Monday, February 23, 2015

You are My Shelter...

The first few weeks after the fire are a total blur in my brain. As the years have passed, I am able to slowly but vividly remember a few things:

As we sang in church on January 30, 2005, one song stood out above all the rest. The words, “You are my Shelter, strong Tower, my very present Help in time of need,” was my heart’s cry that day. We knew that all we had was God, and He was enough. He was all we needed. In fact, just yesterday, our worship team led us in “Shout to the Lord” which was another song we heard that day. As we sang these words, my heart began to burst:

My Jesus, my Savior,
Lord, there is none like You;
All of my days
I want to praise
The wonders of Your mighty love.

My comfort, my shelter,
Tower of refuge and strength;
Let every breath, all that I am
Never cease to worship You.

I thought I would jump out of my skin in praise of the One who provided so much for us. He knew what we did not know. He saw the three kids of varying shades standing next to us ten years later. Oh, I cannot adequately explain the gratefulness I feel just at the thought of that day.

Pastor Rick mentioned our fire in the service and asked people to pray for us. As people surrounded us and called out to the Father on our behalf, my heart was overwhelmed with gratitude for the saints of the Body of Christ. After the service a gentleman approached the pastor and told him that his mom had just moved to an nursing home. Her house in Inverness (close to the church) was available for us to live in for six months. God provided exactly what we needed when we needed it. What a huge blessing!

Friends spending the night in the home God provided for us free of charge!!!

We moved out of the Acton's home (where we were generously taken care of and didn’t have to think about anything) and into the house God provided. We were able to get back to homeschooling to provide some normalcy for our girls. We immediately put the girls into counseling so that they could deal with their feelings about the fire. Little did we know this would come in handy years later when the adoptions brought a great sense of loss and grieving.

You remember the yard sale we were going to host? Yeah, me too. I was so prepared for that sale...I mean like "proud of myself, hear me roar" proud. I had sorted through every closet, drawer, cabinet, shelf, and bag in our house. I had touched it all. I knew everything we had. That was God’s timing and His prodding for sure! The insurance company required a list of the contents of our home with an estimated year of purchase and value. When I submitted that Excel spreadsheet, the agent said, “This is the most thorough list I have ever seen.” Ha! God reminded me of every bottle of shampoo, place setting, toy, and book that we owned.

People from the church filled our pantry and refrigerator. They brought us meal after meal. Gift cards and cash randomly appeared in our mailbox. We saw God’s hand providing for us through the Body of Christ for months.

And the house, well it was torn down, and we watched it fall to the ground. And God reminded us that He was in control. He had a far bigger plan than we did.

I recall the new house plan which looked much like the old house except with a larger kitchen and dining room. We wanted to add a couple of hundred feet to the existing layout. Everything else would be the same. Brian Roberson, a friend from our church and small group, drew the plans, and we were so happy with how it was going to look.

Fast forward a few weeks and we get a call that the city of Alabaster has denied our plans. WHAT? We were devastated. What was the problem?

Well, I don’t know about you, but our family has never kept up with zoning requirements and laws. It’s not really an area of interest or concern for us. But, apparently, it should have been. You see, our neighborhood had been built out ten years prior, and the authorities that be had decided that the zoning laws wouldn’t allow for any new houses to be built without being a certain square footage and have certain acreage requirements. Who knew?

So, to accommodate our city’s laws, the house had to be reworked. But, the insurance company insisted that the house had to look similar to the way it did before. So, God took a 1800 square foot home and allowed it to burn to the ground. He used zoning laws to require the main floor to be 1600 square feet. Then, he used the insurance companies regulations to make it have 3 floors like it had previously. Do you get it? Now, there had to be 1600 square feet on the main floor with a basement the same size and another floor on top with 1600 square feet. Yeah, my God TRIPLED our living space, and the insurance company paid for it. Ha!!! God did that. We had no clue, and we had no idea what He planned for our future.

Praise God Almighty from Whom all blessings flow!!!!

