“ … t’was grace that brought me safe this far”
— from “Amazing Grace”
I’ve always had this thing about fire.
Maybe it came from that night as a boy when I saw flames towering out of a neighbor’s house. Maybe it was something else.
All I know is, I’ve always had it. It’s why I’m punctual about changing smoke alarm batteries, why I have fire extinguishers all over the house, why every bedroom has one of those escape ladders you unfold out of a box and clip to the window ledge. I’ve always wanted to be ready if ever there was a fire at my house.
Last week, there was a fire at my house.
I am in my office upstairs when I hear the smoke alarm go off. I wait a second for it to stop. When it doesn’t, I go stand at the top of the stairs and yell down. I’m not surprised to hear The Son Whose Cooking Always Sets Off The Smoke Alarm yell back that it’s a false alarm.
“Don’t burn down my house,” I call down.
“Never,” he says.
I am not even back to my desk when I hear him screaming for me. I lunge into a bedroom, grab a fire extinguisher, and hurtle down the stairs to the kitchen where tongues of flame three feet high are dancing on the stove, the cabinets are engulfed and a bank of black smoke is rolling across the ceiling. Up comes the fire extinguisher, and …
Did you know that a brand-new fire extinguisher has a pin through the trigger to keep it from activating accidentally? And that there’s a little plastic ring holding the pin in place so that it doesn’t fall out?
I did not know these things. And, take it from me, this isn’t stuff you want to learn as fire and smoke are advancing toward you, implacably as a Terminator. Good thing I also have a can of this aerosol spray for grease fires. I grab it and …
Did you know that when you are panicked, your hand has all the dexterity of a catcher’s mitt and you cannot, absolutely can … not, remove a simple plastic wrapping from the cap on an aerosol can?
The Son takes the can, gets it open and knocks down the fire. Half an hour later, we are in the driveway, coughing up black phlegm as firefighters go in and out. We’re all OK, the house still stands, the kitchen is a mess.
One firefighter says that he too seldom sees a house with a fire extinguisher. Another says it’s a good idea, though, to make sure you know how it works before you need it. Both say this could have been much worse.
“You were lucky,” says one.
I’ve been thinking about that ever since. What he called luck, we Christians call grace — the free, unearned and unmerited favor of God. Not that that distinction quiets the thoughts that roil your soul in a moment like this. How easily this could’ve gone another way.
If I hadn’t been home …
If I hadn’t bought that spray …
If this had happened late at night …
And then there’s the big question: Why us? I’ve seen people lose everything to fire. Yet here I sit the next day, working in my office. Why?
I know I’ll never find the meaning — the logic — I grope for. But I’m human, so I grope anyway.
On iTunes, I’ve lined up every version I own of one of the seminal hymns of my church, a song that right now, I simply need to hear. I work to the sound of Lou Rawls and Reba McEntire singing it, Aaron Neville and Al Green singing it, Aretha herself singing it, voice strong, righteous and true. Because, yes, grace is confusing and unsettling.
But it is amazing, too.