any worsening symptoms or it didn’t improve within a few days and a bottle of cough syrup that has phenagren and codeine in it. The thrice-blessed in-laws threw some money into our account so that we could go out for dinner. (I was making sausage and pasta. Smoked sausage suddenly did NOT appeal.) We hit the local diner for comforting comfort food…and then home again to try to recuperate from the sudden deluge of stress (Oh my gods! The house is burning!) and then relief (Oh my gods! We aren’t homeless!).

The press had shown up and done their stuff, so I went looking for us on Google. Come to find out, we were actually the TOP story for the news that evening. “A house… BURST INTO FLAMES” (film at eleven). Well, not really BURST. But it was a slow news day. (Check out the broadcast, here: Top Story! ) And that’s me the EMTs are hovering over–I look like I must be sprawled out on the sidewalk, but I was sitting on the curb, really! And when the paramedics roll the gurney over to the ambulance, that’s me again! I doubt that I’ll be on CNN, but frankly…living in a town small enough, calm enough that our fire was the first thing on the news…priceless! I would not give that up for anything.

Let’s just say that for the first time since August 18 (the adjudication), I was not thinking about the judge and her decision about my life. Being asthmatic meant that what I had considered a small amount of smoke was actually more. For the first time in almost 10 years, I was reminded what living with (untreated) asthma is like. I have not been on any maintenance medications because I was doing well without them. Now I’m hitting the rescue inhaler like it’s my bong and I’m a stoner. I get hoarse if I talk too long, I get tight in the chest (that belt around the whole body, under the arms but above the boobs…and way snug. I like to breathe, I’ve been doing it my whole life–so this is not a happy state of being. I also had some “infiltration” in my left lung, lower lobe.

This is not a “rest and take it easy for a couple of days” kind of thing. This is more a “keep breathing and if there is any problem, or it doesn’t start to go away within like a week, come back to the ER” kind of a thing. It has a very particular way of removing the focus of my brain from SSDI and more onto “just keep breathing, just keep breathing, breathing breathing”. Three days later and I’m still coughing a bit, still having tightness–and still using the inhaler. I used to have to throw away brand new, unused inhalers because they had expired before I needed them.

BUT

I am safe, Beloved and the roomies are safe. Our stuff might have a little smoke smell, but it’s still our stuff and not burnt then water-soaked detritus. We still have a place to live–and coincidences abounding, the roomies are actually in the process of going to their own place and will be out by the beginning of next week. So we’ll continue to live in our one room until their room can be repaired, where the fire came up the wall. There’s that big hole the firemen put into it and soot to clean and singed wood to replace. It only caught the corner of their room, most of the damage is actually in their closet–so cleaning that out and organizing the clothes just got done a little differently than it would have without fire to change the schedule of completion. And the only things that were damaged were things they were getting rid of anyway.

We are local celebrities–of a sort. We’re getting more traffic on our road than I’ve seen in the entire time we’ve been here–gawkers and rubberneckers, come to look at the “house that burst into flames”. It’s actually kind of funny to sit up at my desk and watch them go by. Gotta love that small town environment!

I am grateful that it was not worse and I acknowledge the protection we were given–a fire of greater magnitude would have really been catastrophic in more than just the loss of belongings. So like a roller coaster, that first great tall hill was scary fun, but I’m happy to be back on the ground now. And as Beloved pointed out, we’ve been through earthquakes (one in VA, and a nearly record-setting one here in CA); we’ve had flooding (in the closet of our bedroom); hurricanes (Irene and whatever the other one was, while in VA) and here we are. He figures locust and frogs are all that’s left. (You know, the ten plagues of Egypt. It’s Biblical.)

So that’s what’s going on in my life now. I hope that yours is not this exciting! (Well, not in this way.) Just another day in the human experience, and hopefully (fingers crossed) not one that has to be repeated. Ever. Take a moment to look around your home and imagine it going up in flames–and then be thankful that you have it. Hug each other and remember that we cannot ever be prepared for sudden disaster, so pause and soak in the moments of peace and love, when life is going smoothly. The time to be mindful of your life is not when the flood waters are coming up over the porch steps, or when the fire is raging across the house–but every day, at any moment. Because a moment, that brief flicker of time, is all that might separate life from death.

This was a scary event as it happened. I am relieved beyond words that it has settled into just a dinner party-stopping story. Namaste!

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