The fire spared the lives of my neighbors and their pets. It had mercy on the young child with special needs and the wheelchair that is literally his only mobile connection to the outside world. The two homes, however, were not spared, and several others were damaged.

It was two weeks ago that I glanced out of my office window to see bursts of red and orange flames violently licking at the garage attached to my backdoor neighbor’s home. The ill-fated garage became engulfed within seconds; the fire spreading to another home in what seemed like an instant. Only a minute or two later, both homes fell to the complete mercy of the angry fire and its billowing smoke. I could feel the heat against my office window as bleak darkness filled the neighborhood.

At last, emergency vehicles arrived at the scene. The eight or nine minutes that had gone by seemed an eternity as a harsh and threatening reality slowed time and raced our thoughts. My daughter and I were immediately evacuated from the area. Our good fortune offered us about a minute to gather what we absolutely needed to remove from our home for safe-keeping. We chose our pets and purses. Ok, I will confess that I also took my MacBook Pro.

As we exited the home where I raised my children, my usually keen intuition failed me.  I did not know–couldn’t feel– if we would ever return to this place. I rolled my mental clock forward about a year and asked myself, “Is there anything else you absolutely must protect from this fire?” The answer, coming to me in calm form, was no. I’d already safely removed all that mattered.

The fire, being fed by natural gas, fought stubbornly against the giant water hoses. It was an hour before it was under control; a full hour before we were allowed back to the street where we lived. While gratitude for the safety of my home was strongly present, foremost on my mind was the impulse to go to my neighbors to offer what support I could. Standing in a small circle with the stricken families, the emotions were palpable. Intermingled amongst them were shock, fear, anger, confusion, and immense gratitude for the lives that were spared. Yes, even during these dark hours, these families could assimilate their grief enough to celebrate the joy and preciousness of life.

Flames, intense emotions, and fear. Memories and thoughts of these I am able to organize and set aside.  What fills my mind’s eye yet today is the image of first responders exiting from the scene after exhausting hours of battling vicious, life-threatening flames. Firefighters retreated through a gauntlet of impressive emergency vehicles. Locked behind distant eyes and sheltered expressions were thoughts and emotions entirely out of reach for anyone who’s never performed such acts of courage. These men had retreated within themselves to a place so deep that nothing would reach them until they were ready to emerge. Those faces and the intensity of what they secretly conveyed will never exit my memory.

While the next eight to twelve months will be immensely challenging for my neighbors, they still have what they most cherish—one another. When my own home was under threat, I too held on to what I most cherished, but I’ve gained something more: an enriched perspective on life. Those firefighters would assimilate the days’ experiences in their own way, but I’m fairly certain that their private processing would include thanks for the safety of their own loved ones. They know, more than anyone, that in the end, that’s all that matters. While we can all claim to understand that single, most important truth, I don’t believe we fully embrace it until faced with the prospect, or reality, of the most unbearable loss.

So, my friends, as you travel through the days and years ahead, fretting about things like your business and the state of your finances, return to the state of gratitude that is ours to embrace and enjoy. From this place of appreciation, only love can exist. Fear is like the angry black smoke that hid all else on that day—never give it the power to suffocate your dreams.

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