Monday, February 16, 2015

After the Fire

Just last Sunday one of our pastors taught from 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. What a great reminder to our family about how God comforted us after the fire! And I wish I could honestly tell you that I remember how people cared for us during that time, but it is an overwhelming blur. I do recall a few things though:

As we got in our van that night, Barry and Joy Coffee took some of our clothes (our closet just had smoke damage) to their house and washed them for us. Somehow those clothes magically appeared back in our possession.

Jim Houston showed up at our neighbor’s house the night of the fire. He immediately secured a hotel nearby for three days so that we didn’t have to worry about shelter. Without a doubt, Pastor Jim is one of those people that arrives before anyone even knows there’s a crisis. And he genuinely cares for people.

The ladies of our small group led by Pansy Merriwether knocked on our hotel door just a few hours later. They had clothes for our girls, toiletries for all of us (we hadn’t even considered the fact that we had no toothbrushes), and essentials for the next few days. Just seeing their faces brought us to our knees with gratefulness.

Jodi Oliver brought us a meal the very next day. Chicken spaghetti. I can still remember it not because it was delicious (which it was…in fact, it was amazing) but because she took the time to make us food and we had ability to do that.

The Church at Brook Hills….our home church. We showed up the next morning because it was Sunday, and that’s where we NEEDED to be. Our pastor, Rick Ousley, called us by name that day and had the people around us pray over us. I remember this well because our friends had intentionally surrounded us that day (not where they normally sat) just to provide a sense of family and comfort.

Jim and Kristen Acton offered to let us live in their home that week. And I had to swallow my pride big time because I never wanted to be a burden to someone else. Living in another person’s house…well, that takes a lot of inconvenience and thought and cleaning and you get the idea. What a blessing to have a place that we could relax and regroup!

My dad. I have never missed the ability to talk to my dad more than the week that followed the fire. I can’t just call him since he’s in prison, and I had no way to get him to call me. But someone did. And my dad was able to use the phone in the chaplain’s office to call my cell phone. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting his call, so when I heard his voice, I wept. And like my dad always does, he wept with and for me.

Jim and Pansy Merriwether were our small group leaders at the time. They called us almost daily for several weeks. They were shoulders to cry on and ears to listen when we needed them the most.

The countless people at our church who brought meals, gave sacrificial gifts to our girls, provided gift cards, and asked how we were doing…just a word aptly spoken, a smile, a hug…it was a blessing beyond measure.

We were comforted in countless ways…ways that I can no longer vividly recall. I wish I could. Perhaps I should have recorded them all. But I know this. God comforted us through His body. And we were forever changed by the people who obeyed Him. And now we can comfort those who experience the same tragedy. Praise His great name!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Back Into the House

The next few hours after the house fire are quite a blur to me. I recall using the phone at the neighbors to call my brother David (as I had his number memorized) and the Hardys (the parents of the girls who were staying with us). Even those calls are quite fuzzy in my brain.

I have flashbacks to seeing certain people but no clarity...

The mayor Alabaster coming to the door and asking if we needed shelter for the night.

Jim Houston, one of our pastors from church, was one of the first ones there to check on us.

Several people from our small group who came immediately. I do not know how they found out.

My brother bringing food for the girls as they had missed dinner. It seems like it was McDonalds or Burger King.

Those are the only images I can seem to conjure up from those hours of waiting at the neighbor's house. I don't remember how we even came to the realization that we could look into the house.

Going back into the house was not really on my radar for January 29, 2005. I naively figured we would just go to a hotel for the night and sort it all out in the morning. Somehow I found myself standing on the porch of our home with a couple of guys from my small group by my side. I don't remember anyone except Barry Coffee.

As I stepped one foot into the living room I saw black everywhere...the smell of smoke was destroyed....everything I had known in my home that very morning was gone. Never to be recovered. My heart raced. My first words were, "Dear God, please help me. I don't think I can do this." Barry said, "Yes, you can," and helped me to take the next step.

I barely recall walking in and out of rooms but I had the distinct feeling that I needed to find something for the girls. Anything. Those men were so bent on helping me that they dug through their rooms until they found some trinket for each one of them. And I was so thankful.

