As a convinced Friend, I am very familiar with the phrase “meeting that of God” and the idea that there is that of God in everyone. I’ve been more familiar than comfortable with the concept at times. I’ve often added “or intrinsic good and ultimate worth.” To me it has always meant that every human being matters and has a potential for good in them, without exception, and I recognize that this belief is a kind of faith, and one not universally shared.
A few months ago, I had a personal experience that brought this abstract concept home to me and gave it new meaning. We awoke at 3:00 AM on February 17th, 2014. Our adult disabled son was beating on our bedroom door, saying. “You have to get up, the house is on fire.” No fire alarms were going off, although we had several battery operated ones throughout the house. As I shook off my grogginess—I was sick with an infection and had taken an antibiotic and a pain reliever before going to bed– my first thought was “What has he done now?”
I pictured a blazing frying pan on the kitchen stove. I rushed out of the bedroom, only partially dressed and without shoes. My husband was pulling on pants, following me, barefoot. In the hall, I asked, “Where is this fire?” though I noticed I was smelling smoke and belatedly a fire alarm began to go off across the hall. My son responded, nearly in tears, it’s in my room and it’s bad.” I cracked the door and smoke began billowing out and I saw flames. I realized we had a serious fire. I went into the living room, opened our puppy’s crate and then picked up the land line phone calling 911, and as I waited for the operator to answer, the room was quickly filling with smoke. It looked and felt very dangerous.
My spouse grabbed a fire extinguisher and headed toward the bedroom. While the operator was still trying to get information and was warning me we needed to vacate the house, I yelled at my husband that the fire was out of control, and we needed to get out. He ignored me and proceeded to the bedroom. My son was nearly hysterical, saying “Dad is going to get killed.” I grabbed my coat off the back of a chair and steered my reluctant son out the back door, with the older of our two dogs following us. I recall saying “Your dad is an adult, and he will have to take care of himself. We have to get out of here now!” It was already difficult to see, even on the far end of the house away from the fire.
I found myself standing barefoot, with bare legs in a car coat, in the 28 degree cold on the back ramp, trying to keep both my son and the dog from re-entering the house. My son was expressing concern about both the puppy that hadn’t come out of the house, and his father. I was literally, physically holding both the dog and my son back, while my son complained that the puppy hadn’t followed us out. I argued that the firemen would have to take care of both of them when they came, though I honestly felt no optimism that the fire department would concern themselves about a little mixed breed puppy.
We were both relieved to see my barefoot husband coming around the side of the house, coughing. He’d made it out of the front door. Like me, he had no wallet, no cell phone and no coat. My son’s car was in the drive way, and luckily he almost never locks it, so we huddled in the car, with my son and the older dog in the back seat. Meantime I saw a cat dart out of the back door that I’d left open and we let the cat in the car. Lights and sirens were out front. In a few minutes, a fireman came to the window and said we needed to move the car. I explained we had no keys, and asked if staying inside it was extremely dangerous, since we were only partially dressed and so cold…. He sighed and said he’d come and tell us if it became necessary to vacate because the fire was spreading.
We told him our puppy hadn’t made it out, and we weren’t sure about our other cats. He explained that cats are good about getting away from a fire, but puppies tend to hide, so they’d look for it.
I asked my son if there wasn’t a bag of clothes in the back of his car that I’d packed up to go to Goodwill. He found it, and I wrapped my feet and legs in odds and ends, desperately trying to warm up. My husband ventured out, borrowing my son’s ill-fitting shoes a couple of times, to confer with the firemen, who were working desperately to save our house.
Imagine our happiness and gratitude when a fireman took time out and came around and said they had found the puppy under the sofa and they were giving it oxygen. He believed the dog would live….That struck me as far beyond what I would have expected and I was deeply touched. The Red Cross came before dawn and they were extremely good to us, bringing hot coffee and blankets, and giving us a temporary voucher for a hotel room and some clothing and meals, saying that it would take a little time for the insurance to kick in. Meantime, my next door neighbor brought me a pair of her bedroom shoes, once she realized that I had no shoes! There are few times in my life when I’ve felt as cared for or felt the need for support from others as intensely. As stressed as I was, seeing flames leaping out of the roof of the home we’d lived in for over twenty years, I was sustained by a deep sense of gratitude and amazement at the goodness of those I dealt with, and in the days that followed, this deepened.
While we were housed in a motel, before we’d made arrangements with the insurance to board our pets, a couple of our survivor cats, were still living at the partially burned, but eventually totaled house. When I came to check on them and feed them, I found a neighbor I had never been close to was there with canned cat food, trying to make sure my cats weren’t hungry. Not long after, this same neighbor offered to keep some of my surviving plants in her sun room. She even allowed me to come by to tend to them periodically, and when one of the cats started having respiratory issues, she kept the cat in an outside storage building. I was deeply touched by these unexpected kindnesses from someone with whom I had enjoyed few previous positive experiences.
Once we were moved into the Residence Inn, all the staff went out of their way to be nice to us in multiple small ways. A couple from our parent Quaker meeting, across state lines, visited us bringing small thoughtful gifts. A deluge of cards came to us. Small thoughtful gifts such as books. When you’ve lost everything, or believe you have, small things like that mean so much.
I found myself experiencing a deeper since of profound gratitude than I’d ever experienced. I was thankful we were all alive. Even our pets survived! Considering the timing and severity of the fire, this seemed close to miraculous and definitely very fortunate. Small and large gestures and kindnesses from a myriad of people deeply touched my heart. The overworked hotel staffs at both the Quality Inn and the Residence Inn went out of their way to be kind to us. The outpouring of concern from Friends, friends, neighbors, people I’d never thought of as friends, and the Red Cross amazed me.
I realized that for me, undergoing this crisis had been a kind of spiritual growth experience, and that I looked on my fellow human beings a little differently. I had definitely experienced that of God or ultimate good in so many diverse persons!