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A family could lose it all, yet still have everything they need

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Journalists love similes, and this one was a clear winner: a metaphorical dumpster fire of a year was eclipsed, and in the end somehow redeemed, by a real-life blaze.

Here’s how that irresistible bit of writer’s catnip unfolded:

My kids, my ex-wife Sara and I had spent the morning of January 6 preparing for my 15-year-old daughter Lucy’s impending release after a hospital stay.

It’d been a rough time for Lucy, her parents and siblings, but she was coming home, and hope was in the air.

My 10-year-old son Everett (“Bubba”) and I left his other sister, 18-year-old Grace, at home, and drove to the hospital to retrieve Lucy’s prescriptions, as filling them was a condition of her release.

She’d now be on a host of meds for the foreseeable future. I pondered how a teenage girl would cope with all those pharmaceuticals coursing through her veins, and mourned a little for Lucy’s childhood, hijacked by forces beyond her control.

Bub and I listened to NPR’s coverage of the mayhem unfolding at the Capitol. I thought, “What a day for Lucy to be released, with our country in chaos.”

We arrived at the Kaiser pharmacy in Claremont a little before 1 p.m. and waited our turn.

At 1:06 p.m., my daughter Grace sent me a one-word text: “fire.”

I thought it must have been an incomplete transmission, and a silly YouTube video would soon follow. Then a few seconds later another text: “there’s a fire.” I called her immediately as we started out the door to the car. When she picked up and I heard the fear in her voice, we started running.

In the five minutes it took us to get from Claremont to our Pomona home, my mind raced: Grace is safe. Are the dogs? What if our house burns down? Is my homeowner’s insurance up to date?

As we made the turn into our neighborhood I saw smoke rising in the distance. Then a right onto my street and firefighters on my roof and all around the house, four firetrucks, two police cars, an ambulance, and flames leaping eight feet or more above the structure.

Grace ran to my open window, terrified and crying. I got out and she fell into my arms. She was safe. The dogs were safe.

I hugged her tight and told her it was okay. I didn’t care one bit about our home at that moment. It was just a thing, filled with stuff. All that mattered was right here with me, minus one kid, who was still waiting to be picked up from the hospital.

I conferred with the lead of the 30 or so firefighters. He told us to stay put as they worked to extinguish the fire. They were concerned it might have spread to the attic. The three of us, and by now the entire neighborhood, watched the firefighters do their job with water, saws and axes. They were incredible. In less than 20 minutes it was clear: the house would stand.

And I started laughing.

Think of the scene in “The Money Pit,” when Tom Hanks loses it. It was that kind of deal.

After a year of unprecedented upheaval, when everything we knew had been distilled down to just our little family, huddled together trying to stay safe, and on a day when so much was going on in our world, and the world at large, of COURSE our house would catch on fire!

Only because of the L.A. County Fire Dept. Station 186—whose crew was on the scene in four minutes—Grace’s quick thinking to dial 911, and a lot of luck, we came out of this experience essentially unscathed.

There would have been no laughter without those firefighters, who were nothing short of amazing. It was awe-inspiring to watch them do their jobs with such precision, authority, intelligence and in the end, good humor. I thanked them profusely. They saved our home.

And the two Pomona Police Department officers on hand were kind and tender, offering help and reassuring all of us. They stayed until things were under control, and helped guide us through the next steps. Along with the firefighters, Pomona PD showed my kids and I what the very best of public service looks like.

Mercifully, the city fire inspectors deemed our house inhabitable for “restricted use.” We spent the rest of the afternoon getting gas and power restored and began cleaning up. It was quite a soggy, sooty mess. But it wasn’t a chore. It wasn’t sad. We were grateful.

Part of our house was burned, and the patio and laundry room pretty much melted, but that was it. No lives lost. Nothing burned that couldn’t be replaced.

We did what all families do: we kept going. We made do.

Lucy has recovered and is in many ways much improved. She’s back in remote school, a ninth-grader at Claremont High. She’s eating well, sleeping semi-normal hours (she’s a teenager during COVID-19, so “semi-normal” is saying a lot). She’s smiling, and looking forward to the day when she can again hang around the Village with her friends.

Grace is in the middle of her freshman year at San Francisco State, remotely of course. The coronavirus essentially eliminated her senior year at Claremont High in 2020, and all of its attendant pomp and rituals, including graduation. It also obliterated her first semester at SFSU. She had a single-occupancy dorm room waiting for her in January. She could have been on her own for the first time in her life, in her favorite city. But she couldn’t leave her sister and best friend when she was in crisis, and opted to continue remote college until next fall. Adulthood will have to wait. 

Bub, our family empath, who soaks up everyone’s sadness, worry and fear and then looks for ways to help, is finally free from a portion of that burden. He’s in fifth grade at Condit—online of course—and though it’s not been easy, he’s back on track. That kid has seen so much, too much, in his short life.

I have to hope all the trauma my kids have witnessed will strengthen them and give them tools to cope with their adult life trials.

And finally, after an extended season of disarray, we’ve welcomed a new family member: a lovely little purring rascal kitty called “Bijou.” She’s become the loving focus of our attention as she integrates into our three-kid, two-dog, one-dad family.

It turns out my homeowner’s insurance was in force and excellent. It’ll pay to repair the house and replace what was burned. It’s slow going, but really, who cares? We’re all here and well, or close enough.

We made it through this latest, most intense test, and are back to “normal,” whatever that means these days.

January 6 taught us we could lose everything and still have all we need. It’s as if the collision of a health crisis, an attempted coup, and a house fire wiped the slate, and we’re now free.

We’re spending more time just sitting around and talking. We laugh more. And why be serious? We’re all so grateful to be here, partially melted house and all.

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