Somehow our closet had escaped the fire and only had smoke damage. Several friends were going to take our clothes and wash that putrid smell out. We found JT's Bible and tried to salvage that as well (that was a five year process, by the way). Other than that, we had NOTHING. Not one thing. The song, "All I have is Christ" could have been our anthem. He was never more present to us in those moments.

As we loaded into our van to head to the hotel, I remember the look of terror on one of our girl's faces. She had no adequate way to process her pain. She looked so helpless and hopeless. She took both hands and scraped her chest...I held her tightly and wept with and for her. I could not imagine what we were going to do now.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

JT Lives, but I think you already knew that???

Four little girls and I stood on the front porch of a neighbor’s house. Nightgowns. Wet hair. Bare feet. I barely recall my own feet beginning to feel prickly from the temperatures. But, the most prominent memory I have is standing there not knowing where JT was. Smoke was pouring out every window. Glass was shattering. Flames were climbing the walls. I watched helplessly.

I prayed fervently that the Lord would allow my husband to survive the fire. As smoke billowed out the broken windows, I could hear more explosions from the back of the house. What I didn’t know at the time was that the kitchen fire had blown out the bay windows, eradicated the deck and sent several kitchen items on a projectile path into the back yard (finding our engraved wedding server in the wooded section of our lot was a blessing). The kitchen fire also jumped up the back side of the house and moved into the attic. With fire above and below, the heat caused the room in between (Kaitlyn’s) to spontaneously combust.

Meanwhile, I am pleading with the Lord and debating coming back into the house to find my husband. I am straining to see him anywhere, and the girls are beginning to sense the desperation in my voice as I cry out to the Lord. Just like a dramatic take from a movie, I see the front door open wide and something fly out onto the lawn. It was as if the whole scene was in slow motion. Seeing the colors that were on the ground, I realize that JT has thrown my scrapbook photo albums outside. That means he went into the smoke to rescue those pictures. My heart overflows with gratefulness that JT was alive! At that moment I also recognize that those photo albums are nothing compared to the family I have been given. Every tangible item in our house is eternally worthless. And God breaks my heart for ever considering those things as valuable.

To backtrack just for a second, JT had waited to make sure we were all out of the house. Then, he had the presence of mind (bless him) to turn off the gas on the fireplace and the gas on the grill located on the back deck. When he went upstairs, the house was already beginning to fill with smoke. After grabbing the photo albums, he dashed back to the steps but had to feel along the wall to find them. He couldn’t see one single step but since he had walked up them a few hundred times before, he knew how far down it would be. He jumped as hard and as far as he could. His shoulder hit the wall at the bottom of the steps (thus, the rotator cuff surgery years later). He was able to get out with smoke inhalation and a messed up shoulder only…praise God Almighty!

The details begin to get foggy at this point because the girls were still crying and screaming. I do remember trying to process what needed to happen as quickly as possible but my brain kept stopping and starting in random places. I just needed the Lord to calm my spirit. And He did. I looked across the neighbor’s yard into my own surreal dream. My house was burning to the ground. No firetrucks had arrived. My husband was on his knees in the driveway with his hands lifted to the Father. I KNEW what he was saying, and he confirmed it later. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Amen and amen.

The fire truck arrived and I do not even recall where the girls were at this point. Were they on the porch with me still or inside with our neighbors (that we barely knew)? I’ll have to ask them. Twenty-six minutes after the call was placed, the fire department arrived at our home. Now, at the time I was more than a little upset that it took so long for the arrival of the emergency personnel. The security system company had called, I had called, three sets of neighbors had called. But now, I can tell you this with assurance….it was God’s plan that they arrived when they did. It allowed our house to burn all the way with no hope of salvaging any of it. That was God indeed.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Through the Fire

After posting pictures of our fire from ten years ago, I was suddenly struck by the notion that I’ve never written about this event that changed our lives. In fact, I've shared details with only a few people. I've talked about it plenty but the details have always been hazy. And so, today, that changes. This make take a few posts as I’m not quite sure how it’s going to develop...

