It’s the first week of December and I sit on our couch while my family staggers through the front door with an 8-foot noble fir that will be this year’s Christmas tree.
My head aches. My throat nurtures a lump. I’m mad at myself for not being happier.
Just be happy, Julie.
But the last time a Christmas tree stood in our family room, the space still reeked of smoke and the dim light of spring filtered through filthy sliding glass doors. It was March and our tree was a corpse.
Shriveled and dusty, its naked branches hung at a steep angle of defeat, robbed of our collection of personalized ornaments.
Baby’s First Christmas, 1997. The Gardners: Bill, Julie, Jack and Karly.
Some had been sent to a restoration facility provided by Public Adjuster in the hopes they could be saved by an ozone treatment. Others, too fragile to survive, had been stuffed by strangers into blue biohazard bags and tossed out with the casualties of January’s house fire.
We’d had to walk away from everything we owned, surrendering our things to the will of salvage experts.
The tree was last to go. I still don’t know why.
It had taken a week for the towing company to haul away the ruins of my car. When it exploded in the driveway – the heat from the flames in the garage igniting its engine – there were still groceries in the back I hadn’t yet unloaded.
For days, people driving past the burned-out shell of my Toyota Sequoia knew I’d bought bagels that day. And grapes. Red Gatorade.
By then we were living in a hotel, traveling through our days like tourists visiting our own lives.
Each morning, we had plenty of clean towels and enough free shampoo to lather, rinse and repeat. Bill and I sipped cheap wine in the lobby most nights at six o’ clock while Jack and Karly perused the complimentary salad bar.
They ate iceberg lettuce coated in Thousand Island dressing. They really liked the endless bowl of croutons.
But we had to suspend our carpool because the Residence Inn was too far from our neighborhood; and since my teenaged kids were sharing a bed, Jack often slept on the floor without a blanket.
We missed our dogs. We missed normalcy. We missed home.
So our insurance adjuster arranged a six-month lease on a rental house and I prepared to solve all my family’s problems. Maybe I hadn’t been able to stop the flames from swallowing our garage, but surely I could make this house into a home.
I held my breath as a company delivered loaner furniture and housewares – forks, sheets, toothbrush-holders, pillows – everything a family of four (plus their two dogs) might need. And just like that, I would make everything better.
I puttered around unfamiliar corners rearranging empty picture frames on borrowed dressers. I stowed a half-dozen fake silk plants in an empty linen cabinet to gather dust.
We didn’t have extra linens anymore.
Once everything was in its place, I stood in the living room alone, fidgeting nervously.
When the kids come home from school, will they feel it, too?
The rooms were furnished but they still seemed vacant to me, a solitary trespasser in an oversized dollhouse with nothing familiar to anchor her. I cooked dinner in a stranger’s kitchen. Jack and Karly sat down to eat at someone else’s table.
Gobble it up, quickly, I thought. Before the real people come back!
I was Goldilocks, except none of the porridge or chairs or beds felt just right.
Tears stung my eyes and my insides roiled.
We are lucky. We are together. What’s the problem?
I’d been quick to tell people (or they told me in an awkward rush) that what we’d lost in the fire was ‘just stuff’ that could be replaced. But I couldn’t replace Jack and Karly’s certainty that my love would always be enough to protect them.
I didn’t know I had to pull the pin from the fire-extinguisher to make it work. And as for the trickle of water that had been too weak to stop the fire? Well.
I couldn’t panic and unkink a hose at the same time.
So I got the kids out of the house and went back for the dogs. I chose not to go in a third time for my computer or car keys. No, not even for the guinea pig.
I told Jack to call 911 and I tried to slow the flames. But I failed.
If Daddy had been home, he would have saved the day.
The thought teased my brain. It teases me still, a year later, as my family wheels a fresh Christmas tree inside our home. What was burned has been rebuilt. Repainted. Restored.
But everything is different.
I now have concrete proof (along with drywall-proof and roof and garage-door and car-proof) that I’m a mother but I won’t always save the day. I can’t.
No matter how hard I may try.
My kids know this now, too.
For months, Karly slept on the floor beside our bed because she couldn’t escape the fear that some other terrible thing might happen. I couldn’t tell her otherwise with any confidence.
After eight years of training, Jack quit going to karate preferring to be with us in the evenings instead of at the studio. Just in case.
We have a couch and a family room again. But what we no longer have – what can never be returned to us – is the sense of total safety we used to feel here. I’ve learned now that I can’t put out even the figurative fires that haunt us. At least not always.
Jack and Karly have learned that lesson, too.
But I’m their mother. So I’ll still try. And fail. Then try again.
I will help my children hang ornaments on this year’s tree.
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