It was a beautiful, cold Saturday in January of 2005. Kaitlyn had just turned eight years old the month prior, and Madison was a whopping five years old. We had lived in the house for 2 1/2 years and were finally in a rhythm with homeschooling a second grader and kindergartner. Sure, the room where tackled academics each day could have doubled as a closet, but it was perfect for us! We had been at our church (The Church at Brook Hills) for four years, and we were content with where God had us!

Only one little issue….nightmares had awoken Kaitlyn for several weeks with the thought of a fire destroying our home. Each time, we had reassured her and hugged her tightly. The child was known to sleepwalk and sleeptalk, but this was different. The screaming in the middle of the night was enough to frighten anyone…especially a parent in deep sleep! Then, one night, I had the same dream. It was as clear as anything I’ve ever seen, and I relayed the details to JT the next day as we were driving in the car.

JT’s question was fairly nonchalant, “If our house did burn down, what would you want out of the house?” Without question I wanted the scrapbooks that contained all of the girls’ baby pictures. And conveniently (or perhaps not), those books were located in the guest room closet which was the furtherest room in the house from the front door.

And, as a side note, I had just cleaned every closet, room, cabinet and drawer in the house in preparation for a yard sale. My hands had touched it all, and I was giddy to be getting rid of so much stuff. This little bit of knowledge would come in handy later with the insurance company.

The girls had friends who were spending the night that day. I was a little proud that the four of them had sat down earlier to make a schedule for their plans. They were trying to maximize their time together. To my delight they made a list on paper with times and activities...only colored markers could've made it better. So, in good old fashioned ingenuity, they worked backwards from bedtime to a movie they had chosen to dinner and baths. Thus the reason that they were taking baths at 3:30 in the afternoon.

At their ages it was easiest and most effective if I brushed out the tangles, so they took turns trampling down the steps into my lap. Straight haired kids went first because they were the fastest! Madison was the third girl to plop into my chair, and I took my time brushing out her curly locks. Meanwhile, JT had fired up the grill for hamburgers and placed a pot of oil on the stovetop on very low heat in order to cook fries. Brownies were in the oven, and the smell was delightful.

Backing up, I need to tell you that the stove had superheated prior to January 29, 2005. Once JT was cooking and one of the back eyes had produced a small fire. I recall that I was brave enough to run into the living room, scream at my brother Daniel to go help and then did nothing. Such courage, I know. What we didn’t know at the time was that this particular stove had a history of superheating elements.

Now, back to the day at hand. I sent Madison downstairs to help her daddy blow up air mattresses. I specifically remember that Madi Grace (that’s what we called her at the time until a few years later when she insisted on being called the sophisticated Madison) ran into the kitchen, retrieved some cleaning wipes and whisked past me to the basement. As she went down the stairs, I heard a loud boom from the kitchen. My first thought was that Madi had jumped down the bottom few steps. But, then my brain kicked in and realized that the sound was from the kitchen.

I set Kaitlyn out of my lap and went in the dining room which was right next to the kitchen. As I entered the room, I looked into the bay window at the end of the kitchen and saw the reflection of the fire on the stovetop. I saw smoke and KNEW that this was it. Our house was going to burn to the ground. No doubts whatsoever.

As I exited the dining room, JT had bounded up the steps and met me. I told him that the stove was on fire and he instructed me to get the kids out.

I grabbed the cordless phone and began screaming for the girls to come downstairs. They later told me that they only heard Kaitlyn scream from the front porch. She was yelling their names and telling them to get out of the house. I will never forget the pitch of her voice or the desperation in her shrieks.

It was 33ยบ outside and none of us had shoes on our feet. We didn’t care. I herded the girls through the yard and tried to call 911 at the same time. Our security system had already captured our phone line and I couldn’t get through.

Four little girls and I stood on the front porch of a neighbor’s house. All blonde heads. Wet hair. Nightgowns. Bare feet. I recall my own feet being numb from the temperatures and my heart feeling the same from the reality before me. But, the most prominent memory I have is standing there not knowing where JT was. Smoke was pouring out every window. Glass was shattering. Flames were climbing the walls. I watched helplessly.